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Analysis & Opinion
18.06.09 Nostalgia For A Soviet Treat
By Dmitry Babich

Moscow has become notorious in recent years for its “restaurant craze” — the abundance of all sorts of eateries on every corner of the 13-million-strong metropolis. In Vladimir Putin’s eight “fat years” the upscale section of the business grew, as fancy “thematic” restaurants (serving ethnic or simply high-quality meals) squeezed out the more democratic versions of the old Russian public catering — the ones serving pelmeni (dumplings) or blini (pancakes).

However, in the winter of 2008 fast food made a sort of a comeback, with McDonald’s reporting excellent profit margins and Russian polling companies publishing alarming statistics on the performance of the more expensive restaurants. In March of 2009, the Comcon market and media research company published the results of its poll, which found that 58 percent of Muscovites and 50 percent of residents of other big cities had cut their budgets for eating out. The cuts resulted in 17 percent of Muscovites and 28 percent of other cities’ residents no longer going to restaurants.

At first glance, this picture is easily explained. Muscovites, being on average wealthier than the residents of other cities, made bigger cuts in their restaurant budgets. But since the jaded Muscovites had always been eating out more, the part of the population that never goes to restaurants stays smaller than in other cities. The real picture is much more nuanced, since more consumers are actually switching from one section of the restaurant market to another. “Before the crisis, our company grew by 40 percent each year,” said Mikhail Zelman, the owner of the Restaurant Professional Company (RPC) holding that operates several fashionable restaurant chains in Moscow. “This year, our growth is not going to be that substantial. Our aim now is to preserve what we have achieved.”

Zelman, a 30-year-old self-made man, is one of the top three or four most successful restaurant moguls in Moscow. Having graduated from high school at the age of 15, two years ahead of schedule, he founded his first restaurant in 1999, at the age of 22, investing several hundreds of thousands of dollars from his own pocket in the project. Part of the funds was acquired from Zelman’s previous business in foreign trade, and the other part was put up by Iskander Makhmudov, an elusive metallurgic industrialist from the Urals famous for refusing interviews to all media outlets.

The restaurant, St. Michel, was such a success that in the several years that followed Zelman opened several new restaurant chains, including Kolbasoff (beer and sausages), Le Gateau (French cuisine), Goodman’s (American steaks) and Filimonova&Yankel (fish products). Zelman says that Filimonova&Yankel were in fact his employees, who came to him with the idea of starting a fish restaurant which would belong to the casual dining category (the average bill is between $10 and $50). Filimonova worked in the marketing department and Yankel was employed as the senior chef at one of Zelman’s restaurants. “Their eyes were just glowing with determination,” Zelman recalls. “So I had no other way out but to start that chain and name it after them.”

The decision to hit the “casual” category instead of the more upscale “fine dining” niche proved to be a right one, since it made the chain more resilient to the financial crisis. “The crisis reduced people’s incomes, so the clients of the fine dining niche downshifted to our restaurants,” said Natalya Grebenshchikova, the head of Filimonova&Yankel’s marketing service. “We don’t keep track of our old clients, but I don’t think that many of them might end up at fast food chains. It is indeed more difficult to make that transition than the one between fine dining and casual categories.”

In its marketing campaign, Zelman’s RPC emphasizes the healthy nature of its meals. This strategy is obviously aimed at scaring the potentially renegade clients away from the fast food chains. “Unlike the products of fast food, our pizzas do not make you fat,” said Svetlana Sergeyenkova, RPC’s PR manager. “Their bases are made with the use of a special kind of flour, produced from hard wheat.”

Kirill Danishevsky, an expert with the public health department at the Moscow Medical Academy, disagrees about the degree of fast food’s negative impact. “If you take a fillet-au-fish at McDonald’s and eat it with water and a vegetable salad, this will be a perfectly healthy meal,” Danishevsky said. “But I would recommend restaurants with limited menus. If there is a huge variety of treats, there is a chance that some of them are not of superb freshness. In some places in Central Asia, there are restaurants that serve only plov (rice and mutton), but they do it awfully well. In our culture there were also such places — think of ‘pelmennayas’ and ‘belyashnayas. ’ Such eateries’ reputation was ruined by Soviet socialism, but their principle in terms of public health was sound.”

An excessive variety may indeed be a sin, but many of Moscow’s restaurants are just not ready to commit it anymore. In January, despite the ongoing financial crisis, Zelman’s competitor Arkady Novikov, for example, opened one of the most sophisticated versions of a public eatery in the world. The new project, Gusyatnikoff, is indeed a combination of a restaurant, a night club, a library and even a hotel. Besides serving its clients all kinds of food, from Soviet “home cuisine” to foreign varieties such as Scottish salmon, it invites its guests to a special “reading floor,” where one can actually spend the night reading books, some of them rare antiquated items from the 19th century.

Born in 1962, Arkady Novikov has a more troubled biography than Zelman’s meteoric rise to stardom, including a long and austere Soviet period, which explains Novikov’s propensity for luxury. Born into a modest Moscow family, Novikov did not even graduate from secondary school, opting for a cooking college instead. Having served in the Soviet army and worked as a senior chef in a mediocre Moscow restaurant, he rushed into business upon the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. In 1992, his first restaurant, Sirena, quickly became one of the most fashionable seafood restaurants in Moscow. Discount cards issued by Sirena are still valid at all of the other restaurants that Novikov launched around the city. Over the years, they have become collector’s items, status symbols demonstrating the highest degree of belonging to the circle of the city’s most fastidious gourmands.

So, how does Novikov’s penchant for luxury jive with Gusyatnikoff’s choice of Soviet home cuisine, featuring the items traditionally made at home and served to guests in Soviet families on New Year’s Eve? It may appear strange, but Soviet cuisine, with its simple items, is indeed making a comeback in both the fine dining sector and the more democratic casual dining (Yolki Palki likewise belongs to Novikov). “Modern Russian eating culture is very eclectic, it can include anything including sour cabbage and marbled meat in one meal,” Zelman said.

The restaurants’ newly found taste for the Soviet home cuisine (stemming from the times when restaurants were not a part of Muscovites’ everyday life) has become a laughing stock for restaurant critics. “In a few months we shall have a place where people will be eating the old Soviet sausages from the standing tables, washing this stuff down with Moet et Chandon champagne,” the Afisha magazine noted ironically.
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