They started in Macedonia; now they're an all-American success

They started in Macedonia; now they're an all-American success

URBANA — Success was simple for four men from Macedonia who have owned several family restaurants in central Illinois.

All you have to do is follow their simple instructions: Work seven days a week, 14 hours a day. Then draft or enlist your entire family in the restaurants.

And Christmas?

"We always worked Christmas," Jack Pinjoli says. "We never even thought about it."

The four men from Macedonia are all from the village of Kerchove. But they're not typical Macedonians, and they're proud of that.

They're ethnically Albanian, and the minority — a quarter of Macedonia's population in a 2002 census — has been mistreated there since Macedonia and the former Yugoslavia were part of the Ottoman Empire, they say.

They're all all-American — because they earned it.

"You couldn't find four prouder guys than when they earned their citizenships," said a mutual friend, Leon Forrestal.

If Champaign-Urbana is the center of the Earth, Alit Selimi is the closest to home, owning Urbana Gardens off Interstate 74 in Urbana.

The others are Isen Ballazhi, who owns the Village Garden in Salem; his brother, Imer Ballazhi, owner of the Country Kettle in Gibson City; and Pinjoli, who owns Jack's Cafe in LeRoy.

They have a lot in common, including never serving Macedonian or Albanian food.

At home, they ate a lot of lamb. "But we never learned to cook Albanian (dishes) because we did not get to watch our mothers cook," Pinjoli says.

Their heavy laminated menus offer virtually anything else you can think of, from Mexican to Asian to, most commonly, American fare.

There's something for every budget, from steak to hot dogs.

"Steaks are our speciality, but we do breakfast, dessert or just coffee. We have a lot of morning coffee regulars," Selimi says.

The contrast between their chosen land and their birth land is striking.

To say things were not good for them in Macedonia is an understatement. They left the country in the Soviet era, so they were never able to practice their religion freely there.

They were not allowed the higher education all their children have. And they were frequent targets of ethnic violence.

Isen Ballazhi says a large percentage of Albanian people were isolated after the Turkish empire collapsed a century ago.

"They locked Albanians in different countries,and recognized only a small part of Albania," he says.

So if you bring up Alexander the Great, probably the best-known Macedonian, you get a collective "meh" from the four guys. ("Mother Teresa is an Albanian," Imer Ballazhi says proudly.)

Since there were no opportunities, men from the village began coming to the Chicago area in the 1970s, leaving their girlfriends behind.

For a 17-year-old, everything seemed like an adventure, even menial work, the restaurant owners say.

All four started as dishwashers and worked their way up to be busboys, then cooks, then owners.

"We took the jobs most Americans don't want and worked the hours they didn't want to work," Selimi says.

"It takes all seven days to run a restaurant," Imer Ballazhi says.

"You find the time to spend with your family," Pinjoli adds.

Each has owned a restaurant or two for decades. .

Maybe it was a sense of humor that helped the four guys get through the lean times. Around a table in a restaurant, they sound like a bigger family version of the "Car Talk" guys.

They like to play off each other, and if they're being especially biting, they speak in Albanian.

Most of the kidding is kindly. Imer Ballazhi often gets told he looks like the actor Ray Liotta, who regularly plays cops and criminals.

Pinjoli, Ballazhi says, is "Kojak," referring to the 1970s cop show starring Telly Savalas. He is bald, and Ballazhi orders him to put on a cap that looks like a little like a beret. That sounds a new discourse between the two, mostly in Albanian.

For instance, on American food.

"I like Big Macs," Imer Ballazhi says.

"Sure, send people to other businesses," Pinjoli responds.

(They also speak Serbian and Macedonian, as well as chunks of other languages.)

Their focus now is on English, and that's the language they want their children to be educated in.

Selimi said they've picked communities in which there are nearby good schools — and nearby colleges — to establish eateries.

They moved about throughout Illinois, and the owners say they've been welcomed in their communities.

"The community supports us, and we support the community," Pinjoli says.

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