Mid-way through our conversation at her office on Liberty Street, Sava Lelcaj points out a quote – commonly attributed to Charles Darwin – that her husband shared with her just a few days earlier. The quote reads, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
“I think it’s so important being flexible and being agile. I think so many times people come in and think, ‘This is the way it’s going to be, I’m going to do this.’ Then when it’s not exactly that, they don’t know how to adapt,” said Lelcaj. “That’s a part of the business, just being able to roll with the punches. If you get stumbled on little tiny things, opportunities are just passing you by.”
As the founder and driving force behind Savco Hospitality — which operates downtown Ann Arbor restaurants Sava’s and Aventura — Lelcaj understands the importance of being flexible in the business world, as well as in the kitchen. She points to the opening of Aventura as a perfect example.
“I knew what I wanted, and thought it would be a great addition to the food scene here in Ann Arbor, and I thought it would be fun,” said Lelcaj. “But I would have turned that into a library if I had to. Anything to get this space to succeed.”
Babo Market aims to provide local and global food that makes guests feel good
In addition to Sava’s and Aventura, Savco Hospitality also operates Tavolina Catering and Events, the Savco Kitchen, and Babo Market at three different locations. All told, there are more than 400 employees at Savco – a far cry from where Sava got her start, working in the back of the house at a small Greek diner at the age of 13, before coming to Ann Arbor in 2007 to open the original Sava’s Cafe with a staff of 15 employees.
She describes the original Sava’s as, “Like half the size of this office. It was where the CVS is now, so probably the size of the CVS food and wine aisle.”
Still, she considers herself lucky to have experienced both sides of the coin at a time when the restaurant industry was changing rapidly due to the influence of The Food Network, the internet, and the economic downturn.
The team at Sava's whips up creative food and drink pairings
“I worked at one Greek restaurant early on called Ocean Breeze and they just ran it very military-style. If I didn’t work in a restaurant like that, I would have never known how to run a restaurant like Sava’s because when you’re running a ship that sizable, you really need order and structure,” said Lelcaj. “Being in my 20s and having seen both sides of the spectrum really helped me become more agile.
“I have sort of that old-school mentality, because I grew up in the business for a decade, but then because of my age I was really able to adapt to the new school. I realized you always have to be innovative, you always have to be agile, because this industry might change again in ten years.”
Thriving in the business world
That unique perspective – starting in the restaurant industry at such a young age, working in a city hit hard by the economic woes of Detroit, and finally finding a home in Ann Arbor – has helped Lelcaj build Savco Hospitalities into a thriving community.
“I think Ann Arbor needed a lot of things when I got here. I really immersed myself in the community when I first came here. I didn’t know how long I was going to stay here, but it was just a really feel-good place,” said Lelacj. “I’d lived in four different countries, grew up in New York City, went to college in Toronto, but I just really wanted to get to know the town. There is so much opportunity, and it may not be in restaurants. That’s why I’ve pursued retail and production as well.”
Dipping a toe into so many different areas with a measure of success in each of them is quite the feat, attributed to the unique cultural background Lelcaj has to stake her place as a woman in the business world.
“People ask me all the time what it’s like to be a woman in business, and I still don’t really have a good answer for that. I’ve always just thought of myself as a person in business,” said Lelcaj. “From my cultural background – I’m Albanian – women were married off at like 16, 17, 18 years old. One of the reasons I really dove into my career and went to college – which was really unusual for Albanian women – is that I wanted to be outside of the norm. I didn’t want to get stuck in that lifestyle.
“So when I broke through those cultural barriers, the businesses barriers I broke through didn’t seem as big of a deal.”
Instead of holding her back from a life traveling the world and building her own business empire, Lelcaj believes that she was able to turn her heritage and cultural upbringing into an advantage.
“Hospitality is the hallmark of our culture. Google anything about Albania, and the one thing that’s going to come up is hospitality, and women play those hospitable roles in our culture. So it can be very feminine-friendly.”
Advice for future generations
When it comes to being a leading female figure within the community, Lelcaj acknowledges that there are still many challenges women face in the industry, but that things are headed in the right direction.
“There are more women leaving this business than getting into this business. The hours are long, and it’s physically demanding,” said Lecaj. “But I think things are changing, and there are so many women doing amazing things within the industry, we’re really headed in the right direction. I love being a part of it because when I’m doing things in business, I do want to inspire young women. I think being a woman is such an amazing thing. It’s power.”
“Whether you think you can, or you think you’re can’t, you’re right. Anyone can do this. The question isn’t if you’re going to have obstacles, you are going to have obstacles,” said Lecaj. “The question is, how do you handle those obstacles?
“I believe that’s how I built my company. A little bit of ignorance. You go in, you think you can do it, and people may be laughing, but you do it anyway.”