Philly cheesesteak with a touch of family love: Yapi opens on Vandeventer


(Abby Campbell / The University News)

In this corner of Midtown, located right across from The Standard Apartments, and just before Ikea, a family-owned business, Yapi, has recently opened a new location, serving warm, fresh subs and sandwiches.

 Yapi Mediterranean Subs and Sandwiches was originally established by Armin and Lisa Grozdanic in South Hampton six years ago, but they had their new grand opening on Oct. 22, 2022. 

   “I kept seeing it during Ramadan, passing by, going to the West Pine mosque. I went home and I told my husband about it. I thought this could be a great location for the masjid, for the SLU students and because the area is really up and coming. We basically decided to take the chance. It’s a lot further north than what we’re used to, especially because our family is from South City, but it was a great choice. I think that the business will definitely pick up more and more. We’ve been doing great since we got here. All the SLU students in the neighborhood have been very, very welcoming,” Lisa Grozdanic said. 

   Armin Grozdanic, who moved here from Bosnia in 1996, said that the inspiration for the restaurant was to serve American-Bosnian Food that is “halal,” “food considered permissible under Islamic guidelines.”

   “When you go to a halal restaurant, generally, it’s more ethnic food. It’s more of your rice and meat. Just because we only eat halal, doesn’t mean we have to eat rice and meat every day. Why can’t we have a cheeseburger? Why can’t we have Philly cheesesteak or loaded fries? We can have that stuff too, we just make sure that we make it halal—that was our purpose,” Lisa said.

  Despite their dedication to Yapi’s restaurant over the years, owning a restaurant was not always part of the Grozdanic family’s plan. In a heartwarming turn of events, Yapi was born seven years ago.

   “At the time, my husband was laid off from his job and that’s when I started working for the Islamic Foundation. We would go and feed the unhoused community every Friday night. My husband would do all the cooking for the unhoused population, and a couple of brothers were like: ‘This is your opportunity, Mashallah, you’re a really good cook. Why don’t you open a restaurant?’ These brothers really helped us financially to open the restaurant, and I told my husband, ‘This is a chance of a lifetime. Nobody offers that help,’” Lisa said. 

   “That’s the original story of how Yapi’s opened—basically from us feeding the unhoused population. So throughout the years, we’ve always kept that tradition to where we feed the unhoused at least once or twice a month.”

   Lisa and Armin are passionate about charity work. In addition to managing her restaurant, Lisa works at Bait-ul-mal, a community facility that collects and distributes donated items to those in need.

   “I have worked for Islamic Foundation for seven years. I’ve owned the restaurant for six years. I just flip-flop every day, back and forth. Starting from the restaurant, then the office, then back to the restaurant, and I’m pretty much used to 16-hour work days.”

   The restaurant is open from 6-9 a.m for take-and-go breakfast, and then from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. for lunch and dinner. 

    “I always have more than one change of clothes with me everywhere I go and I always have lots of baggage,” Lisa said.

   A common question Lisa and Armin receive is how they named the restaurant.

    “We originally wanted Quality Subs and Sandwiches. It was already taken when we tried to claim it. My husband started Googling “quality” in different languages, and “Yapi’s” is a meaning of “quality” in Turkish. So we just acquired it from Google Translate. When he asked me, ‘what do you think about it?’ I thought, ‘it’s not your native language,’ because he’s originally from Bosnia, ‘but it’s super catchy,’ and it just kind of stuck with all of us,” Lisa said. 

   Jamie Justis, Lisa’s sister, is also a core part of Yapi’s team. She said she mainly takes care of the front of the restaurant, and before they opened, was a taste tester. ​​

   “I could not be more proud of my family. I like the fact they make decisions for the restaurant as a family. We discuss all aspects of the business, and we work as one team instead of individuals,” Justis said.

   Being a Muslim family that observes the month of Ramadan, Lisa, Armin and Jamie refrain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset for 30 days. They break their fast with a meal called “iftar,” an Arabic word referring to “the evening meal for breaking fast during Ramadan.” During Ramadan, Yapi’s works to provide iftars to those in need and last year they made roughly 1,700 meals. 

   “We’re providing meals for people that can’t get out of their homes or for single parents that are working second and third shifts that still have younger children at home. Every night before maghrib (sunset), we would make sure that the food is delivered,” Lisa said. “It’s all sponsored through the community. Somebody would call and say ‘I want to sponsor X amount of dollars, and if there’s anything left over, buy them something extra.’As tiring as it is, it’s so rewarding. That’s our favorite time of year.”

   Lisa and Armin share a vision of expanding the restaurant and potentially opening another location outside of St. Louis.                         

   “Opening the restaurant and going into the restaurant, I never wanted to become rich. I want to send my son to college without having any worries and be able to live comfortably. Me, my son, my husband, my sister—It has been just the four of us till we moved over here. My son passed away at the end of January 2020, then COVID turned around and hit. I’ll grieve him for the rest of my life, but all of that going on at one time, being able to survive as a business person shows you that this was written for us,” Lisa said. “It’s hard to make a dollar in the restaurant business. It’s a lot of hard work and I can honestly say I put my blood, sweat and tears into this place.”

   One of the unique features of Yapi’s environment is that the dining room walls are adorned with flags from countries all around the world.

   “Our family has always been very international. We have friends from all over the place who have become like family to us. We started out with the Bosnian flag and the American flag and the Filipino flag, my father is originally from the Philippines. Then, it just kept growing. Our customers would come in and they would bring their flags, and that’s really how we got all of our flags. We kept it up because it’s very knowledgeable for children and for adults.” Lisa said. 

   Having met several SLU students at the restaurant, Armin and Lisa say they are pleased with the new location.

   “Thank you to SLU for welcoming us to the neighborhood with open arms,” Armin said.