BY JEANETTE HURT | PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Sisters and business partners Marija and Vesna Madunic own Gracious Events, Wauwatosa’s Firefly and their newest venture, Kindred restaurant on KK. The two savvy women sat down at a just-arrived table at Kindred, as furniture and final design touches were being installed, to talk about family and food and sharing a space with Kinn, Bay View’s brand-new, eight-room micro-hotel.
Tell us about Kindred.
Marija: The name, “Kindred,” encompasses what it is about. We have a beautiful, communal table — a style of dining that is popular in Chicago. It’s about staying and enjoying a meal together.
Vesna: I want people to see and experience the energy and the warmth here and to enjoy the food and the beauty of the space. We are drawing from local inspirations and making it a fun gathering spot for cocktails and music. It is about creating special memories for people.
How did you end up in Bay View?
Marija: We (catered) the wedding of (hotel) owner Charles Bailey, and we started talking in March of last year.
Vesna: This is such a dream to be in Bay View. We want to capture the vibe of this area. And we work with people who share our vision, including Nathan Rader, our chef, who is from Philadelphia and beyond.
Marija: Nathan has worked in the Caribbean and then in Jackson Hole, Wyo. I’m just glad he landed here.
Vesna: What was important to us was not to torture the food, but to let the beauty of good ingredients come through and play together. It’s simplicity — things like gnocchi made with parsnips instead of potatoes, then finished with a simple brown butter sauce and fresh sage breadcrumbs. You get the different textures and flavors. It’s familiar but a little bit different. Like our roasted cauliflower, which is served over sunchoke puree and with crunchy beans, which also has textures and flavors coming together.
Will you be doing events with the hotel or for guests of the hotel?
Vesna: The lower level is being developed, and it will eventually allow us to host larger events and weddings for up to 120 people. There’s a lot of flexibility. The beauty of the space is they have a full kitchen, as well as guest rooms. You can get room service, and we can bring it to you, but you could also come to the restaurant and enjoy it.
What is it like working with your sister?
Marija: We know the strengths we each have and what we can accomplish together. I think the beauty is there’s 100 percent honesty.
Vesna: There’s so much benefit to working with each other. I couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone else. There’s a complete understanding and a wonderful balance of our personalities in work. We have a beautiful system of checks and balances between us. We are each other’s best sounding boards.
Do you get together on your days off?
Marija: We have a very close family. Our children are cousins and friends, and we get together on the weekends. Our mother is an
amazing cook, and her spaghetti and meatballs and sarma and plum dumplings are amazing. The days we get to eat her cooking, we are all just thrilled.
Vesna: Our mother taught us to do things with passion and pride, and I think that’s why we’re still here — after 21 years together, we still love working with each client.
How did you end up purchasing Gracious in 1995?
Marija: Vesna worked first at Gracious during college, and then I started and worked there. When I graduated from Marquette (University) in business and Vesna moved back to Milwaukee, Grace wanted to sell, and we decided to (run the business) together. It wasn’t a full events company with the floral, décor and design that it is now.
Vesna: We had a vision of what events could be in Milwaukee. Grace (Smock) was a female pioneer in the 1950s, who owned her own business. We did everything, and we learned a lot.
How did you move from catering and events to opening restaurants?
Vesna: We opened Bjonda in 2003 (which is now Firefly). We had always had a dream of having a restaurant.
Marija: When we do an event, we create a beautiful space and host an amazing event, but the next day, it’s all gone. We wanted to create our own space, and that’s when the wheels started turning.
Vesna: We like doing events and running a restaurant. We can test things out in catering, for example, and there’s so much balance and benefit to doing both. We love seeing our clients beyond pleased — that feeling that you created something special.