We had the good fortune of connecting with Ariana Tolka and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Ariana, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
I am a first generation American, however I grew up with strong ties to my Balkan heritage, with my Croatian mother and Albanian father bringing me to Europe almost every summer to visit family and feast on multi-course, homemade meals. My favorite memories are of my grandmother, Magbule, bringing hot burek straight from the oven with its golden-brown crust and unmistakable aroma filling the room with anticipation while we fought over who would get the first piece.
After my grandmother Magbule passed away, I approached my aunt Alida to teach me how to make the traditional Albanian food that my grandmother used to make for us. On Sundays, we would bake together and reminisce about her while bringing her recipes to life. Alida too had experienced some of the same hardships that my grandmother had. When she was working as a journalist in Kosovo, the government shut down her TV station which drove her to immigrate to the United States. After landing in New York, she rebuilt her life piece by piece, attending the International Culinary Center and turning her passion for cooking into a full-time career. Not long after she opened up her own bakery and was quickly climbing the culinary ladder of success, my grandmother fell ill and she closed her shop to take care of her for over a decade.

One Sunday, as my aunt Alida and I kneaded phyllo dough, we vented to each other about how difficult it is to find Balkan food in the mainstream market. That day, we decided to start Balkan Bites and share our wholesome family recipes with the world.

What should our readers know about your business?

We make frozen, ready to bake burek (savory phyllo pies) without any preservatives. Our products give you a wholesome, flaky homemade meal without the hassle. What sets us apart is that we make our own fresh phyllo dough from scratch that is hand-stretched so thin that you can see the table underneath. We also use high quality ingredients like unbleached flour, extra virgin olive oil, and real butter.

When we started Balkan Bites in 2019, we sold our handmade baked burek at outdoor pop-up markets in New York and wholesale to coffee shops and restaurants. Our plan for 2020 was to develop a stable revenue stream from foodservice sales and continue growing our brand with outdoor markets. When the pandemic happened, restaurants closed for months and outdoor pop-up markets didn’t resume for the rest of the year.

After sheltering in place for a few weeks last March, we decided to start selling our frozen burek for people to bake at home. We always wanted to do this but the pandemic accelerated our plan. We created simple packaging, shared our offering on our Instagram account, and became essential workers driving around NY and NJ delivering frozen burek. Soon after we posted about our new offering, we started getting requests from all over the country and had to figure out how to ship frozen food, create professional packaging, and set up an online store. We now have customers in almost every state in the US who stock up on these convenient meals for themselves and send them as gifts to family and friends. We also received notable press which helped propel our growth.

It is still really difficult competing with big frozen food companies on price but we hope our quality and story shine through and encourage people to try something different.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I would take them to walk the BeltLine, to have pastries at The Little Tart, and to have dinner at Delbar and BeetleCat.

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I am super grateful for my aunt, Shqipe. She is our biggest supporter and advocate. Her friends were 90% of our customer base when we first launched Balkan Bites. When we did the Columbus Circle Holiday Market in New York, she helped us serve burek in the freezing cold to hungry visitors from around the world. When we needed extra hands in the kitchen after being featured in The New York Times, she was there with us for 12 hours a day for an entire week until we made every order. She is one of the most generous, selfless people that I know and I aspire to be more like her every day.

Website: https://balkanbites.co/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/balkanbitesnyc/?hl=en

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