Vladan Krcadinac took two decades of experience working in distribution in hospitality and turned it into the realization of his dream - the pub "Pivo i kobaja".
It all started as a humble idea - to make a small place for a group of friends and beer lovers to gather, meet new people and make new memories together. Almost overnight, Vladan's enthusiasm charmed Belgraders far and wide and his hobby grew into an authentic brand of its own, continuing to win people's hearts to this day.
How does one go from distribution to becoming a part of the hospitality world?
Vladan: My wife and I always loved small pubs and we dreamed of owning our own someday. However, other things kept pushing that dream away, so to speak. At the time, in Red Cross in 2014, I owned a discount drink store in Zicka street. One day the shop right next to us closed down and our competition was planning to come in and take its place. We had to decide what to do about that.
It then occurred to me that I was already working with various breweries, why not take the chance and make a small pub of our own, like we always dreamed. The idea Was to make it a neighborhood thing, just for our own gusto. We didn't have a specific goal in mind, nor did I think about it like a business venture at the time. That's how it all started.
And then planning began.
Vladan: First, we needed to come up with a name. We thought about it for a long time, but then I had a brainwave - let's name it "Pivo i kobaja" (Beer and sausage). I remember when I went to register my business, and told them the name, everyone had a good laugh about it and found it very charming and memorable.
The second thing we had to do was to design the cafe's interior and style. This turned out to be the easy part because we both already knew what we liked. I am also something of a collector of beer mugs and old panels, so I had the idea of using the items from my personal collection to decorate the pub and give it a special charm.
Outside, we made a wooden facade and a big advertisement that said 'Pivo i kobaja', which we set up a few days earlier. I have to admit, the entire neighborhood was thrilled with the idea. We didn't expect everything to blow up immediately and we went ahead full steam on the very first day.
However, just when you started working, something unexpected happened.
Vladan: We had been working for about six months when the location owner we were renting from came in and informed us that they were constructing a new building in this location. That sunk all my dreams on the spot. We had just taken off and everyone was talking about "Pivo i kobaja" and we had started something for our own enjoyment. We wanted it to be high quality and enjoyable and now we had to shut it down.
But you got lucky.
Vladan: A friend of mine suggested I take a look at locations around St. Sava Temple because this is a location that can be interesting. I didn't have anything to lose, so I went and took a walk in the surrounding streets, to see if there were empty locations for rent. I spotted one, ran home, searched it up on the internet and called the owner.
It turned out that a pizzeria was also interested in the location and it was a bit touch and go who would get it. But I told the owner about my idea and he really liked it, so he decided to rent the location out to us.
We were over the moon.
On 25th December 2014, we had our grand opening and after that the expansion was even faster and greater. People immediately liked our energy and adopted us into their hearts.
You actually became so popular in such a short time that opening another "Pivo i kobaja" in a second location was more of a necessity than a luxury. How did this go and where did you find all the interesting objects you decorated each location with?
Opening in another location is usually a risk. But at the time we didn't see it that way, it all seemed to flow naturally. We felt it was time and on 19th of May 2016 we opened a second "Pivo i kobaja" in Ruzveltova street, in the location where there used to be the oldest tavern in the city. We decorated this pub with various panels and chandeliers that I brought in from collectors around the world, so we could make a slightly different story from the first pub.
Precisely because we spared no expense, we insist on also offering positive energy, a friendly atmosphere and high-quality services. That's probably why the second pub was also packed full right from the start.
In the meantime, we signed a cooperation with the representatives of Harley Davidson in Belgrade, so they brought us to New Mercator in 2017 where we opened another establishment. The inspiration for this one, of course, were garages and motorcycles. That's why for this establishment I re-created the gas station from Route 66 in 1955. We got a clock from that period as well as signs from various car service shops and I also tracked down tone cards for reservoirs from 2000s Harley Davidson models. We finally combined that with several taps-handles for pouring beer that are hanged around the walls.
That's why this pub "Pivo i kobaja" became a sort of a meeting place for bikers.
You hadn't worked in hospitality before this. How challenging did you find it?
Vladan: It was very challenging, but I didn't find it hard to do at any point. I've been in my previous line of work for a long time and this change was very uplifting for me, it completely refreshed me. It did help that for 20 years prior I had worked in the hospitality domain and I knew from the start what all needed to be done. I just put to work the knowledge I already had.
What's interesting is that from the start there was a group of regulars in "Pivo i kobaja". What's the trick?
Vladan: "Pivo i kobaja" is the place where we have created a unique community. Our goal is that people come in, get to know each other, make deals and have a good time. We always put people first. We do everything that we can in order to show how much we value them. For example, once a year I like to express my gratitude to the most loyal regulars by taking them rafting and to October fest.
This time 20 of them are coming to October fest with us and 50 are going rafting. Our managers often take note who comes in often, people are able to send in a picture and we in turn gift them with a trip. That's how we build a community and make new friendships. We've even had two weddings. One took place right in the pub, where the two met and got married, while another is going to take place this year - both of the people having met and fallen in love during one of our trips to October fest.
