DJ Sulisufay, center, bought Jessi’s Restaurant 20 years ago. He passed away earlier this year, but his wife, Roza, and son, Jason, still run the restaurant.
PINELLAS PARK – Twenty years ago, DJ Sulisufay took over the then-struggling Jessi’s Restaurant, 8331 66th St. N.
It didn’t take long for him to turn the restaurant into a Pinellas Park mainstay offering home-cooked comfort food with a European flair.
Though DJ passed away in March, his son, Jason Sulisufay, has taken over the reins as manager and part-owner. His goal is to continue his family’s legacy and foster a relationship with the local community.
The restaurant’s success is “the American Dream come true,” Jason said.
His father grew up very poor in communist Albania. In 1961, at 16, he decided to escape.
He found his way to Yugoslavia, but was treated “like a second-class citizen,” said his son. “He had special permission to go to school, but he wasn’t totally free.”
So DJ attempted another escape. This time, though, he was caught at the Austria-Hungary border and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
He made one final – and successful - attempt to escape communist rule while imprisoned. While washing windows, he was able to escape his guard. He traveled the countryside, eating unripe fruit, drinking water from rivers and sneaking onto trains.
Finally, he made it to Trieste, Italy, where he stayed in a refugee camp for nearly two years. The Geneva Convention allowed him to choose a country for relocation, Jason said. His father chose the United States, and arrived in New York City with a one-night hotel stay and $5 in his pocket.
DJ slept on subways and took dishwasher jobs at restaurants. Eventually, he worked his way up – dishwasher to server to restaurant manager. He was eventually hired as a restaurant executive by Restaurant Associates. In this role, he managed iconic New York City restaurants such as the Top of the World at the World Trade Center, Mamma Leone’s and Zoom Zoom.
By the time he moved to Florida he had left the restaurant business. He owned a T-shirt and printing business in Pinellas Park called Design Tech.
When communism fell in Albania, he traveled to visit his family for the first time in forty years. He also met his future wife, Roza, on these visits. Eventually, she joined him in Pinellas Park and Jason was born.
DJ purchased Jessi’s Restaurant from a family friend who had named it after his wife.
Jason grew up at the restaurant.
“I never had a babysitter,” he said. “I was running around here as just a little guy. By the time I was in kindergarten I knew math just from helping out.”
As a teen, he worked for his parents in any role they needed help – as a server, busboy, cashier. He took the job so seriously that at 13 he became state-certified in food management and safety.
After graduating from Seminole High School, Jason began taking business classes at St. Petersburg College. But when his father fell ill in 2013, he decided to focus more on the restaurant. He still plans to go back to college down the road.
“I tackled the restaurant head on,” he said.
As manager of Jessi’s Restaurant, he’s led it through a rebranding and extensive remodeling.
“We’ve always been Jessi’s family restaurant, but when you’ve been around 20 years, you need to keep up with the times, keep up with people’s eating habits,” Jason said.
The newest version of the menu offers more gluten-free and heart-healthy items. Down the road, he’d like to offer more vegetarian and vegan dishes as well.
His mother, Roza, continues to work with him daily and helps him make decisions regarding the restaurant’s future. During the recent remodeling, which included a landscaping project and parking lot renovation, she facilitated the addition of a mural and other artistic touches.
“After all these years, it still is truly a family restaurant,” Jason said.