— You are from the sunny south. What made you decide to move to snowy Russia?
— I had a lot to do with clothing suppliers at one time. Somehow the conversation got round to the economic strength of Russia. I decided to see for myself. You could say that I was drawn to Moscow by curiosity.
Donato Parisi, born in Napoli-Terzigno Province. Studied in the Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance, but did not gain higher education qualifications. Has worked in Naples, in the north of Italy, and in Tanzania, in the manufacture of women’s clothing. Since moving to Russia, he has been engaged in deliveries of food products, and has opened a mini cheese factory.
— What difficulties did you encounter in opening the company?
— At first I opened a mission for several of my Italian companies working in different fields. The greatest problem was that under immigration law, I could not be the managing director of my own company. The second difficult aspect was the accounting. In Italy we are used to an entirely different legal system. Here it was a long time before I knew in what form I should submit a tax return. I turned for help to a firm offering both legal and accounting services, They helped me open the company, and for a time, they did our accounting. Then we recruited our own specialists.
— What initial investment is required to open a business like yours in Moscow?
— Based on my experience, at least five million roubles.
— What does your company Altagamma Food do?
— We dreamed of bringing all the most valuable of what is produced in Italy into Russia. We wanted the same products that Italians have to be on the tables in Russian restaurants and in the homes of Muscovites. We selected niche products of the very highest quality from various regions of Italy. In that period I got to know my beautiful wife Tata Chinchaladze. She has Georgian and Polish roots. Tata was the commercial director of a company importing high-quality gastronomic goods from the best producers in Europe into the Russian market.
– One should realise that, despite the growing interest here, Russia is never going to become a nation of cheese-lovers. We are not going to be waiting in line in the morning for a fresh camembert and a baguette like they do in France, for example. Today, interest in cheese is in the ascendency but this market has a ceiling beyond which it won’t be possible to go.
To open your own small cheese workshop requires about 2m roubles, for which you can buy equipment and fit out your premises. Main investment is in a good cheese technician, of which there are virtually none on the market. Recoupment for such a project is usually provided by young cheeses which are relatively easy to make and which sell quickly, ensuring that immediate expenses can be covered. To make truly exceptional cheeses requires 5–10 years of intensive experimentation and large investments in technology. But what our market needs most of all at the moment are good quality cheeses, even if they don’t come close in taste to those from Europe. Russians, unfortunately, have started to forget what European cheeses taste like, and even cheeses which demonstrably fall short of their western equivalents will still taste very good to consumers. There is no better time imaginable to open your own cheese dairy than now.
— How did you come to decide to open your own cheese factory?
— When Russia introduced sanctions restricting the import of certain goods, Tata and I decided to organize our own project. The embargo took mozzarella, a favourite cheese for Russians, off the shelves. We met with a director of the delicatessen chain Globus Gourmet and decided we should do something about it. There was a four by two metre room in one of its shops where cheeses from all over the world had one been stored. We had the idea of turning it into a cheese factory. The hardest thing was choosing professional equipment to fit into such a small space and to arrange it so that it would be comfortable for our master cheese-makers to work in. We found the right equipment in Italy.
— How many kinds of cheese do you produce, and in what quantity?
— We make soft unripened cheeses which are stored for between ten and fourteen days, namely ricotta, mozzarella, burrata, scamorza, nodini, sfoglia... Altogether we have ten kinds of cheese in our range, but we plan to increase this number in the near future. Our machines only heat the milk. All the rest of the cheese-making process is done by hand, The hands of the master cheese-makers are the most important thing here. Our gimmick is that the cheese factory is in the centre of the shop, in a room with glass walls. Anyone who wants to watch the cheese production process is free to do so. In the course of one day. depending on orders, we make about 150-180 kilograms of cheese of various kinds.
— How did you select the staff you required?
— We have fifteen people altogether working here. Many of them came from companies where Tata used to work. Apart from producing cheeses, we also supply olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pastas, Neapolitan chocolate dragees and other products. We select the very best from each region of Italy. When we talk of pasta, of course we mean pasta di gragnano. Gragnano is between the sea and the mountains, with ideal soil for growing wheat. The Neapolitan air and the nearness of Vesuvius have their effect too. We never take anything industrial, that is our principle. We work only with small family farms.
