tampabay.com

One immigrant's success story

Arriving from Serbia 28 years ago, Sara Caffee has accomplished much.

By PAUL SWIDER
Published June 10, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - The city is a very different place than the one Sara Caffee came to 28 years ago. For one thing, back then there wasn't anyone like her.

"When I came here, there wasn't even anyone who could even speak my language, " said Caffee, who was 19 when she arrived from Serbia.

Today, thanks to Caffee, there are plenty of well-adjusted Serbs and Bosnians and others from the Balkans running their own businesses in the region. Still, she takes it all in stride.

"I'm just another woman in business, " said Caffee, who recently opened Fresh Produce Store and More at 6030 Fourth St. N.

Ironically, she's one of the last to start such a business. Over the years, through her work with the Red Cross and Catholic Charities, Caffee has helped many war refugees from the Balkans get settled in the area. Many went on to start a growing number of area businesses. Now it's Caffee's turn.

"This has always been my dream, to have a produce store, but I never had the time, " said Caffee, who has also worked in real estate. Now, with that market in the doldrums, "I have the time."

Caffee, nee Simic, was born and raised on a farm south of Belgrade. When she came here to help a relative manage some property, she was completely out of her element. But she studied English, earned a degree from St. Petersburg Junior College, married and had children, then started selling homes.

In the early '90s, she took a break for three years to help with refugee resettlement. Along the way she helped many of those now forming a thriving Balkan business community.

"I didn't know anybody when I came here, " said Mile UcuKalo, who owns Euro Shop at 9035 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N. "She'd take us to the doctor, help us, whatever."

UcuKalo started his store in 2000 and was alone in the business in this area.

Now his distribution business supplies product to a dozen such stores around the Tampa Bay area and is working on getting ajvar and lutenitsa into mainstream grocers.

UcuKalo helped his family the way he'd been helped and his brother now owns Bosnia Food Store at 6508 Fourth St. N, a strip center that includes similar businesses Mediteran Fast Food and Sports Cafe Zodiac.

"It's a big community, " said Amir Kapo, the owner of Zodiac, which he describes as the "Bosnian Starbucks."

There are several thousand refugees in the area but also immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania, Macedonia and more. "The door is open to everyone."

Caffee gets visits from many of these people in her store, when they're not at cultural hangouts like Cafe Stella on 34th Street and Kalina's on MLK.

She won't take credit for their business success, but she certainly helped many find their way in their new world.

"They're all just very hard workers, " she said. "They like to own their own businesses."

Caffee continues to work on her dream, too, while raising two daughters alone, shopping property and managing a new store. She's lost business partners and is now juggling to source her fresh produce from markets in Tampa while still running the business.

"I'll have to figure it out, " she said. "My people like to have their fresh fruits and vegetables."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.