In all your pubs there are some plates with names and nicknames. What are those all about?
Vladan: It's a sign of affection for our most loyal guests. Each of them has a name plate in their favorite seat, but if you get a plate it comes with a certain amount of responsibility. The nameplate owner has to come and sit there, dust it off and take care of it. If it goes rusty, it might end up with a different name on it.
The first name plate went to "Pythagoras' granddaughter". She is a math professor who happened to wander into "Pivo and kobaja" and has been a friend of the pub ever since. She even found the love of her life right here.
Also, our guests whom we consider friends of the pub often get promo t-shirts, hats and beer mugs and they love taking pictures with them. One guest even made their own "Pivo i kobaja" figurine that they take a picture with every time they leave the country and the 'grandddaughter' always brings our mug with her to summer vacation because she loves drinking from it and she sends us pictures from the trip.
Your pubs are full throughout the day. You also created a fun setup where it's great to come for breakfast, but the story is totally different during work hours and after, when it turns to relaxation, music and dinner.
Vladan: People feel at home here. We try to teach our waiting staff to be friendly, interesting, communicative and smiling, rather than feeling forced. We do a lot of work with our people and managers and always try to bring things up to a new level. We're always making up new things to keep us ahead of others.
At the time when you decided to start, the food and craft beers that you offer weren't widely available in our market. What is it that you offer to your guests and how did you develop your market?
Vladan: In addition to the beer brand "Pikova dama" (Lady of Spades) that we offer as our house beer, we also have 70 other brands of beer and 11 kinds of sausages. What's most important is that everything is home-produced and made especially for us. We also make Bavarian savory soft pretzels using original recipes and I guarantee they are the best in the city.
What's unique about us is that every one of our locations stocks a different number of beers in their regular offer, depending on their size. The pub near the Temple and in Ruzveltova street have 7-8 while the one in Mercator offers 12.
The reason for this is that we always try to make sure we serve the highest quality products and our rule is that we change the barrel every day and make sure that the beer is fresh. Of course, we can also put 20 kinds of poured beer in a 50m2 pub, but then the guests might not get the highest quality beer all the time and we consider that unacceptable.
During these 5 years craft beers have become a common thing. On the other hand, when you go to the local grocery store, even there you can find more beers than you could before. How did you make your selection?
Vladan: We made sure to stock various craft bottled beers and to represent the best of countries that are considered cradles of beer-crafting and various styles of it - murky, dark, red...we want to have something for everyone and we offer a broad selection of beers. We've got the best from every category available in the market.
How much are our people willing to experiment with beers?
Vladan: Serbia is a bit behind the times in terms of craft beers. When we first started serving craft beer, many people immediately said they didn't like them. We had to explain what craft beer even was, that it was a crafted, not industrially produced beer. Slowly, through marketing and communication we've developed an awareness of craft beer so that people knew what they were drinking. It all grew from there and now it's a trend.
As of recently beers started doing the thing that pizzas used to do - you can find 2000 kinds of them - you have to draw a line and see what your establishment is willing to offer and at which levels of quality. That's why we have to make a selection and we do so with the criteria that our guests always come first.
What about your own house beer, the "Dame of Spades"?
Vladan: It was made as filtered lager because our folks tend to have a few craft beer and then ask for the industrial. In order to bring our beers back to them, we've done the filtration and left everything good still in the beverage - it was still delicious but closer to what we were used to in industrial beers.
Craft beers are a bit heavy in their own right. You can have one or two and you've had your fill, even if you wanted to drink more. That's why we created the 'Dame of Spades' to make it something in-between and allow people to enjoy the best of the craft beers while still reminiscent of industrial.
Though, we should make something clear - the 'Dame of Spades' is in its core a craft beer and it's made out of barley, hops, malt, corn...everything that goes with beer production but unlike industrial, craft beer production uses dehydrated raw ingredients and that's why they provide the highest quality.
You started with a range of products that you had available and then slowly introduced new things as they appeared in the market. What are people requesting the most right now?
Vladan: The most popular at the moment are the 'Dame of Spades' and the murky Paulaner. For a full year we worked on marketing in order to explain that this isn't an industry but a home-brewed beer and to raise awareness of it in our guests. We have raised the 'Dame of Spades' to an enviable level.
That's how we got to the point that people who drink the 'Dame' are often willing to further experiment with craft beer.
Before us, Serbia didn't have a big enough selection of beer for people to experience different styles and tastes.
Your marketing activities also include participating in beer festivals.
Vladan: Naturally. We participated in Beer fest but we also do special promotions for the 8th of March, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and for regulars who leave us their information, we regularly congratulate birthdays.
I also mentioned that for four years now we have been cooperating with Harley Davidson and in order to please our guests and give them the opportunity to try something new, we regularly refresh our beer menu and our food offer.