016 Restaurant & Sandwich Shop in Chicago ranked #25 on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in 2022.
Check out the full list of winners and read more of their stories.
Key business takeaways
- When you need to pivot your business model in a pinch, use your existing assets to diversify revenue streams
- Remodeling a second-generation space—especially one with especially one with special touches or similar needs—can help you get started on a budget
- Courting a larger clientele doesn’t have to mean sacrificing tradition: At 016, Serbian grilling techniques form the basis for the chef’s new recipes and farm-to-table creations
016 Restaurant & Sandwich Shop—named after the area code of the chef’s hometown of Leskovac, Serbia—has something that no other restaurant in Chicago can claim: a 4,000-pound meat smoker. It’s 21 feet long, spans the basement to the roof, and is so large that 016’s meat production manager has to use a ladder to access it. Under the helm of chef Bojan Milicevic, the smoker lends flavor to some of the restaurant’s signature dishes: smoked sausages, charcuterie, and deli meat sold by the pound in the sandwich shop next door.
But the smoker is not the only unique part of this business, which secured the 25th spot on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in 2022. 016 combines traditional Serbian grilling techniques and the chef’s training as a butcher—making sausage and charcuterie from scratch—to conjure a taste of home for Serbian-American diners.
Chicago has one of the nation’s largest Serbian populations, many of whom flock to the restaurant to take comfort in old favorites, Milicevic said. But the quality of the food and Milicevic’s signature touches speak to every customer, whether they’re Serbian or not.
“I want every dish on a menu to have something that is inspired by Serbia,” Milicevic said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the pasta or a dish that people other than Serbians can relate to. There is a touch of Serbia in every single dish.”
Milicevic believes that southern Serbian food deserves a larger spotlight, as a cuisine that’s rich with history and flavor. Smoking his own meat allows the chef to experiment with those flavors and control for quality, while grilling over natural charcoal—the way the grillmasters do it back home—provides a smokiness that adds another layer to a dish’s profile.
“That’s our DNA,” says Bojan Jovanovic, 016’s manager and co-owner, who immigrated to Chicago from Leskovac with Milicevic. Together, the pair has overcome staffing shortages and financial pitfalls to give their cuisine a second home.
From 016 to 312
Leskovac, area code 016, has produced some of the Balkans’s most revered grillmasters. The southern Serbian town is famous for its chievapi (grilled sausages) and kobasica (smoked sausage), which flood the streets with smoky flavor during September’s Roštiljijada, “barbecue week.”
“Being from the south part of Serbia, we have a different type of cuisine than the rest of the country,” Milicevic said. “I always wanted to open a restaurant that was going to represent that part of Serbia, my hometown, and show [people from] other cultures that we have interesting food to try.”
For example, there’s the 016 burger, a Serbian beef-and-veal meat patty called pljeskavica that Milicevic used to eat nearly every night at home. (Leskovac grillmasters still hold the record for the world’s largest pljeskavica.) Prepared similarly to a sausage, the emulsified burger bursts with flavor. “It still brings up memories from back home,” Milicevic said.
Milicevic learned these techniques from the best: his family. He started working in his dad’s restaurant as a busboy at age 11, manned the grill at 13, and opened his own barbecue restaurant at 18. At traditional Serbian restaurants, like the one still owned by Milicevic’s family back home, there is no menu. “Grilling is the only thing they do,” he said. “You just go, they tell you what they have, and that’s about it.”
When Milicevic immigrated to Chicago (area code 312) 20 years ago, he wanted to preserve these traditional methods, but he also wanted to experiment with new techniques and ingredients. “In Serbia, we do have some ingredients, but not a lot,” he said. “Once I came to the United States and I saw what was available in the markets and everything, it just made me want to work even more and play around with all those ingredients during the seasons.”
Milicevic also honed his craft at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago and at Publican Quality Meats, one of the top butcher shops in Illinois, where he learned the basics of meat production: how to form sausages, what type of meat to use, and which flavors meld well together.
