Jessica’s Family Restaurant is truly a family business for owners Anife and Ilmi Shabani (left of the sign), their daughters, Urime Selimi (back from the left) Florime Shabani, daughter-in-law Allmire, and son, Urim Shabani, and their grandkids (front from the left) Altin Selimi, Muadin Selimi, Leart Shabani and Ilmi, Jr., Shabani. They celebrated 25 years in business June 16 with prices and the menu from 1991, the year they took over the restaurant. (Tom Ganser photo)

Jessica’s Family Restaurant is truly a family business for owners Anife and Ilmi Shabani (left of the sign), their daughters, Urime Selimi (back from the left) Florime Shabani, daughter-in-law Allmire, and son, Urim Shabani, and their grandkids (front from the left) Altin Selimi, Muadin Selimi, Leart Shabani and Ilmi, Jr., Shabani. They celebrated 25 years in business June 16 with prices and the menu from 1991, the year they took over the restaurant. (Tom Ganser photo)

By Heather Ruenz

Editor

Ilmi Shabani figured out what it takes to be a successful restaurant owner years ago.

“Hard work, treating customer right and treating employees right, that’s what it takes… and having customers who have in turn supported me, that’s why I’m still here,” Shabani said last week at the 25-year celebration of Jessica’s Family Restaurant in Whitewater.

Shabani said the restaurant is truly a family business. On hand for the celebration and to help keep things running smoothly were his wife, Anife, son Urim (and daughter-in-law, Allmire), daughters, Urime and Florime, and grandsons, Altin, Muadin, Leart and Ilmi, Jr.

“It’s been a good enough business to grow in size but has taken a lot of hard work by me and my family,” Shabani, who immigrated from Macedonia – the former Yugoslavia in 1978, said.

He worked at an Italian restaurant in Chicago, whose owner had a house on Whitewater Lake. In addition to working at the restaurant, Shabani did odd jobs at the house in Whitewater and one day heard about the restaurant on Main Street being for sale. He bought it.

In 1992 he brought his wife, son and daughter to America. In 1993 he bought the building the restaurant is in and in 1994, his second daughter was born. Several years alter he had the opportunity to expand.

“In 2011, the old movie house next door to the restaurant was for sale so I bought it and turned it into a banquet area by connecting the two. We have Kiwanis and Lions clubs meet here, we have wedding receptions, you name it,” Shabani said.

For the celebration, Jessica’s offered the menu and prices from 1991, the year Shabani bought the restaurant. They also held numerous raffles throughout the day, walking around and giving each customer there a ticket.

“We have t-shirts, artwork, baskets, numerous things, much of it was donated by businesses in the community,” he said.

Shabani, who is semi-retired “because you never fully retire in this business,” said his kids run the restaurant most of the time.

His daughter, Uremi, who owns Edge of Towne Café in Palmyra, said it’s not surprising that her father has been successful.

“He’s just an outgoing person, a good person. He always has a smile for everyone – one a good day, a bad day, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

“He’s a hard worker and has made a lot of sacrifices but is very successful and has taught us that hard work pays off,” Uremi said.

Staff feel like family

In addition to his own family members, he said most of his staff stay employees of his long-term.

“We’ve had college kids stay here all four years of school and some keep working here. I have one that graduated in 2005 who still works here part-time,” Shabani said.

Several of his staff talked about what it means to work for Shabani.

Enrique Iszuipula has been an employee at Jessica’s for 15 years. The t-shirt he was wearing for the celebration said: Some heroes wear capes. Some heroes make your coffee.

“I’ve got a very good boss. I like the restaurant right here in downtown Whitewater and I like the people. I love working here,” he said.

Heather Spies, who described herself as a “new kid on the block compared to some of the staff” said Shabani is a “good boss and a good human being who does a lot of good things. He’s loyal to us and we’re loyal back. It’s true that you get what you give… he gives an awful lot and it shows.”

Betty Schilt, a 13-year veteran of Jessica’s, said she came back to help out when Shabani was sick.

“And here I am. I only let him be my boss sometimes – like on payday! No, he’s very easy to work with, he’s a smart person and a people person and sure knows how to run a business,” Schilt said.

Anita Koss, who has worked for Shabani for five years, said she loves coming to work.

“I started here to help out when Ilmi’s daughter went on maternity leave. That was five years ago but I liked it so much I stayed. It’s a great place to work, Ilmi is great and the customers are too,” Koss said.

Tara Matusiewicz has only worked for Shabani for a year but said he is a gem in the restaurant business.

“It’s family oriented and we work as a team. Ilmi is a great boss – he’s friendly, personable and really does care about people. He goes around and ask people how everything was and how they are and he means it. We work together as a family and we are treated like we’re family. It’s awesome,” she said.

Always welcome

Don Norma, pastor of La Grange United Methodist Church, is a regular at Jessica’s, where he works on his sermons.

 

“I do my study for sermon preparation prior to Saturday morning sermon writing time. Sermons are meant for people, so why not prepare sermons surrounded by others? This works for me. Ilmi has always been a gracious host,” Norman said.

“Prior to the expansion of the restaurant and given how busy Saturday mornings are given the press of hungry patrons, I was always watching the door, mindful that I was taking a seat others needed in taking a meal. Ilmi and his staff always encouraged me to relax and not worry; if the press of people got too large, they’d find a place for me at the bar,” he said.

Norman said he began writing sermons at Jessica’s in 1998 when he moved to Whitewater to join the faculty of the university. He has been the pastor at LUMC from 1998 to 2006, and again from 2011 to the present; the period in between he served military service members and their families as a consultant.

“Jessica’s is a great place to write my thoughts, and the food is excellent. With the expansion, I now have a booth in the back corner of the new section. The waitresses know my usual meals. I even get some help from one of the waitress staff named Jean. Jean will fill my coffee and notice how long my sermon is getting and tell me, ‘That’s enough; the people will stop listening if you get your sermon too long,'” Norman said.

Shabani said the June 16 celebration was “wonderful. My family is here with me and my customers are here. What more could I ask for.”

During the interview for this story, customers frequently sought out Shabani to congratulate him and some to give him a hard time with him quickly returning the favor.

“I told you this is a great place,” he said with a smile.

 

 

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