Pekara-simple and clean!

Pekara-simple and clean!

Dining: Pekara-simple and clean!

Pekara-simple and clean!

Pekara-simple and clean!

The word Pekara literally means bakery in the Serbian language.

Story: Bridget Broihahn

Photos: Rick Danzl

The word Pekara literally means bakery in the Serbian language.

Plus, it’s actually pronounced: Peck-uh-rah in Serbian.

No matter how it’s pronounced Ruzica “Seka” Cuk cares that the products at Pekara are simple, clean, real and delicious.

Seka is the owner of Pekara Bakery & Bistro, located at 116 North Neil Street in the heart of Champaign for ten years. It is open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“Every single piece of our baked goods has to be perfect, because that one piece goes to one person. I want them to enjoy that one, perfect piece,” she said from Pekara Bakery & Bistro. Champaign-Urbana residents must agree, because Pekara has won the title of Best Bakery in C-U since 2008.

Seka stopped and greeted customers as she spoke. Her manner is friendly and her demeanor is as warm as the bread that is made every day at the Pekara Bakehouse, just a few blocks away from the Bakery & Bistro. The Bakehouse has over 6,000 square feet of working space, with three separate oven units. The first is the deck oven with four stone decks. It makes nice crust, because of the stone and the steam, according to Seka.  There is the convection oven which circulates air while the confections are baking.  Lastly, there is the walk-in oven that rotates, and bakes pullman style. The pullman loaf is sometimes called the sandwich loaf, and baked in a long, narrow-lidded pan.

The Bakehouse hasn’t always been there, however. It actually opened in 2008. Before that, everything was baked at the Bistro on Neil Street.

“We would have to get here very, very early in the morning to get things started back before the Bakehouse,” Seka said. “We have come a long way.”

In 1993 Seka and Dragan Cuk came to the United States, with little daughter Mila in tow.  The bakery boss knew that things would be different here, but she soon discovered that the bread was not of the quality she was used to in Serbia.

Then Mila grew and eventually came to the University of Illinois. Her parents came to Champaign, too. When Seka came to Champaign-Urbana, she knew that there was a real need in the community for good, healthy bread.

“Yes, Seka says that in Serbia there are those shops that just make a community,” Elizabeth Courtney said from Pekara Bakehouse. “They are: cobblers, tailors and bakers. Seka didn’t see any bakeries here in Champaign.”

Courtney is the office manager for the company.

So, Seka and her husband bought the bistro. They just knew it was a good idea. “It was a dump, though. We had to put a lot of work into it. I knew Champaign needed a good bakery, though” Seka said of her bakery that opened in 2005. She said that when they put ads in the News-Gazette for a baker it was a big shock.

“I thought we would get all these people in to interview for the job, but we didn’t. There were no bakers in the area,” she said. “So, I had to learn it for myself. I wasn’t a baker. My background was in Economics. I actually worked for a pharmaceutical company at the time.”

So, they opened.  And Seka learned how to bake bread.

“There are no big secrets. We start with simple ingredients. We babysit our dough,” she said. “It takes about 48 hours to complete a loaf of bread. Plus, we go for 80 percent pure water hydration and a small amount of yeast. We fold the dough every two hours. We also refrigerate the dough.”

Seka said that they have to know the dough and how the humidity will affect it.

“It takes time and caring, plus knowledge to make good bread,” she said.

Courtney stood at her desk and showed two loaves of bread: one from the grocery store, a commonly known bread, and the other a loaf of Pekara bread.

“See the difference? Our loaf has four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. The other has a list that is pretty long,” she said. Seka agreed.

“Our bread has untouched flour-not bleached or bromated- good water, salt and very, very little yeast,” she said.  Pekara Bakery & Bistro manager, Allie Nisley said that their labels are very easy to read.

“It’s very simple.  And water-pure water- is one of our first ingredients,” she said. Courtney looked at the other bread’s labels.

“The comparison is unbelievable. Their ingredients have ingredients,” she said.

Courtney said it’s always fun to come to work at the Bakehouse.

“We have somebody here 24 hours a day,” she said. “Besides the Bistro we have to get product ready for seven or eight farmer’s markets each week.  Two are in St. Louis, so we have a little ways to travel, too.”

Seka said that it hasn’t always been pleasant. “In 2008 we almost went under,” she said. Neil Street was closed for construction for three months. “We focused on the product. Let us just survive,” she said. “We had to do that in Serbia.” At that time, even foot traffic by the Bistro was sparse. “I just won’t give up,” Seka said. “Ever.”
Nisley is a former bartender. She joined Pekara in 2013. She even owned her own business in her early twenties, so she knows the day-to-day issues one’s own business can present.

“Seka just wanted good bread. She loves her job. When I came on she was putting in a minimum of 50 hours a week. It’s taken us a little time to get where we want to be. We have really good people and I love my job,” she said.

Nisley said the quality of their products makes her proud to be the Bistro manager. “Seka makes it easy. She’s supportive and nurturing. She’s invested and she trusts me immensely,” she said. “That helps me do my job. It makes me want to do my best.” Danielle Mason, one of the baristas at Pekara served a customer.  She had a big smile on her face. “I love it here,” she said. “I love seeing the regulars, and the friendly atmosphere.” Nisley agreed.

“I’m constantly passing out cookies. They’re better than business cards,” she said. For more information go to: or call 217-359-4500.