Talking about Mina's Bakery & Café with owner Mina Banjac
1. Tell us about Mina's Bakery & Café.
Mina’s Bakery is a family owned and operated European style bakery. Our cakes and pastries hail from various countries around Europe (from Russia to Greece to Hungary to Croatia) - there are so many different types of flavors and cakes to try. Our emphasis is on taste and quality, with no preservatives or artificial ingredients used. The bakery offers one of a kind sweets and not to mention delicious hand crafted sandwiches, just be sure to save room for dessert!
2. What makes Mina's special?
Everything is handmade by myself, Mina, from scratch. Every cake uses at least one imported ingredient to give it a true European feel. From sour cherries to Milka chocolate to poppy seeds to apricot and plum jams, there is something special in all the sweets that make them delicious and unlike anything most people have ever seen!
3. How is a European style bakery different from other types of bakeries?
European cakes differ from each other quite a bit. Every time you have a different cake you have a different experience. Every cake has its own thing going on. What is similar with various European style cakes is that they're not too sweet or too heavy. For example, Medovic, which is a huge cake, maybe 10 or 11 pounds, uses only 1 stick of butter for the whole cake. For puddings I use imported varieties that come without sugar. That lets me control the amount of sugar to use. Most of my cakes have at least one imported ingredient.
…what types of imported ingredients do you use?
For example, I don't use vanilla extract, I use vanilla sugar in almost all the cakes. I use imported puddings too. For whipping cream I use imported whipping creams that come in chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavors, because they're not too sweet. I use German milk chocolate for my Milka Roll. For my Moskva Cake I use imported sour cherries because I can't even find sour cherries here.
…is the level of sweetness the thing that mostly differentiates European cakes?
Yes, mostly that. They're not as sweet as cakes made in America.
4. What sort of food do you serve for lunch?
For lunch we offer Paninis and a Bosnian dish called Pita (homemade dough that has been stretched and filled with meat, cheese, or spinach and cheese). Pitas are a must try for food junkies - it was voted one of the top 10 foods around the world even!
Our main focus is our cakes though, which are all made in house and from scratch.
5. Where do your recipes come from?
Many of my recipes have been passed down to me. Baking has always been a passion of mine and many of my family members.
I brought some recipes with me. I have some notebooks that are really old. And I'm always adjusting and trying to improve my recipes.
A few recipes I’ve made up along the way as I go, combining ingredients I think taste well and experimenting.
I’ve even had customers bring me their family recipes that they’d like me to make for them which has been a fun and flattering way to discover even more types of cakes! The selection changes daily so there is always something new.
6. Where did you learn to bake?
I never went to culinary school. For my whole life I've worked at banks, even in Bosnia.
My grandmother, who lived with us, was a great baker and a great cook. I think I got a gene from her.
I did a lot of baking at home and whenever I was baking I got lost in time. Even if I spent hours baking I never got tired of it. It's something I really enjoy the most.
At the banks I had good jobs. The banks are good employers. You feel safe in your job and when you work for 8 hours you get paid for 8 hours, whereas here I never know if I'll get paid or not. Even though I always had really good jobs I didn't have a passion for it. I didn't really enjoy it as much as I did with baking, which is the task I enjoy the most. For example, when I worked at the bank I would start out full of energy and by the afternoon I'd be looking at the clock waiting for 5 o'clock to leave. When I'm here at the store baking I don't look at the clock. Sometimes I'm even here to midnight baking or I come in really early and I never look at the time.
…is that still the case, now that you're baking as a job and not a hobby?
Yes it is. There are so many things I have to do here besides baking and it's the baking that lets me relax and when I feel good. When I get to the baking I feel the best.
7. What are your top 3 recommendations for someone new to Mina's?
- Medovik - a Russian honey and sour cream 10 layer cake
- Chocolate Pastry - with Eurocreem (similar to Nutella)
- Krempita - homemade egg custard with puff pastry
8. What can you recommend for someone who wants to try something a little different?
All of the cakes are different than your average vanilla cake with buttercream. Each cake is unique on its own not only in taste but ingredients, origin and design. We guarantee you can’t find something like this anywhere else. Try the Moskva, a pineapple and sour cherry cake or Boem, hazelnut cake and cream, or the simple dry tea cookies, filled with plum and apricot jams. There are many, many options for someone looking for something different.
9. What's the most popular dish?
Krempita - very simple and light yet decadent enough to satisfy your sweet tooth, although we're sure you’ll find yourself craving more (pictured below).
10. What's your favorite dish?
I love the baklava. You can’t go wrong with the traditional Greek walnut delight!
