How “Botanika” started
…In the summer, the endless streams of tourists, attracted by the romantic nature of St. Petersburg, the city of “White Nights”, create the atmosphere of this establishment, enriching it by their celebrations. And in winter, the streets, white with snow and frost, literally force the frozen passers-by to go into the comfortable little restaurant to warm up. Marina ALBEE, looking out of the window of her own restaurant, told how she started her business in Russia. “A friend once asked me: ‘Would you like to open a bar?’ But I was not interested because I don’t drink and I don’t like bars anymore. So of course, I refused. ‘Thanks but no thanks’, I told him. And then added as a joke: ‘I would open a vegetarian café!” I was joking, but to my surprise, my future business partner agreed right away. And that’s how Botanika got started.
I was joking, but my future business partner agreed right away. And that’s how Botanika got started.
From the beginning we had no smoking at Botanika, although we do have a complete bar selection. Cigarette smoke bothers other people. If people want to smoke, let them do it somewhere else. Since I had no experience in the restaurant business, I did research on the internet, and I spoke to friends who owned restaurants. I was also helped by a lawyer friend who helped me with the paperwork. I found out that all administrative expenses should not exceed a quarter of all revenue. We to keep this is mind. These costs now amount to about 250,000 rubles. If you include wages and all purchases, expenses should not exceed 75% of revenue. Then your business can be profitable.
It is actually quite difficult to get rich from restaurants. For big money, you have to open a chain, but I don’t want to do this. In my own little Botanika, I can maintain the quality. Quality control is harder if you have a chain of restaurants. The slowest months for business are November and February, and the main revenues, come in the summer. We have a summer terrace, which increases our seating capacity. True, a terrace has its own problems… You have to start collecting signatures from city officials virtually from the end of the previous summer season. We also hope to buy the freehold of the building, as the lease is due to expire shortly and would then rent part of the sidewalk in front of the restaurant and make our veranda permanent.
It’s simpler to arrange an international television link-up…
“There is a very strange attitude to laws in Russia. For example: by law there are to be no restaurants in residential buildings. But the city has many restaurants and cafés, shops and bank branches, located in semi-basement premises or on the ground floors of residential buildings…
I found out at once that communal payments, and paying for the lease must not exceed a quarter of all receipts.
At first, we were frequently subjected to raids by various authorities, who tried to find violations. They picked on even the most insignificant things! But instead of giving them bribes, We took them to court and won both cases. When they realized that we would defend ourselves, they left us in peace. Russian’s change the law every year without informing those directly affected by the changes. It’s a terrible system, but the people inside the system are often helpful and friendly. Once you get to know them, they start to help you. I sometimes think that it was easier to arrange satellite links between America and the USSR, than to open this vegetarian café.
Inga Mikaelyan, analyst of the agency “RBC.research”:
“The main secret of the attractiveness of the Russian restaurant market for investors is the fact that there is still room in it, and also the relatively low level of competition (by comparison with Europe and the USA). And more active use is being made of this today by individual business people like Marina ALBEE and also by chain companies. According to our research data, at the beginning of 2011 there were 897 chain restaurants in St. Petersburg, and in the first quarter of 2012, this figure rose to 1,094. Almost 200 more establishments. A growth rate of 22% per annum!Another extremely interesting fact: 52.2% of the chain establishments are in Moscow (38.2% or 2,970 chain outlets) and St. Petersburg (14.1% or 1,094 chain outlets). The level of competition in the capitals is increasing, but at the same time, so is the attractiveness of the towns in the regions, to which business people are paying more and more attention.The most popular cuisines in Russia today are those of Japan and Italy, sometimes “doubled up” under the roof of the same restaurant. By analysing the chain restaurants of 40 of the biggest holdings in Russia operating in the public catering field, we found that 24 and 20 of them specialize in Japanese and Italian cuisine respectively. Thus, the market, from the point of view of the prevailing concepts, is close to the stage of saturation, and in 2012-2013, in Moscow and St. Petersburg at least, the growth rates will slow down.What restaurant concepts will develop? We have recently seen a tendency towards a rise in popularity of the pan-Asian cuisine (all possible kinds of noodle-based dishes). Apart from this, the steakhouse slot is not taken up (particularly at the cheaper end of the market).How much does it cost to open a restaurant? Investments, depending on the concept and type of establishment, can be from US$100,000. Pay-off period, 18-36 months».
Soldier in the kitchen
My partner once said that if we had done market research, it would most likely have shown that we should open a normal Russian pelmeni and beer shop for high profits and low costs (Pelmeni are a staple dish for Russian, or more precisely Siberian, cuisine – they consist of cooked fresh dough wrapping filled with chopped meat or fish – Ed. Note), Marina ALBEE continues. I don’t doubt this would have been less risky as a capital investment. To open a vegetarian restaurant in a country where there is no vegetarian culture seemed almost crazy!My first challenge was finding a head chef. The first candidate was a woman with experience, well qualified but from a normal non-vegetarian restaurant. She left because she did not understand our food. So I had to cook myself in the beginning.I have to point out here that in Russia, everyone had always taken pity on me because of my vegetarianism. Now I had the opportunity not only to tell people about vegetarian culture, but to give them a chance to try it!
