Cultural heritage

Family stories based on real events from the long history of the Gavrilović family.

Magical Meat Secrets from my Grandfather’s Shoebox

Coming from a city and country with no substantial industry of its own, Gavrilovic is a true wonder. The meat family business from Petrinja was completely up-to-par with world-class industries of the same sort in that day and age. One reason is the fact that Gavrilovic had been around since the 17th century; and if nothing else, shared the record for being amongst the first in the world in the meat trade. Gavrilovic is also a unique example of a family industry that continues to prosper from generation to generation.

Without hiding his pride, the present-day owner of the Gavrilovic Company, Gjuro III, praises his son and namesake, Gjuro Gavrilović IV, President of the Management Board of the Petrinja meat industry. “I appointed my son as General Director when he was 23 years old and I was very satisfied with his progress, although I never told him so. I literally yanked him out of university where he was studying Economics in Split and positioned him on the highest level in the Company’s management. My son justified my decision ten-fold. We are now in the 10th generation of Gavrilović?s, the youngest being my grandson who we celebrate with the name Gabriel.”

It is interesting to note that the owner’s wife – herself a joint owner and Management Board Member, stems from the Winkelhofer family of meat-masters in Vienna. In the 60s, when they first met, young Gjuro did not know this appealing fact. Their relationship got off to a speedy start and the young couple began living together the very next day. The fact that Gjuro’s wife was also from a meat-master family, was something Gjuro was particularly proud of, and states: “…My wife, Greta, stems from a Viennese family with a long history in the meat trade. The last surviving meat master from her family was Greta’s own father, who learned the meat trade, but then turned to his studies and to his music.”

Family tradition was a very important asset to Gavrilović’s life and work. His father was politically persecuted by the Communist regime and sentenced to life imprisonment. Sixteen-year-old Gjuro and his father thus escaped to Austria to avoid imprisonment and spent eight years there as refugees. Young Gjuro became a citizen of Austria retaining his right of abode indefinitely. At the time when Gjuro and his father left Zagreb, the city was an enormous construction site. Zagreb was beginning to look like a real metropolitan city. Mayor Veco Holjevac relocated the Zagreb Fair from its previous location in Savska Street (later becoming the Students’ Centre) to its new location across the Sava River. New neighbourhoods across the River were being built; namely, Savski Gaj and Trnsko. The foundations were laid for the new Freedom Bridge across the Sava River. The Trnjanska river raft and the old-fashioned King’s Boat, where one had to pay to enter the city, were now both ready for their final sail across the river and their withdrawal into history. The stately City Hall building in the Trnje neighbourhood, as envisaged by architect Kazimir Oštrogović, was nearly complete.

However, the most attention was given to the first high-rise in town. This was the one at the beginning of Ilica Street. Heads of local street-folk were turned upward, looking high at the sixteenth floor which was about to be completed. It was the tallest building in Zagreb at the time. Before its construction, the highest building was the nine-storey edifice at the corner of Masarykova and Gundulićeva Street. With this new sixteen-storey high-rise, people in the city pictured themselves as if in a Hollywood movie scene set in America, with skyscrapers encircling the centre of town. The horse-pulled carriage was no longer in use in the centre of town because the streets around the main Republic Square were busy with cars – mainly Italian Fiats and Russian Ladas. One could see an occasional VW DKW and Mercedes; TMZ and Tomos Scooters and imported Vespas or our own home-made Pretis Lambrettas. On the main Republic Square, traffic was regulated by the whistle and baton of a popular traffic cop named Meho. Journalists wrote brief articles with bold print headlines in the newly-instigated Večernji Vjesnik (Evening Herald), the first post-war evening paper and the forerunner of today’s Večernjak (Evening News).

Although Gjuro was living in Vienna (Greta’s hometown) at that time, the couple met in Zagreb in the mid-1960s upon Gjuro’s return. How did Gjuro and Greta meet? Gjuro III explains: “…When I came back to Croatia after seven years of being a refugee in Austria, I registered at the Austrian Consulate in Zagreb. Soon after, I received an invitation to attend a feast in celebration of a public holiday and that is where I met Greta. I moved in with her the very next day. We married a year later. I was employed as Deputy Sales Attaché in the Office of the Chamber of Commerce for the Republic of Austria. During that time I was a student in my final year at the Faculty of Mining, Geology and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Zagreb. Given the lack of success for my studies, I quit school and never graduated.”