11. Can you tell us about the dry goods you carry?
A lot of things we carry are what I use in my baking. Sour cherries, jams and Milka chocolate for example. Then I have a few extra items that I think will be interesting. For example I carry fig jam, preserves and little chocolate cookies from Poland that contain apple or plum fillings. The other thing I sell a lot of is a chicken spread that is very popular with Bosnians. The coffee too is popular because it's not sold in stores here. I have coffee from the Balkan areas - Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia - as well as coffee from Italy and Germany.
Many of our customers are European, or Americans who have lived or traveled in Europe.
12. What attracted you to your San Jose store location?
There were other complementary stores in the area, such as Coffee Roasters. When I called around this location was also recommended to me by others.
I thought this location was close enough to attract European immigrants who live in the Southside and Baymeadows areas while also being in an area that would allow me to introduce my baking to an American audience. My cakes are also very reasonably priced. I thought that was necessary in this economy, especially because cakes aren't a necessity. I didn't want to have really expensive desserts. This neighborhood is a middle class area and I thought it would be receptive to my cakes if they were priced right.
This space is also on San Jose, which is a pretty busy street.
13. Can you tell us about your background?
My name is Nermina Banjac. I was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and moved to the US in 1995. I’ve spent most of my time here working for various banks but have always missed the European style of bakeries, with rows of various cakes and pastries. I decided a year ago now that it was time to bring that to Jacksonville. After years of encouragement to sell my cakes from friends and family who tried them I realized the time was now or never to open a bakery so I could do just that. In July of 2011 I opened Mina’s Bakery where I do all of the baking from these recipes that I love.
14. Do you get help?
I have someone who helps at the front. My husband also comes after work and on the weekends to help. My kitchen is very small and if I have someone baking I will still have to be there, supervising and showing them what to do. Baking is something you can learn, but you also need a bit of a natural gift for it. I realized that even if I have someone helping me to bake, I still need to be in the kitchen with them. I'm not in a position yet to afford employees in the kitchen and the front. I realized it's better if I do the baking and get some help with the front. At some point that may change. If you start a business, especially in this economy, it's not easy.
This whole first year has been a big learning experience.
…what have you learned in your first year?
I've been learning how to use time, money and everything else.
I now realize how courageous it was to leave the bank and open a business with no experience at all. Having passion isn't enough. You have to know how to deal with your suppliers, vendors and customers. I was focused on the cakes but you also need to understand things like how to handle merchant accounting to accept credit cards, and business accounting. I never had experience with this before, so it was a big learning curve. Now I know better how to do things faster.
Also, with employees, I've tried different things until I realized that it works best when I do the baking and have help up front.
We also started selling at the Riverside Arts Market in July. That's a whole new learning experience. Their preferences aren't the same as at the store.
15. Tell us about the Riverside Arts Market.
We have a booth that we pay for on Saturdays. I stay at the store on Fridays, baking until about midnight. I then come in early on Saturday to pack things up. My husband works the market, handling the sales.
…how is it working for you?
It's doing well. But it's taken time. At first I was sending cakes but realized that pastries and cookies are better sellers. I now have items at the market, like Spanakopita that I don't have as often at the store - I make them more just for the market. It's like two different things going on.
It's also good exposure for us. People who discover us at the Market will often visit us at the store.
16. What have been some of your biggest surprises / challenges?
The biggest challenge has been learning how to deal with suppliers - I've never really negotiated before, but I'm learning that just about everything is negotiable and that's a skill you really need in business.
For surprises I'd say we have so many delicious and unique European cakes and desserts that I'm sometimes surprised when people look everything over and buy a cookie. Some people have favorites they stick with and other people always want something new and different. I'm always trying to add new cakes. I have some recipes I haven't used yet, but am planning to.
17. You have a 95% rating on Urbanspoon with 182 votes and a perfect 5 star rating on Yelp. That's amazing. It's not easy to get such ratings. Can you share your thoughts on why you think your bakery has gotten such a positive response in only a year?
I don't know, really. I'm obviously happy about that. I think people who are enthusiastic about food do the reviews. When they come in and find cakes they can't find anywhere else - Krempita and Medovic, for example - they feel they need to say something about it online.
I have lots of customers who come every week - even two or three times a week. They are probably the ones who are the most enthusiastic and want to share what they've discovered.
18. What's next for Mina's?
The store and the Farmer's Market are keeping me really busy. I'll keep on learning and improving. I still have a lot that I haven't been able to make yet. I will focus on improving and adding new things.
19. Anything else you'd like to add?
My hope with the bakery is that people come in and try something new. Cakes don’t have to be too sweet or use frosting or come from a box to be simply delicious. Our motto is “let your taste buds explore” and I believe with the uniqueness in the pastries people will enjoy doing just that here.