Restaurateur Sava Lelcaj looking toward next venture

Allison Kruske/Daily
Sava Lelcaj’s new business, babo: a market by sava, located on the first floor of Sterling 411 Lofts awaits its November grand opening with a new window display. Buy this photo

By Haley Goldberg, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 14, 2011

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a continuing series about local business owners.

Sava Lelcaj’s career in the restaurant business began at age 13 busing tables.

Now, 15 years later, Lelcaj — owner and operator of Sava’s Restaurant on State Street — is on the eve of expanding her career by opening her new business, babo: a market by sava, this fall.

With a focus on unique and quality products, babo is slated to open in mid-November on the first floor of Sterling 411 Lofts at the corner of Washington and Division streets. But if the past 15 years of Lelcaj’s life are any indication, the restaurateur won’t be stopping there.

In college, while Lelcaj was majoring in journalism at the University of Toronto, she also managed a restaurant.

“… I worked every job in a restaurant, so I bused, washed dishes, hosted, prepped — (I) did every job,” Lelcaj said. “And then through college, I managed restaurants and bartended and did private events and things like that.”

Unable to find a job as a food critic after graduation, Lelcaj began helping people open restaurants. After a restaurant she operated in Hazel Park, Mich. fizzled out in 2007, Lelcaj moved to Ann Arbor at age 23 and opened her own restaurant, Sava’s State Street Café, where CVS is now located. Her business moved across the street in Sept. 2009.

“In that time I really got to know the people of Ann Arbor — I got to know the students, and the locals, so I really got a better sense of Ann Arbor,” Lelcaj said.

After two-and-a-half years of settling into the city, Lelcaj expanded her café from a 43-seat restaurant to a 300-seat restaurant and renamed it Sava’s Restaurant. Lelcaj, now 28, said the past five years of owning and operating her own restaurant has been “a lot of work,” but seeing it develop into the business it is today makes it worthwhile.

“The most rewarding aspect is watching the business grow and watching our hard work and our ideas be received well by the public and having people really enjoy this place,” Lelcaj said. “Becoming a part of people’s lives for the day for a rehearsal dinner, a graduation party… that to me is the most rewarding part.”

She added that even though the restaurant is now well established, she approaches her business as an ever-evolving entity. Though Lelcaj is currently focusing on a successful opening for babo, she said she plans to open more businesses in the future.

“I’m constantly trying to get better and whenever I get comfortable, I think of ways to improve and we never stop improving, we never stop getting better,” Lelcaj said. “I don’t think we’ll stop at the market … because there’s just so many other things I want to bring to this town and I want to be a part of in one way or another, so I think that there will be other adventures for sure.”

With the opening of babo, she said she hopes to offer the community Michigan-made products as well as specialty imported goods such as spices and cured meats. According to Lelcaj, the market will also sell prepared sandwiches and other items for quick meals. Lelcaj explained how restaurants in bigger cities, especially New York City, where she grew up, inspired the concept for the market.

“I travel quite a bit and check out restaurants all over the country to see what they are doing and what’s new in other cities,” Lelcaj said. “One of the things I kept coming across was this market-restaurant concept in bigger cities.”

While Sava’s Restaurant won’t be physically connected to the market, Lelcaj said the two businesses will be intertwined through their products. The market will provide most of the food to the restaurant, and the restaurant will package and sell its original products at the market. Sava’s Greek salad dressing and orange beet and ginger juice are just two of the products customers will be able to purchase at babo, Lelcaj said.

The market will offer quality products while remaining within the price range of students and the community — a balance Lelcaj said she feels is realistic.

“It will absolutely be affordable,” Lelcaj said. “It is definitely going to be high-end, but for me, high-end is more of an experience than a price point … You can find really great products at great prices, you just have to look a little harder, and we’re spending so much time on that.”

Lelcaj added that other specialty markets in the area, such as Zingerman’s Deli, Sparrow Market and Replenish, will not necessarily be competition for babo because she is interested in selling different products to create more options in the community.

“We don’t really want to compete … we just want to add more options to this town so that when people are thinking about shopping … they aren’t automatically thinking about leaving town,” Lelcaj said.

She added that she believes customers will appreciate the specialty options babo will bring to the community and the care her team has put into selecting each product they intend to sell.

“I feel like it’s going to offer something really special to this community,” Lelcaj said. “We’re not just picking products, we’re curating a product list for people. We’re putting so much thought into it, and I think that will be recognized right away and people will really appreciate it.”