Today, farm-to-table is a central ethos of the restaurant. Milicevic and Jovanovic regularly adjust the menu to feature in-season produce, as well as meat from local suppliers. Their sandwich offerings combine Midwestern ingredients with Serbian traditions, such as the Chi-Vap (bacon-wrapped chevapi with Chicago-style toppings). By using tradition as the base for experimentation, Milicevic and Jovanovic seek to showcase the best of what Serbian cuisine can be.
In a pinch, make sandwiches
From the start, Milicevic and Jovanovic made creative choices. They took over an existing restaurant and worked under the same name until they were ready to launch, one year later.
Like finding an apartment with perfect built-ins, renovating the second-generation space made for a smoother transition: Milicevic and Jovanovic didn’t need to build a kitchen from scratch, and they even inherited some regular customers from the Bosnian restaurant that once occupied the space—as well as their secret gem: the smoker. “That was my selling point. I was like, ‘I want this because of that. I don’t care about anything else,’” Milicevic said.
But there were also downsides. The building was 120 years old and needed structural improvements, which made renovating on a budget challenging. And just as the restaurant began to pick up momentum, thanks to glowing local news coverage in February 2020, COVID-19 hit.
“We had a totally different plan to go step-by-step, upgrading everything,” Jovanovic said. All that had to be put on pause as the team hurtled into survival mode, closing three times due to lockdowns and worker shortages.
According to Milicevic and Jovanovic, their community saved them: They relied on savings from family and friends, as well the Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce, which operated a program called Common Pantry: Chicagoans donated money to restaurants, which in turn provided food to people in need. “If that lasted for six more months, I don’t think we would have survived,” Jovanovic said.
As with many small businesses during the pandemic, 016’s ability to pivot its business model also proved critical to survival. The team made another creative choice to combine their unique assets: the meat smoker and Milicevic’s background as a butcher.
After the first lockdown, they remodeled the adjacent grocery store into a sandwich shop, where diners could buy sandwiches with deli meat smoked in-house. Thanks to a divided wall and separate entrances leading from the street, the team was able to rely on takeout service from the sandwich shop to sustain the business during later waves of the pandemic.
‘You get treated as a friend’
The team at 016 has spent their first few years in business grinding—and smoking, grilling, and serving. They haven’t had a lot of time to reflect on the business’s mission. “It was just sort of survival mode for a couple years,” Jovanovic said.
Now, Milicevic and Jovanovic’s goal is simply to work a full year, which the restaurant has not been able to do in its three years of existence. Winning a spot in Yelp’s Top 100 confirmed that they are closer to that goal than they realized. A customer alerted them to the nomination process, which they never expected to win—until they heard the news a few months later. “I was just in shock. It meant a lot, you know?” Milicevic said.
Jovanovic added: “After struggling for that long, it feels great. It gave some assurance that we are on the right path. We want to get back [on track] and give to the community since they played a huge role when [business] was problematic.”
And it’s those loyal customers that Milicevic and Jovanovic pride themselves on retaining. As manager, Jovanovic strives to create a welcoming environment that encourages people to come back again and again. “If you walk into our place, we would like you to feel that vibe of when you come into a Serbian home or family,” he said. “You get treated as a friend and have a feeling that you’re welcome. You have the experience of our culture and the way we do things in that hour and a half, two hours.”
Most of the Serbian restaurants in the area offer live music and entertainment, which is an important part of Serbian culture, Jovanovic said. But he and Milicevic wanted to focus on the dining experience itself—recipes with high-quality, seasonal ingredients that showcase the versatility of Serbian food.
Jovanovic said this approach resonates with second-generation Serbians and first-generation immigrants who have been in the U.S. for decades like he has—those who are longing for a taste of both the Midwest and Serbia. “Most of the time, [Serbian chefs] will keep that traditional food and not many decide to change anything,” Jovanovic said. “Slowly, there’s chefs from our country that are doing [modernized, Serbian-American fusion] very well.” And according to the Yelp community, 016’s Milicevic is leading the charge.
Photos of 016 Restaurant on Yelp
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