Whilst a large number of Croatians are leaving the country in search for more opportunities abroad, there has been a steady stream of people, especially from the diaspora, over the last few years moving to Croatia to take a chance.
One of those is 42-year-old Ćiro Sabljić. Born in Germany to parents from the village of Sabljici near Imotski in the Dalmatian Hinterland, Ćiro took the plunge three years ago and moved to Split to follow his dream and opened the cafè, hostel & concept store Ćiri Biri Bela and restaurant and cooking school Cucina Mare.
Cooking has been a passion of Ćiro’s ever since he was a kid and at an early age he knew that one day he would be a chef.
“My love for cooking was sparked as a child, when my grandmother used to teach me how to cook. After three years of professional training in a five-star hotel in Germany when I was just 16 years old, I went on to have a 25-year career in the industry, including 20 years as a chef in renowned hotels and restaurants in Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. I recently had great success with my own restaurant and cooking classes in Darmstadt, Germany for many years. It was on 1st place on TripAdvisor as the best restaurant in town,” Ćiro explained.
After spending every summer of his life in Croatia and a big love for the country, Ćiro wanted to make the move permanently.
“I returned three years ago to Croatia. I sold my restaurant & cooking school in Darmstadt and looked for the perfect location in Split to realise the same concept as I was successful in Germany with. Finally I found a typical Dalmatian stone house in the old town of Split, in one of the small streets. The house was so big that I even could realise two concepts,” Ćiro says, before explaining the concepts.
“I have two concepts in one house. On the first and second floor we have a small hostel for 16 people in total. In the front of the house we have a café where we serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. On the other side of the house we have our restaurant Cucina Mare – it’s a gourmet place full of atmosphere. In a romantic courtyard we have a beautiful terrace with citrus trees and show kitchen, where we offer also cooking classes. In general we use as much as possible products from our own farm, like potatoes, honey, fruits, eggs, cheese and pršut. All in one we try to be as much as possible fresh, organic and regional. As my wife is a vegetarian, we have a big variety of vegan and vegetarian dishes. We serve only fresh fish, seafood and other specialties in a traditional Croatian way as well as new interpretations. Together with my team, I cook plain, natural and simple food but high in quality – prepared in front of our guests’ eyes. My pots and pans serve seasonal and balanced dishes refined with fragrant herbs – hand-picked from our garden.”
Ćiro says that word of mouth and good reviews have been key to building up the business and 70% of their guests are returning customers.
“We also work with some very good agencies for booking classes and great hotels and apartment hosts for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Ćiro says that he had both negative and positive experiences moving and setting up his business in Croatia and that he was not immune to the nation’s notorious bureaucracy.
“Administration is very complicated and full of bureaucracy. Complicated laws, permits, various information you get. Without speaking Croatian and help from local people I would have gave up. The help of local people, neighbours and small businesses around us, who immediately cooperated with us and gave us a chance from the first days was great. And of course all the great people who work for us that are motivated, interested, diligent. I thank them for that.”
So what advice does he have for anybody thinking of coming to Croatia and starting up a business
“Have enough patience and money. The more people from abroad who come to invest in business, the more Croatia will improve for tourists. Diversity is very important and international investors of small businesses should create an association for exchanging, helping each other and also for providing information to new investors,” Ćiro says, before adding.
“I love this country, the food, the sea, my village, the nature… It’s a very small country with great people and high potential. I hope that more Croatians with international experience come back and bring up the standards, bring new ideas and improve the development of the country. What needs to change is the old school bureaucracy, the taxes are too high, especially VAT and the country should be open for new concepts and innovations – as Croatia is now one of the top destinations in Europe for tourists all over the world. Every place represents Croatia, so all of us need to do our best to show people all over the world how beautiful this country and the people here are.”
Ćiro also has some tips for visitors to Split.
“Of course visit us and one of our cooking classes, where we teach our guests about Croatian cuisine and history of Croatian food – because it’s much more than just pizza and ćevapi. As we are in the middle of the old town of Split there are many interesting things to see like Diocletian’s Palace, Marjan Hill, Riva and a performance at the Croatian National Theatre.”
Ciro hopes to keep improving his business so that his wife will join him and also move permanently to Croatia.