In 1991, Gjuro was given the opportunity to enter the family business and put to use the specific knowledge and talent inherited from his forefathers in the Gavrilovic family. He was additionally motivated by Greta’s Viennese family roots in the meat-making business. Greta’s father eventually abandoned the meat trade, ending the family tradition to pursue a career as a music teacher and opera singer. His daughter, Greta, adopted the trade once again, so to speak, when she married Gavrilović. Gavrilović explains: ‘’When we took over the Company in the 1990s, Greta hopped into the business with vigour and zest, as though she had being working the trade all her life. I didn’t need to show her anything. Today she is the Board Member in charge of meat procurement, which is the most important segment of our business.”

Gjuro purchased Gavrilović in 1991 when the Company went bankrupt and was under siege in the war of aggression in Croatia. However, he begins working at the factory only after Operation Oluja (Storm) and the city’s liberation in 1995. He spent his first days at the Company with his old friend and expert associate, Branimir Gjigas. Branimir vividly remembers those exciting and stirring days. “I was asked to visit the Salamsko Plant with Gjuro and reopen it together with him. Gjuro wanted us to go together, because neither he nor I knew the ways the Plant functioned. Although I made it clear that I was an economist, not a technologist, he still insisted that we go there together. At the Plant, we met with managers who, although perhaps lacking in the required knowledge of the chemistry and technology behind meat production, were driven by their instinct and experience. Naturally, it took a while for them to accept us as the experts and follow our professional instructions.”

“All of the knowledge the two of us had was packed away in an old shoebox. It was full of documents and notes from the factory’s history, left over from Gjuro’s father, Grandpa Gjuro. On one occasion when we were deciding how and when to begin, Gjuro took out an old rolled up centimetre-thick scroll and showed us some notes from the days when his father and, I think, colleague Sosić would come to the plant and write down the production process for the Zimska Salami. Sosić was an old technologist who learned the trade from the Italian meat masters. The descriptions found inside were quite interesting. We read details on the freezing of the meat for the Zimska, how the salami was filled, what the optimal temperatures were, how it was smoked, etc. I suggested that, despite what was written in the old notes, we try the process on our own, to see how it would work for us. There was an important detail regarding the transport of the salami: one should avoid transporting the salami through various hallways or rooms due to the oscillation in temperature. This change in temperature causes moisture to collect on the outer casing of the salami. Later in the smoking process the casing could not be smoked properly, because of the moisture. Wherever there was a drop of dampness, there remained a spot, and those spots could not be disinfected later, given that smoke acts as a disinfectant.”

“Despite everything, we still faced one large problem: the flow of air in the chambers. The salamis dried in chambers where machines from ceiling vents blew air downwards. In terms of the drying method, we had to know did the moisture collect at the air vents, or on the sides. We couldn’t come to an agreement with the workers on how to adjust the fan system. We tried to illustrate what we wanted them to do. We took an empty chamber and put 36 shelves for drying salamis in it. Then we took one hundred plain white candles and put them on the shelves. We lit the candles and left the chamber like that for about two hours. After that, we turned off the ventilation in the chamber, blew out the candles, and proceeded to measure our findings. The results were as follows: the greater the airflow, the quicker the candles burned. We concluded that the more air that blew, the more the wax burned and caused the wax to drip over the sides of the candle in an uneven manner. On the other hand, in the areas of the chamber where there was no airflow, the wax dripped normally, straight down the candle, in equal amounts on all sides. This is how we were able to explain to the men that their method simply wasn’t correct,” and Gjigas thus concludes his fascinating tale.

Regardless of how bleak and uninviting the first encounter with the family business in Petrinja was, the new owner, Gjuro Gavrilović III, was optimistic. He was aware that he was taking over a century-old family enterprise.“We procured the factory after Operation Oluja (Storm) in 1995, but it took two years to resume production. During this time we went through many hardships. Technologically, the factory was in bad condition and something would break down on a daily basis. It took us two years to come out of the red, financially-speaking, because when we took over the Company, it was literally without any capital of our own. When I finally began working there, four years after I purchased it, I was accused of paying too little. What everyone seems to forget is that at that time, 3.6 million German marks was a lot of money. Many people would tell me I was crazy, but I knew I was gaining my ancestral legacy through the purchase of the Company. What was left of that legacy during the 1990s was something I didn’t know at the time. I naturally did my best to sustain and protect the factory throughout the war. Even in occupied Petrinja, there were men guarding the factory, and I, in return, guarded their job positions.”

Only three years later, Gavrilović rises up from the ashes and blooms once again. Its owner, Gjuro Gavrilović, is pronounced businessman of the year. And so it continues to this day. Gavrilović products – from the massively popular Zimska, to their pates – are present and famous all across Europe and North America.