As for our cheese factory, we employ four people there, two of them Italians. We sought for master cheese-makers in Italy. Suppliers with whom we had worked previously helped us do so. Our head cheese-maker is from a cheese-making family. All his ancestors for several generations have made cheese. He helped his parents from the age of ten. You could say he imbibed all the nuances with his mother’s milk. Our two Italians are assisted by two Russians, a young lad and a girl. The young man came from Siberia. We set quite high requirements in selecting our staff. They had to be neat, hard-working, meticulous and with good physical endurance – because it’s quite hard work, you’re standing on your feet all day long. Also, we wanted our staff to know at least a little Italian.
— Didn’t you try to master Russian?
— I’ve been trying for four years now! I have a very jealous wife, I’m afraid having a young lady to teach me would create problems! (He laughs.) And in general, I would say that the Russian language is quite difficult for an Italian. When you are working hard, it just doesn’t leave any time for study. I didn’t need it anyway. Tata knows Italian very well. But I continue to pick up a bit of Russian in my dealings with Russians, and I already know at least 400 words. I reckon a hundred words a year is quite a good result. It’s my wife who is the polyglot. As well as Russian and Georgian, she knows Polish, English, Italian and Turkish.
— What can you tell us about the level of wages you pay your staff?
— The wages we pay are about average for Moscow. Let me say at once that the cheese-makers earn more than the others, up to 100,000 roubles. The managers also get a percentage of sales. There’s no limit on that.
– At this moment in time the market situation is quite favourable for those producers who make cheese in Russia as there is a discernible deficit of quality cheeses and equivalents of European cheeses, despite the large number of factories. Demand for premium cheeses is high, and this enables farmers to keep prices high and to buy good raw ingredients. Today, the recoupment period for such ventures stands at 4-5 years. If Russia remains removed from competition for a certain amount of time, it will allow local cheesemakers in the private, handcrafted cheese segment to build up their expertise and familiarize consumers with their products. Therefore, in principle, if the sanctions remain in place, I think that over the course of the next 3-4 years, quality cheeses capable of competing with those imported from abroad will start to appear in Russia. The school of cheese-making in Russia will develop, but it will take time before certain individual, pioneering projects reaching the right results will be able to stand on their own two feet.
— How hard was it to find milk of the right quality? Who supplies you with it?
— It was very difficult to find high-quality milk. There are many farms all round, but they all have their own approach to milk production. Sometimes the milk was so poor that our cheese-maker opened the tap on the churn, saying “It’s only fit to pour away.”
We spent a long time looking for a clean product – something dear to Italians’ hearts. Our milk producers came to us of their own accord. Their farm is in Kaluga Province, they are concerned with infant nutrition. For that, they imported Jersey cows. Their equipment is also from abroad. Every day at 7 a.m. they bring us more than a tonne of milk. Today, for example, they delivered 1100 litres. They bring it in special churns of food-quality plastic. The distribution companies bring us all the other ingredients for cheese-making, including yeast of the well-known Clerici brand and Italian salt, from Italy.
— It seems you have no problem with sales.
— We certainly don’t, in fact we are not producing enough! A third of our cheese production goes to the Globus Gourmet supermarket chain, which has five stores in Moscow and one more in St, Petersburg. All the rest goes to restaurants and to the gourmet-class markets, which appreciate our products as they deserve. In the near future, we wand to expand our cheese production, but we shall definitely stick to our concept of open production and manual work. Our prices are in the 100 roubles per kg. range.
A consumer with average-or-above income is needed to develop the cheese market. There are fewer of these in Russia now. By various estimates, the average Russian only eats a third to a quarter as much cheese as a European. So theoretically, there is potential for growth. Two factors are probably required to level up the situation: incomes and traditions of consuming good cheese. Neither exists to any great extent at the present time.
