Connection to home: European market comes to Bonita Springs
Alma and Bob Agastra were born in concentration camps in Albania. For the first five years of their lives, they fought hunger, cold and dampness to survive. Now the couple is living the American dream in Bonita Springs where they own their own shop that sells hard to find European food and freshly cut meat.
The items in Balkan Market often have names that are difficult to pronounce like kourabiades and tsoureki. They have names that might be unfamiliar to some people, but for the growing population of European residents in the area, it is a welcome site.
“This is authentic food and easy to get to the location,” said Mimi Nano, a native of Albania. “And the owners are very welcoming. Here I like the Turkish coffee, the cheese, olives, Baklava, all kinds of sweets and salads, meats.”
Nano said the food reminds her of her childhood home, and she is glad the shop is so close to where she works. She was especially excited to find authentic Turkish coffee.
“It’s different. It is very had to find other places like this. It’s always nice to try different things. The food is something important for everybody.”
Joe Vushaj is also originally from Albania but has lived here for 36 years. He too says the items in the store remind him of his roots.
“What I like here is they have very healthy foods, they are fresh, clean and very healthy,” Vushaj began. “They have very nice olives, peppers, salami, yogurt, fresh lamb and chicken.”
Vushaj not only buys items for his personal use, but for his restaurant, Bonita Brunch. On a recent afternoon he was purchasing Fire Rose Flour.
“You can’t find it in any stores,” he explained. “This is special flour. It makes the best crepes. I come here a lot.”
While many of the customers are from Albania, the Agastra’s stress that the food items come from a wide variety of European countries. They come from Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Turkey, Croatia, Germany France, and more.
“We get them from all over,” Bob stated.
Balkan Market adds to its uniqueness by also being a butcher shop. Bob says live animals such as lamb and goats are shipped to a processing plant in Southwest Florida where they are butchered. Bob then picks up the freshly butchered blocks of meat and brings it to the shop where he and his wife cut it to the sizes requested by customers. The butchered meat is one of the most popular items in the shop. Other top picks are baklava, cevapi, tollumba, revani, tiramisu, burek and kadaifi.
“People grew up with this food,” Bob said. “As soon as they get in the store, they know what to pick.”
It was a long and often difficult road to this success for Alma and Bob Agastra. Both remember being hungry all the time when they lived in concentration camps in Albania. Both had parents who had been sent to different camps in that country.
“At that time a lot of kids and old people died because there was not enough food,” Alma described. “I remember the ceiling and my mother putting things under it because the water was coming down where I was sleeping.” Water would drip on my head at night. It was very bad.”
When their families were finally released from the camps, life was still hard. The government would not give them back their homes.
“Before them, my family had a big house. That house became a school,” Alma said.
Alma went to live on a farm.
“I had to work hard. I had callouses,” Alma described. “It was crazy.”
With all that work, there was no school, so Alma’s father taught her at home. Bob’s life wasn’t any easier.
“After World War II we had a big problem with communism,” Bob explained. “My family fought against fascism. That was a bad time. They took everything from my family before I was born. If you were an enemy to the government, they make you an enemy. You have no rights.”
Bob had a grandfather who had lived in the United States from 1905 to 1926. His grandfather told him stories that started his dreams of coming to America.
“We were dreaming of this country,” he said. “When we were young, we thought it was never going to happen.”
Bob moved to Connecticut in 1993. His wife followed in 1996. They opened a European market there. Then a few years ago they saw Naples.
“We came for vacation and we loved the place,” Bob said.
They moved here a year ago and recently opened their European market in Bonita Springs.
“I love it,” Alma said. “Here nobody discriminates against you. “Coming from there, it is like here we hit the lottery, and I love it. We are so happy. If you work hard, you have an opportunity and you make a beautiful life.”
If you go
- Balkan Market
- 28811 South Tamiami Trail, Bonita Springs
- 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., Monday- Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday.