In Praise of Hyper-Specialization
This holiday, one of my stops was the Kruhkerija, a restaurant in Hotemaze that specializes in one, very specific food type and nothing else. They bake soft, pizza-like bread sticks that they fill with your choice of many great stuffings, from traditional (sunka, sir) to sweet (Nutella, orehova potica filling) to crazy (rakci, zaseka, ocvirki). If you want dunajski zrezek, this is the wrong place. They have only their stuffed bread sticks and a few salads. That’s it. This is why people come, make pilgrimages to this restaurant. This is director Mitja Okorn’s favorite, the first place he goes when he comes home from his workplace in Poland (they have a corner dedicated to him, covered in posters and photos). People seek this restaurant out when they want to eat what it specializes in. I love it.
But this approach is very American, and very un-Slovene. Slovenians gostile and kavarne are normally excellent but also normally have nearly the exact same menu, and even a similar aesthetic. This is partly a product of socialism, a desire to be good enough for everyone and alienate no one. The result is fine but, from a foreigner’s perspective, it makes individual establishments unremarkable, as one good gostilna or kavarna blurs into the next, without standout points to distinguish them. The American approach is to hyper-specialize. Do whatever you can to be distinct, to give people a reason to go to you rather than elsewhere, to ensure that people remember your establishment and seek it out. Blurring with others, being good but not distinctive, is uncool in the anglophone world.
Now in Slovenia, I find myself content in more generic gostilne and kavarne, but not particularly interested until a place opens that is weird or quirky or offers things I can’t get elsewhere. Then I get excited. Hence my new obsession with Gostilna Korobac, which is wonderfully distinctive and has things on the menu that are not available anywhere else (I highly recommend the Kava Korobac special, but don’t plan on driving afterwards). The Kruhkerija reminds me of favorite places back home, such as Louis’ Lunch, the tiny diner in my hometown of New Haven which hamburger historians say invented the burger. They have exactly one thing on the menu: a hamburger, and the only options are with or without cheese, onion and tomato. That’s it. No fries, no sauces, nothing else. It takes “balls” to do this, and I admire balls. If you want a burger, you’ll find none better, but if you don’t want a burger…well, don’t come here!
While Slovenian restaurants tend not to hyper-specialize in this way, farmers do, and those are the ones that are the most popular and most revered. Consider Marjetka at the Ljubljana Trznice. There is more than one vendor of kisle zelje, but she’s the only one with a long line of people waiting to buy from her. She’s charming, of course, but that’s not the only reason people choose her stand as opposed to others. Her family grows an indigenous type of cabbage, Ljubljanska zelja, that is nearly extinct—her family has the only remaining seeds. And this is meant to be the best for kisle zelje, as well as inspiring nationalistic pride in locals who buy it—not just a Slovenian specialty product, but native to Ljubljana. It’s similar with other goods. While in Hotemaze for bread sticks, I also visited Ekoloska Kmetija Pri Sustarju, where owner Primoz is renowned for his Krskpoljski pigs. He is the provider of pork for restaurants like JB and Pri Kristofu. When Slovenia’s most famous chefs buy meat from a certain provider, you know it must be good (you can order from it, too, via the excellent website http://nakupujmoskupaj.si/). Primoz offers his own excellent grains, but for those, JB goes to Kmetija Slibar in Trzic (especially for ajda and rdeca trdinka). This level of specialization, doing one thing extremely well, helps businesses to stand out, not only from the competition but also in the minds of consumers. I can get good burgers at a number of places around here, but 7 Burger is the only place with a killer steak sandwich.
Whenever I go to a new restaurant or café, I ask what the local specialty is, and if the answer is that there isn’t really one, I’m disappointed and unlikely to come back. Want to stand out in Slovenia, as a business, café or restaurant? Hyper-specialize. I’ve taken my own advice—in foreign media, I’ve become the go-to guy when a newspaper or magazine wants an article about Slovenia, and in the Slovenian media, I’m the go-to guy when the producer wants to interview a happy foreigner living here. Pass me the bread sticks!