Co-founders Uliks Fehmiuand and Bane Stamenkovic. (Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)

How a Group of Friends Escaped War in Yugoslavia, Found Freedom in America, and Opened Award-Winning Bakery

Despite war and chaos, a group of friends made it to America and unexpectedly achieved success through baking.

Can friendship survive a war, migration to another country, and life’s ups and downs? One group of friends from former Yugoslavia has demonstrated that a strong friendship bond can overcome any tribulation.

There’s Uliks Fehmiu, an Albanian who loves acting and still participates in film projects in Serbian and Bosnian; Bane Stamenkovic, whom Mr. Fehmiu first met when he was 7, then going through high school and later mandatory military service together; Igor Ivanovic, who played a pivotal role in Pain d’Avignon’s founding but later left to start his own bakery; and Vojin Vujosevic, who was always the cool kid in the group.

Pain d’Avignon was among the first in the Northeast to offer artisanal bread. (Ed Anderson)

They all eventually made their way to New York to escape getting drafted into the war and, incidentally, fell into the world of baking. Together, they formed Pain d’Avignon, a boutique wholesale bakery for high-end restaurants and hotels in New York. In 2009, the bakery expanded to offer their selections to ordinary New Yorkers via cafes, opening four retail stores alongside pop-ups within hotels across the city.

The path to success wasn’t easy, but every step was buoyed by the knowledge that there was no turning back to the violence and hatred back home. Whatever hardships they would go through, they would go through them together as friends.

“Our story can never be only about the bread and its technical aspect, because to us, it represents this odyssey, this journey, this element of survival, this moment of adaptation … into a new country, new environment,” said Mr. Fehmiu in an interview.

A Friendship Forged

Growing up in Yugoslavia before the Yugoslav Wars broke up the Balkan Peninsula, the group of friends lived in a place not unlike New York: Different cultures and religions intersected in a region bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania. “It’s where Austro-Hungarian and Oriental architecture clash beautifully. Where one could ski in the Alps in the morning and swim in the Adriatic that afternoon. Where, in the same pastry shop, one could find baklava by way of Turkey or Greece and Sachertorte compliments of the Viennese,” wrote Mr. Fehmiu in the bakery’s 2022 cookbook, “The Pain d’Avignon Baking Book.” It was an idyllic time filled with beautiful memories for the four childhood friends.

(L to R) Cofounders Tole Zurovac, Mr. Stamenkovic, and Mr. Fehmiu, with Mr. Fehmiu’s wife, Snezana Bogdanovic. (Ed Anderson)

When, in the late 1980s, tensions ran high and war seemed imminent, the friends each found ways to escape the draft. Mr. Ivanovic became the reason they ended up in baking. After he got discharged from mandatory military service, he headed straight to New York. While there, he hung out with fellow Serbs, some of whom worked for Eli Zabar, a popular bakery and supermarket in the city. He soon found a job delivering bread at Eli’s.

Mr. Stamenkovic joined his family in New York (his father was a textile executive and moved there for business) as soon as he finished military service, while Mr. Vujosevic returned to America for studies at the persuasion of his parents, who saw an increasingly volatile situation back home and wanted him to stay away. For several years, Mr. Fehmiu was the only one remaining in Belgrade, hoping to develop his acting career. But by spring 1992, things came to a head. The military police came looking for him. With his mother’s warning, he was able to stay at a friend’s house and later flee to Macedonia. From there, he made his way to New York.

(This is a short preview of a story from the Nov. Issue, Volume 3.)