Branko's in Lincoln Park: a family affair
Published: Monday, June 4, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08
Andja shouts out orders to her parents in the back of the kitchen, as she rushes back to the register to greet customers. A firm handshake for the delivery man waiting in line for a beef sandwich, a huge hug to a student grabbing a quick order of onion rings, and a smile to a group of giggling children nibbling away at a heaping basket of French fries.
A hectic schedule is something Andja, 46, the owner of Branko’s Sandwich Shop, has become accustomed to over the past 40 years. Branko’s is located in the heart of Lincoln Park at 1118 W. Fullerton Ave. Since 1976, this family owned establishment has provided DePaul students and Lincoln Park residents with quality food, but more notably, a welcoming place to feel like family.
Andja’s Ukrainian heritage inspires the atmosphere and food preparations at Branko’s and her customer service skills shape her character. While slicing the fresh lamb meat and piling it on top of a toasted pita, Andja gushed about her family.
“Everything I do here at Branko’s roots back to my family history in the Ukraine. My family members are bakers by profession and wanted to start a business in Chicago that reflects our culture, food and how loving we are,” she said.
She completes the gyros order, and then finishes ringing up a line of customers that snaked through the small tables of the quaint restaurant. She makes her way to a two-person booth as she wipes the tiny beads of sweat rolling down her blemish-free forehead. She instantly jumps into conversation.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day? The sun is shining, I have happy customers, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” she said.
Her contagious smile, she explains, is created by her customers and is necessary in the restaurant business.
“When you come from such a large family and are raised with not much else besides love, all you know is to smile and makes others do the same,” she said.
Upon walking into Branko’s, Andja’s love is instantly noticeable and keeps customers coming back for more. The traditions brought to the United States by her parents are still alive and prove to be successful.
Thirty-year customer, Bob Decrasse, 61, of Lincoln Park, stops by the shop on a weekly basis and always places the same order: grilled chicken sandwich and mozzarella sticks. He leaned against the wooden counter, loosening his solid ruby necktie.
“The food here is great, and hits the spot after a long day at work,” he said. “You will not find a more caring and patient person than Andja. She takes care of me like I am part of the family, I love it.”
Andja takes pride in being a mother, and treats her customers like her own children. If a customer is short on cash, she accepts IOUs. Drink refills are free and there is no time limit on seating. The television is always on and she is prepared for conversation.
The welcoming atmosphere is created by Andja’s motherly instincts and restaurant aura. The ivory colored walls are hardly visible due to the numerous frames that decorate the perimeter of the open space. Prized food reviews, family photographs, Ukrainian landscapes and sport logos are all framed and scattered in no particular order.
As Decrasse waits for his food he casually glances over at one the frames of Andja’s parents and smiles. Going to eat at Branko’s for so many years has allowed Decrasse to develop a relationship with not just Andja, but her parents as well.
“When I was younger and just moved to the neighborhood I remember the first faces I saw were Mama and Papa. Andja had always told me to call them that. They are quiet, but you can tell they care about you. This photo is my favorite in the whole shop,” he said.
The family tree within the sandwich shop business stems out to Andja’s children. She has raised four children within the Branko’s atmosphere. Her oldest daughter, Maria, 21, also stands behind the counter and helps organize and clean the cooking utensils. Her long caramel hair is neatly tied back into a ponytail and covered with a green Branko’s baseball hat. Even in between all the chaos, Andja and Maria every now and then catch each other’s eye and exchange a smile, a small yet powerful mother and daughter connection.
“There is no one out there like my mom, she is just so good at what she does,” she said. “So good in fact, that she cannot help but to be a mom to everyone who walks through that door to eat. It is something special.”
Special is also how Andja describes her children’s childhood due to their constant presence within the restaurant.
“My kids grew up in a unique way. I watched each of them learn the business at a young age as they all started working when they were just 14 years old. They were raised through a family run business just like I was back home,” she said.
Yet, Andja and her children share a bond that goes beyond Branko’s. They participate in ethnic dance classes together. Without hesitation Andja whips out countless brochures and photographs of the various dance competitions her family has attended. With each flip of the photo album, Andja’s excitement increases. Her pointer finger does not know where to go first as it furiously points at her daughter’s first competition at age 2, all the way up to last weekend.
Andja and her family are also active members of their church’s activity board. They help with creation of costumes, organizing food drives and recruiting new volunteers. Family time always come first, and motivates Andja to do more with her business and family.