PALMETTO -- Next month will mark three years since Martin Perka opened the Crusader Cafe and, he said, it was a struggle in the beginning.
"But I must have done something right," said Perka, 39, who has worked in restaurants since coming to the United States 10 years ago from the Czech Republic.
"A lot of other restaurants around me have closed," he said, "but I feel proud I'm still here."
When he took over the tiny space from the previous tenant in the Crusader Building, 323 10th Ave. W., there was not a customer base.
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Perka said his unique menu and the quality of the food was what helped him bring in a regular breakfast and lunch crowd.
"It was all word-of-mouth because I couldn't afford to advertise," he said.
Then he started using coupons and now during the season he attracts returning snowbirds, along with workers from around the area who are his regulars.
"The summers have been the hardest," Perka said, "but the snowbirds have discovered me."
The lunch menu has an assortment of salads, sandwiches and daily specials, such as the "Ham-n-Cappacola Piadina" or the Grilled Red Beet Salad.
Having some menu items with an Eastern Europe flare is not the only reason his regulars come back -- it is also the close-knit community feel that has developed over time.
"It's like a big happy family," said Geraldine Lassiter, who is a paralegal for attorney James R. Chandler III, whose office is located in the Crusader Building.
"Everyone just seems friendlier," Lassiter said, "and we welcome everyone and they come back because of that."
Another regular, Patricia Kelly, said Perka's willingness to accommodate his customers also gets people to return to the restaurant.
"He caters to us," Kelly said. "He'll make something off menu if you're on a diet. He'll work with you."
Michelle McCuiston, who works in the Electra Salon in the building, said the Crusader Cafe is her favorite restaurant in Palmetto.
"The food is creative, healthy, and it's different,"
said McCuiston, who eats at the restaurant four times a week. "It's all made from fresh ingredients."
Perka attested to the family atmosphere by pointing to the counter full of plates with fresh tomatoes, avocados and bananas.
"My customers bring me fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens all the time," he said.
He said he has always had a passion for cooking since he was a young child.
"I would watch my grandmom in the kitchen," Perka said. "She had to cook for 13 kids."
He started as a dishwasher when he first arrived in the U.S.
"And I moved up step-by-step," he said. "I always had a dream of having a small restaurant and the opportunity to move into this place opened up."
The restaurant, which seats about 30, serves breakfast and lunch, and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Oct. 1 Perka will start serving breakfast at 6 a.m.
Perka runs the kitchen and his assistant, Melissa Dias, takes care of the cash register and books.
"It's basically just the two of us, he said.
"During the season I hire a couple of people to work part time."
Perka showcases his culinary skills during Sunday brunch from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
On the menu are interesting items such as Bavarian Bratwurst or Czech Toast.
"I try to bring dishes from my part of Europe," Perka said.