by Thomas Humphrey
Josi Jahic (MBA, 2015) never expected to be part of the restaurant business. “When I was in college,” she said, “I would do any kind of work other than restaurant work.”
Now Josi finds herself at the center of J’s Pitaria, a Mediterranean restaurant she founded with her husband Zamir. At J’s, speed takes a back seat to quality, consistency, and freshness.
Josi began her WashU journey in 2012 as human resources coordinator for Facilities Planning and Management. A month after she was hired, her boss and mentor Bill Wiley took her to see the setup for graduation: “I turned to him and I said ‘Bill, in a couple of years you’re going to be coming to my graduation,’” and he said ‘I know I will.’”
That prophecy came to pass a few years later when Wiley, then retired, attended Josi’s MBA graduation ceremony in Brookings Quadrangle.
Josi’s career path hasn’t been quite as predictable. Working in HR was “kind of an accident,” said Josi, who graduated with an international business degree in 2003. “But something about being the centerpiece of decisions, making the company better, and working with people was very appealing to me.”
Coming from an HR background, Josi is particularly focused on her employees: “If you don’t have people who share the same vision, you’re not going to be successful.”
“If you don’t have people who share the same vision, you’re not going to be successful.”
Whenever she and Zamir consider a new menu item, they take it up with the staff. “Who better to ask than those on the front line?” They cultivate a staff they can trust, maintaining the same lineup for years—unusual for the high-turnover restaurant industry.
Pursuing an MBA in Human Resources soon after starting work at WashU was a formative experience for Josi: “Washu overall has been amazing to me: meeting all of these motivated people and working very close to them. It gave me an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. I enjoyed all of those conversations with other professionals who already had 10, 20 years behind them in companies.”
“WashU overall has been amazing to me: meeting all of these motivated people and working very close to them. It gave me an opportunity to see things from a different perspective.”
It wasn’t easy to complete graduate school as a young mother, but with the help of her family and Zamir, she succeeded. Soon after graduation, she determined to help Zamir achieve his long-held dream of starting a restaurant—bringing with her the lessons she learned from her graduate experience.
Everything at J’s is from scratch, a key selling point. They make their own cevapi sausages and are the only restaurant in St. Louis that stacks their own gyro meat. “Every single day you get fresh somun bread,” said Josi. “Once you order, that’s when we roll the dough and throw it in the oven.”
Such work is neither easy nor fast. “If it is not busy, it takes 15 minutes per item. It took some time to really get people used to that.” J’s now has a sign in the window that explains, “this is not fast food.”
For new restaurants, Josi noted that location is essential. “So many restaurants fail from being in a bad location,” she said, explaining that even businesses with quality products can’t succeed if no one knows about them. “Unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of money on marketing, location is critical.”
Covid was a shock to J’s, as it was across the restaurant industry. They closed down for eight weeks during the early days of the pandemic.
And yet, Josi was prepared to handle crises as far back as her childhood. At a young age, she and her family were forced to flee her home country of Bosnia to avoid civil war. They fled to Germany but were eventually forced to leave there as well, ending up in the United States. In the process, she had to twice readjust to a new language and culture.
This background helped Josi maintain perspective during the pandemic: “I did not go into panic mode thinking this is a disaster, since I had already lived through disasters.”
Each day of the restaurant’s closure, Josi and Zamir went on long walks, strategizing their return. They ultimately set up online ordering through Square (another WashU startup), and have been thriving ever since.
Josi and Zamir are planning to expand outside of their Pitaria, and are now looking at storefronts to sell their products wholesale. With the introduction of their frozen somu dough, they hope to reach even more people with their fresh, healthy approach to Mediterranean food.