It was difficult at first, and for the first year I thought we would have to close down. But my prayers were answered, and I found a good head chef.
I very much wanted to see not only “Vegetarinans” but also “meat-eaters” among our clientèle. So we added traditional Russian cuisine dishes to the menu. Usually, clients are bewildered by reading exotic names, On the other hand, they know about borscht and zapekanka (Russian cheesecake). And we offered people dishes well known to them, but totally without meat, like our veggie-burger with potatoes and homemade ketchup.It was difficult at first, and for the first year I thought we would have to close down. But my prayers were answered, and I found a good head chef, a Punjabi from India named Dilraj SINGH. My faithful “soldier in the kitchen”, as I sometimes call him.Now we have about 70 dishes on the menu! The average bill is about 300-500 roubles, which is quite cheap. Many regular clients have become our friends. Our restaurant’s discount card is called a “Friend’s Card”.
About the Russian mentality and how to work with it
“It took a long time to assemble a team of really like-minded people” Marina recalls. “And the group was not formed all at once. But now everyone here must be a vegetarian. If someone isn’t a vegetarian, it is immediately apparent. You might say we have some very unusual personalities working here. We have a certain approach to discipline. Our people like to sing and dance, but that, as I have noticed, is a trait of Russians in general.Another thing – the strange Russian soul is willing to work and make merry, but doesn’t want to take on full responsibility. When my Indian head chef appeared, he was not liked at first, He pushed his colleagues, and the Soviet mentality will not stand for this. Here they are used to covering up for each other, so as not to be punished, thinking if you help your comrade then you are a hero. This is not team spirit. In America a team looks at things quite differently. Over there, the idea is that everyone sincerely strives for the common cause and you can take turns being the leader.
I think it is really thanks to my personal example that we have such a good team now.
Russian friends advised me to install CCTV, to check handbags, to be a strict manager, but such methods are unacceptable to me. If you are mistrustful of people, they really will start to steal from you. I simply hung a sign in the kitchen: “Astral surveillance”.Sometimes I clean the toilets myself. I replace light bulbs. The staff didn’t notice, but I noticed and so I changed them. At first they were surprised to see this, but then they realized that I take a simple approach about such matters.Our “botanists” are all honest. They don’t steal. And they are all religious in one way or another: Krishna devotees, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs. On Botanika’s birthday, all of the people of our top management group cook for all of the employees and wait on them. We also wash the dishes.
Kirill Soloveychik, Deputy Chairman of the Committee for Economic Development, Industrial Policy and Trade (CEDIP&T) of the St. Petersburg administration:
“St. Petersburg has always been a leader among the Russian regions in the development of small businesses. The St. Petersburg administration is meeting the small and medium business entrepreneur halfway with its program “Policy for the Development of Small and Medium Businesses in 2012-2015”. This is one of the best regional business development programs in Russia. You can learn about it on the CEDIP&T website. We subsidize the cost of technical re-equipment of small and medium businesses. Within the framework of this program, we also subsidize a wide range of costs, such as product certification, for example. And we also give a 90% reimbursement of interest payments on credits taken out.As for the public catering field, it is attractive for investments because it is of leading significance in such a tourist megalopolis as St. Petersburg. One difficulty facing entrepreneurs wishing to open a public catering establishment is the cost of leasing property, because everyone wants to do business in the historic central district, and there is already an obvious lack of premises there.The city administration is willing to cooperate with anyone, whether a foreign investor or a Russian entrepreneur, and to that end, is has set up a “Centre for the Business Development and Support”. Here one can obtain free legal services, including dealing with the rights (and wrongs) of the actions of representatives of the state supervisory authorities».
Room for people with initiative
In America, a vegetarian “Botanika” might have more competition. And that means there would be less profit. On the other hand, there is more risk here for someone running a business than there would be in America. But as the Russians say, no risk, no champagne.In Russia, up to now, it has been possible to open almost any business, there is no recession here and the environment is less competitive. Here, even a non-specialist can see a more positive dynamic than in America or Europe. There is room here today for people who are clever and show initiative. And those two qualities are just what is needed for a successful business.In my view, there are enough clever people in Russia, but the vast majority of Russians, are influenced by their Soviet past, when any initiative was punished. So people are usually clever, but inactive. In fact, right here, everything can turn out to be even simpler than abroad. My husband and I are currently building a hotel in Egypt. And Russia is like Switzerland compared to Egypt…