When you take three decades of experience in hospitality and pull out only the best, gathering it all in one place, you get cafe-restaurant Ceger. The place that lives every day, 365 days a year, from morning to sundown.
This year, Ceger celebrates its ten-years anniversary. We took that as an opportunity to talk to Dejan Obradovic, who took it upon himself to be the best host for his guests, a good manager for his employees and the person who makes sure that everything works like clockwork in his establishment.
The unique experience that Ceger visitors experience in your establishment has to do with your family heritage.
I do believe that it's written down somewhere in our genes. By fraternal grandfather was a waiter and chef in Ivanjica and my maternal grandfather ran a tavern in Vracar. It was called "Kod mladica, Bore Alimpica" (At young man Bora Alimpic's). We still keep his diploma from 1943, which states that he was a professional restaurant manager. That's why it had to be fate that made this my calling as well.
Interestingly, when I was in high school (not specialized in hospitality), I helped my father in his establishment as much as I could. That was when I realized how much potential there was in hospitality and started to learn my way around the business. It drew me in so much that to this day I'd never wanted to do anything else.
I took these 32 years of experience and the help of many friends to create Ceger, which has been in business for a full decade now.
It was a friend who talked you into opening your first establishment.
I was working as a waiter in Belgrade at the time, gaining some important knowledge and experience in hospitality.
Then, one day my buddy Jugoslav suggested we should start a business together and that it should be a cafe.
It was that year 1998 which was a crossroad in life for me, when I started running a private business. In September that same year we opened cafe "Oko" (Eye) in Ruzveltova street. It was a cafe that stood apart from all others in Belgrade. Many friends and guests told me straight out how Oko was a revolutionary establishment both in appearance and concept as well as the relationship we built with our guests.
Oko was the first large establishment, entirely in glass and open so that you could see who was sitting in there and what was going on. Other cafes of the time were all cooped up in basements and dark spaces - it was all so cramped and depressing. We didn't like that and wanted to make something different. And so, we did.
My friends had an immense and invaluable influence here, seeing how they are all creative people who had original and innovative visions, which allowed us to work a few steps ahead of the competition at all times.
I am more of a hands-on kind of person and my job is to present our ideas in the best way and completely dedicate myself to working with people after we have brought in the last chair and rug. I was aware that if I wanted to do my job in the best possible way, I had to be there every single day, to know my regulars by name and to be completely dedicated.
Oko worked during the bombing as well, even offering a special service for the guests.
Those three months were chaotic and hard on us all. We were thinking how we could make it at least a bit more bearable for people. Since the entire city was experiencing energy blackouts, we got the idea to get aggregates and let people come in and charge their phones.
I remember when they were dropping graphite bombs. The entire city was out of power, but in front of Oko cafe there was a crowd of people waiting in line to charge their phone. Everyone had 15-20 minutes to sit down and charge.
We burned through four aggregates during those days - a massive loss because those weren't cheap. But we helped people and we have guests from those days who became friends of the establishment.
And every new establishment you opened had something unique of their own. Always something that the city had never seen before.
After Oko we opened "Republika". It all took place in a small establishment of 36m2, where we made an Ex Yu theme with five-point stars and images from a private archive given to us by Tito's own granddaughter. We printed t-shirts with red scarves that our staff wore and organized Republic Day masquerades which are still fondly remembered by many today.
Then came "Kandahar" which we opened in Strahinjica Bana street. It was the first oriental cafe in Belgrade and something that the citizens had never experienced and were very interested in.
Still, one thing I'm most proud of is the way we build relationships with our guests, so they would follow us wherever we went and opened new establishments.
And then finally came Ceger.
I was sitting in Oko with the late 'grandpa Aca" Kothaj, the famous marketing expert and some other friends. We were discussing where we would move our cafe because the building it was in was due for demolition. We had an option to re-open in a location near Kalenic market. As we discussed the new name, someone suggested 'Ceger' and we all loved it. Slavimir Stojanovic then came up with the cafe's visual identity, just like he did for all the ones that came before. Ceger soon came to life near Kalenic.
Grandpa Aca then thought up a few catchphrases, such as "Everything that's right is in Ceger tonight" or, "From evening until dawn, Ceger is for men of brawn".
By the end of 2013, we decided to move Ceger to its present location - our biggest establishment to date. Already in March 2014, we re-opened the new Ceger at 20 Skerliceva street right next to St. Sava's Temple. This is where we are today.
Since then you have been working hard to bring innovations to your work.
Up until three years ago, the only food Ceger served was sandwiches. We weren't happy with that because this was the first of our establishments that had the potential to have a kitchen. We knew it was delicate business, working with food in hospitality, so we didn't want to open up with a kitchen from the very start.
We simply felt that these things take time and experience if we were going to do them right, so we waited and only served finger food and sandwiches. That would've been fine on its own, if we'd only wanted to be a sandwich bar, but we weren't satisfied with that and wanted more.
And then came a fateful encounter with a certain maestro.
Another friend jumped in, saying he knows one heck of a chef - Mirko Stojic - who revolutionized the restaurant scene in our country through "Zaplet i Dijagonala" cuisine.
We knew exactly what we wanted - to be three steps ahead of where we were before. With a broader, more varied offer and delicious, beautifully served food made using the best ingredients.
That desire was something we had in common with Mirko, so he was more than happy to take on this task with us. What we made and set up then is still going strong today. Our cuisine is based on quality meats that we prepare in-house - burgers, cevaps, smoked thighs, sausages that we make ourselves and our dry-aged beef which our guests adore.
Our Spanish pork is also another hit which people recognize us for, but back in the day we met with bit of a resistance in our guests. Our people are more used to fattier, more marbled pork. But when they try Spanish, which is just pure meat and skin, when they taste that excellent flavor, every resistance goes away.
We also introduced pizza because our guests asked for it, but this was another thing we didn't rush into. We brought in an excellent pizza master to train our kitchen staff so that the end result would meet our quality standards.
Also, as of recently, we began making our own ham, Milano sausage, Chorizo sausage, Hungarian spicy sausage, smoked pancetta. No additives, no preservatives or chemistry - all natural and healthy and you feel that with every bite.
On the other hand, Mirko had chosen two guys - Dragan and Vlada - from his first day with us to pass on his knowledge and skills and they are still with us today.
Restaurant Ceger offers a unique experience for every guest the moment they step inside.
Ceger has many unique qualities. There's the excellent location, right behind St. Sava Temple, then the architecture - on two levels. And of course, the interior design. Aleksandar Mijatovic, who designed all our establishment, made it timeless and amazing.
Anytime a new guest comes in, they're amazed and always say they wouldn't change a thing.
This kind of establishment can easily last 100 years because it's timeless and very accommodating for our guests.
Still, the biggest asset of any restaurant are the people working there. Ceger has a brilliant team and a great relationship between the staff and the customers - it's something you work on a lot. How did that story begin?
Seeing how the human factor is extremely important in this line of work, the biggest assets of our establishment are the diligence and persistence of all of us working at Ceger. These are the people with whom we work a lot and don't take for granted. We always recognize their human qualities first and then make them our work associates.
That's the foundation of our whole story. I'm a restaurant owner who learned from old-school professionals like Nikola Dimitrijevic, the owner of "Franche" restaurant. Used to be you would come to the tavern and everyone knows your name when you step in. They know what you drink, what you eat, when you're angry or happy.
I wanted to translate that spirit to modern times. Since day one at Oko, we've done things that way. The waiter who can't remember the favorite drink of a guest who came back third day in a row, isn't one that will make the guest feel special and welcome.
The tavern demands that you dedicate yourself to it fully, and that's how it should be.
Ceger is one of the few places in the city where the staff has been the same for years now. How did you find these people and who are they?
Kindred spirits find one another and recognize each other. If you have decided what you want from your business, then you find that same desire from an army of people coming to your interview, you make a selection, find a good employee and make sure you keep them. With a good relationship, human warmth and by teaching them everything you know. It's important that you know the value of what you have and realize that it's as important to the worker as it is to myself, the employer.
It's especially important to fully understand the needs of those you work with. People have needs and that's not to be taken lightly. As an employer, it's your job to recognize if your associates are reaching their limit and give them some leeway, make it easier for them if you can. It's a bit like family relationships. You have to give them space and let them grow into the person who will become your associate.
We've had many people come and go and then return again. They'd see that they can't find what we have here elsewhere, so they came back to us. Some started their own businesses, but then decided to come back and they were always welcome.
Ceger is an establishment that works 365 days a year and is a safe haven for everyone - single guests, families and business people.
It is the place you can rely on to be open any given day. We always have everything and lack for nothing. That's the first thing I always say to new employees: "Don't you dare think we don't have something."
It could happen that the market was closed and we couldn't get the needed thing. Ranging from a screwdriver or tool to the finest meats - we must have everything on any day. It's irresponsible for a guest to come and order something on one day and for us to not have it the next.
On the other hand, this is a space that's large enough for anyone to find their place. From individuals to people coming for a family lunch or with friends, to business people who can make a reservation for their group visits.
Also for New Year's night we organize a matinee which has become famous in the city - a tradition we started over 20 years ago that our regulars never miss.
A restaurant is a living thing, many people are involved, you work with food ingredients and that's why there needs to be a continuous cycle of consumption and supply, expiration date checks and so on. That's why we work every single day.
What are your plans for the future?
We want to also offer the best cocktails in the city and up our dessert game, so that it's completely within our internal capacities. The challenge is finding the right people, but we're sure we can make it.
We always do our best to progress and listen to what our guests want to make their experience at Ceger complete.