Even on day one, remarkably robust business suggested that growth was afoot for Balkan Treat Box. “We sold out in less than two hours,” says co-owner Loryn Nalic of the chilly day in December 2016 when the bright turquoise food truck rolled up to the International Institute Holiday Bazaar for its first day of service. There, diners swooned over a savory handful of classic Balkan dishes.
Beginning next month, Nalic and husband Edo will greet and serve their swelling fan base in a traditional restaurant setting when they open in the former Stratton’s Café in Webster Groves. A brick-and-mortar location was an initial goal for the couple. “We started with the food truck because I knew we’d have more resources available, and it was something I could finance myself,” Nalic says. “It was an economical way to prove the concept, but we grew out of it so quickly.”
Early fanfare built on itself. “We’d make food, and it sold out,” she recalls. “Then we’d make more food, and that sold out.” Ardent local reviews had already piqued interest when Jordana Rothman, a Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure editor, visited St. Louis and named the food truck in her article, ‘4 Reasons St. Louis Is America’s Next Great Food City.’ “Then people really started to take notice, seek us out and show up,” Nalic says.
The truck’s success is largely intertwined with the couple’s backgrounds. “Restaurants are what I’ve done all my life,” says Nalic, a South City native who moved to Los Angeles with her father at age 14 as a high school freshman after her parents divorced. She worked in various restaurants in L.A. before returning home in 1997.
An accomplished pastry chef, Nalic earned her stripes in the local culinary scene. At the now-closed Turvey’s On the Green in the Central West End, she worked out front and in the kitchen. “I helped make things like chocolate bombs, which were very on trend at the time, but I wanted to do more savory dishes and challenge myself,” she recalls. “I needed experience.”
She found it with a stint at AzucArte, the former eclectic bakery on Ivanhoe Street. Next, to land a position at Luciano’s Trattoria, Nalic bravely approached co-owner Marc Del Pietro unsolicited and showed him a photo album of her culinary creations. Impressed, he gave her the job. Her experience also includes Frazier’s Restaurant & Lounge, Farmhaus, Pappy’s Smokehouse and other celebrated establishments.
Nalic later took a job as a Sysco rep, which she deemed a more viable option as a single mom with two young children, Romy and Micah, now 18 and 17 respectively. The job was a twist of good fortune, since that’s how she met Edo in 2006 at Taft Street, the Bevo area Bosnian bar and grill where he worked as a bartender and server.
Edo had arrived in St. Louis with his family in 1998 as part of the massive influx of Bosnians seeking refuge here following the Bosnian War. Even before meeting Edo, Nalic was captivated by the refugees’ arrival. “Here I was, watching in real time, immigrants coming to settle, open businesses and be part of our community,” Nalic says. “I was intrigued.” The two shared many passions—food among them—and married in 2008.
Nalic got a more personal taste for Balkan food when she traveled to the region, where in-laws connected her with bakeries, restaurants and even Bosnian families, with whom she lived and cooked. “I saw such a difference in how the food was prepared,” she says.
Her experience influences the menus for both the food truck and upcoming restaurant. The cevapi, a flavorful, casing-less grilled sausage, is reminiscent of that found in Sarajevo, while the döner, or kebab, “is what you’d eat all over the Balkans,” Nalic notes. Her take on pide is less traditional, using ajvar, a tangy red pepper relish, as a topping.
With approximately 1,800 square feet and 45 seats, the menu will be small, around 10 dishes, and feature beer and wine selections. As for ambiance, Nalic doesn’t want the place to look too sophisticated. “That’s not my jam,” she says. “But it has to be eye-catching and very Balkan Treat Box.” Micah will join Nalic in the kitchen, and Romy will greet and serve with Edo. With the new restaurant, the Nalics are poised for an even greater realization of their goal: Making Balkan food accessible to an ever-widening audience.