Russians continue to be conservative in their consumption of cheese, and limit themselves to the old well-known varieties (Maasdam, Russian, Parmesan, Dutch, Edam, Sulguni and Adygeyan, plus all kinds of Brynza). You could probably now add Mozzarella to this list. Hard and semi-hard cheeses, of which 24% and 19% respectively are produced in the range of cheeses and cheese products, are most in demand by Russians.
Home production of cheese is unlikely to grow in 2017. But imports of cheese could, i.e. of inexpensive but good-quality Belarusian products; and there is a demand for quality cheeses in the one to three thousand roubles per kg. price range.
The average range of prices for a set of equipment is about one to two million roubles, depending on productivity and on the composition of it, depending on the variety of cheese.
Russia has its own producers of cheese-making equipment, the quality of which satisfies local producers. Some equipment is analogous to what is imported (particularly from Italy), and costs only about half as much as the foreign prototypes.
Premises of 100-120 sq.m. could be sufficient for a start, if it is not planned to produce cheeses requiring a long ripening period for which separate premises are needed. A hundred sq.m. is enough space for everything, including a small office.
It is of course possible to rent premises for a cheese factory, but experience shows that building them is preferable. Construction will cost about two million roubles, and it can be planned from the start so that the necessary standards regulating such production premises can be met.
Thus, the total costs for setting up such a production facility could come to three to four million roubles.
Two to four people are required for such a cheese factory, including a technologist to organize the work. The total monthly wage bill will be about 120,000-140,000 roubles. Much depends on the qualifications of the technologist. For example, if you bring in a foreign specialist, the cost of his services could be comparable to the cost of the entire project.
The cost of milk in Russia is 25-35 roubles for “standard” milk and 50-70 roubles for “organic” milk. But it should be borne in mind that there are no precise standards in Russia as to which products meet the concept of “organic”.
— What can you tell us about the competition?
— A business can get into a bind alley if you concentrate on the competitors rather than the customers. OK, when there is competition, the customer has a choice. But the companies now represented in shops offer mainly industrially produced cheeses. Our hallmark is being a small cheese factory where the cheese is made by hand and the quality is controlled throughout the whole production process. We may find we have real competitors eventually, but that will only be an extra incentive for us. I quote: “Everyone wants to be in front. But will those in front allow it?”
— How did you find office premises?
— It was not easy to find suitable premises. We needed refrigeration chambers calculated for different temperatures, including ones in which chocolate could be stored at +16°C. We found a suitable office in the east of Moscow, where we are paying 1000-1200 roubles per square metre per annum, which is considered an average rent for Moscow.
— How high are accommodation rents in Moscow?
— As far as an apartment is concerned, it is quite easy to find one in Moscow. The rent of the cheapest one-room apartment, I have heard, is about 45,000 roubles. But there are certain nuances you need to know. We were looking for accommodation both through friends and through the real-estate database CIAN, always using the services of a manager we trusted. But before we went out to view the apartment, we asked for photographs to be sent to us. According to the description, it was just what we were looking for. But when we arrived there, we were terribly disappointed, Now we live in the very centre, not far from the Mayakovskaya metro station. You can find accommodation in this district for as little as 100,000 roubles. We have three children, and we rent a spacious apartment for which we pay a little more than that.
— How and where do you like to spend your time off?
— The nature of our work is such that we are constantly moving about, eating in different restaurants and visiting a variety of events. Thanks to our business, we are in constant contact with the Italian Embassy and the Institute of Italian Culture. Recently, for example, we met the viola player Yuri Bashmet in an informal atmosphere. Weather permitting, we like to stroll around Moscow. We often get on our bikes, the whole family, and set off for Gorky Park.
— Has anything changed over the five years you have been living in Russia?
— Why, everything has been literally turned upside down! When I arrived, it was 40 roubles to one euro, now it’s about 60!
— What would be your advice to a foreigner who is wondering if it is worth coming to work in Russia or not?
— I would advise those who have interesting projects to invest in Russia, because this is a country which never gives up. That is its strength. The most promising forms of investment are those concerned with production. This is what Russia needs right now. But you must expect to have to adapt to a completely different system of coordinates, radically different from what you are used to.