In this profoundly beautiful space, with intricate brickwork and high wooden ceilings, there’s a nod to the city’s Gateway Arch everywhere you look. Sulejman was so captivated by the famous landmark in St Louis – the tallest monument in the country and the tallest arch in the world – when he arrived in the 1970s that he incorporated arches into the restaurant’s design.
Ermina – known to all as “Mama” – has been running Grbic’s kitchen since it opened in 2002, offering warmth and hospitality to homesick Bosnians as well as those in the community who are new to cooking. . Before the pandemic, she could be seen flitting around the 260-seat dining room, handing out hugs and cookies, making everyone feel like guests in her home. Her nut cookies, which she still bakes every weekend, are delicate and tender, flavored with spices so familiar they curl like a smile around the tongue. Each bite melts as fast as powder snow but leaves behind a feeling of deep comfort, which is the exact effect Mama has on everyone she meets.
“She’s made of love and compassion,” said Senada, who took over from the now-retired mum and runs Grbic’s kitchen alongside her brother, Ermin, while Lemmons is on hiatus.
Sulejman, who hired Bosnian carpenters and masons for Grbic’s four-year construction, shares mom’s kindness. “When the refugees started arriving in the 90s, my father used to tell me that we were going to the airport to look for people who had no place to live,” Senada recalls, explaining that due to their life established in St Louis, After settling here in the 1980s as some of the first Bosnians in St Louis, her parents were well prepared to support new immigrants.
Sulejman held up a sign that said “refugees are welcome”, and when people came home with him, mum cooked day and night, while going to her full-time job at 3:30 a.m. each morning.
“We only had four bedrooms and one bathroom, but at one point there were 20 of us in that apartment,” Senada said. “We helped with translation and found jobs, housing, and doctor’s appointments. A family would come by and move, and people would call from Iowa and other places and ask if we would accept them.”
The answer, of course, was always yes.