Erika Marinovic is a survivor. Look all around the surrounding businesses at 7340 Kingsway and the signs of the recession are hard to miss.
A national pizza joint closed up shop earlier this year, joining a paint store and realty office with 'For Lease' signs in the front window. But Marinovic, who has run Bernie's Balkan Kitchen for the past seven years, is continuing to see a steady stream of customers who want hearty European fare at affordable prices.
The most popular dish is the half-pound burger for $8.99, which is so big that Marinovic has to custom-make the buns that almost completely fill up a standard nine-inch plate.
"I've got people coming from all over the Lower Mainland for my food," said Marinovic. "I have a lot of construction workers who come here for lunch."
Also very popular is the $8.99 chicken schnitzel burger, the homemade burek pastry pies ($6.50 for a slice or $26 for the entire pie), the beef goulash and the beef tripe ($6.99 for the small or $9.99 for the large).
"All of our dishes are very popular with our regulars," said Marinovic, who has learned the hard way that innovation and new dishes are not what her customers want.
"I've tried vegetarian soup and I had to throw most of it away," she said. "And salad, people say they want it but when I put it on the menu, it wasn't very popular."
Ironically enough, one of her most popular offerings was roasting pig on the weekend, but when other businesses started doing the same thing and undercutting prices to the point where Marinovic wasn't making any money on roast pig, she got out of that side of the business completely.
"I sold all of the equipment so that even if somebody asked me if I could do it, I could tell them I didn't have the equipment to do it for them," she said.
In essence, Marinovic has streamlined her menu so that there's very little waste and every item is in high demand.
That's not to say times have been easy for Marinovic, who had to lay off two employees last year.
But by concentrating on her core lunch business, Marinovic is proof positive that small businesses can survive and thrive in a tough economic market.
"I've been in the restaurant business for almost 40 years and I've gone through tough times like this before," said Marinovic. "I saw the recession coming and I was prepared for it."
Being prepared meant Marinovic did some costly kitchen renovations in 2007 that allowed her to automate her baking needs and save her four-to-five hours of labour each day.
And being prepared meant that in 2009, she paid attention when many of her core construction-worker customers stopped coming.
"A lot of my regulars were working on Olympic venues and once they finished those jobs, they couldn't find new work," she said. "That was a sign to me that the construction industry was in tough and I had to be prepared."
On a recent weekday, I sat down with Marinovic and saw first-hand how her shop continues to thrive and survive.
A high-school student needing a quick dinner between extracurricular activities ordered the chicken schnitzel sandwich thas was so big that I thought the girl would have enough for lunch the next day.
Another local customer came in for his burek fix.
"We make all our burek on site and fresh," said Marinovic of the phyllo pastry pie that looks like a pizza but tastes way better. Available in cheese, meat and potato, or spinach varieties, the burek was what one of her suppliers was calling for, well after Marinovic has turned off her oven and grill.
"Sure, you can come by and I'll have some burek for you," Marinovic assures her supplier.
It's this type of customer service that has Bernie's doing so well. Even though the restaurant's business hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. six days a week (closed Monday), Marinovic is often working until past 6 p.m. each day.
"I turn off the oven at 4 p.m. but I still have customers coming in after they finish work," she said. "I don't close the doors until after I clean up."
Having tried Marinovic's half-pound burger on several occasions, I asked her what the secret to her burger is.
She didn't want to reveal too much, other than to say the meat is seasoned with a special Eastern European recipe and making her own buns is important as well.
For $8.99, it's about as good a deal as you'll find anywhere in Burnaby.
One last question for Marinovic before she closes up is the inevitable question of who "Bernie" is.
Bernie was two owners before Marinovic and even though she has built the business far beyond Bernie's original business, don't expect a name change any time soon.
"There are a lot of people who still come looking for Bernie's," she said. "I don't need to change the name because I think it might confuse people. ... As long as people keep coming for the food, I'll keep making it for them."
Bernie's Balkan Kitchen is located at 7340 Kingsway. It's open for lunch from 11 a.m. every day but Monday.
- Beef tripe, or cow stomach, is a delicacy that many gourmets are initially scared of. But try Marinovic's beef tripe and you might get hooked. The beef goulash is also good hearty fare that shouldn't be missed. For only $6.99 for the small and $9.99 for the large, it's a meal you won't find anywhere else.