– I inherit my attraction to everything Russian from my ancestors, says Muriel Rousseau-Ovchinnikova. My great-grandmother had a lot of Russian literature in her library. I have been engrossed in it since I was 14. My grandfather fought against the Germans and was taken prisoner. He shared plank beds with Russians for several years in a concentration camp in Poland. He told me a lot about it late.
When Muriel went to an exhibition of the Russian artist Nikolai Ovchinnikov in Paris in the nineties, she realised that she really wanted to go to Russia, which is so penetratingly displayed by the artist in his pictures.
– Everyone around me was saying "What a remarkable artist he is, this Nikolai Ovchinnikov. You really must get to know him". We met, and got into an argument immediately. I paid him a compliment about his pictures, and he flew into a rage. "I don't like it when people praise my work!" I remember thinking at the time that a man like that could never be my husband.
About Muriel Rousseau
She is a complete Parisian. She graduated from the Paris School of Fine Arts, and also from the Graphics and Video Department of the School of Decorative Art. She worked in television as a student. After gaining an MBA at a business school, she found a job as creative director in the Marine Communications Agency. In 1993, she moved to Moscow, where she opened her own creative studio. In 2004, she founded the "Jean-Jacques" bistro chain.
But fate decided otherwise. Two unique artists joined their lives to each other.
– My husband soon decided to return to Russia. To get the necessary paperwork sorted out, I went to Moscow a month beforehand. I arrived with only a single suitcase in the square outside Belorussky Station on 3rd October 1993, the very day that supporters of the Supreme Soviet tried to storm the Ostankino television centre.
– Wasn't it frightening?
– The blood of my ancestors flows in my veins. They were never afraid, and always tried to be first in everything. My grandmother was one of the first women to fly in a passenger aircraft. My great-grandmother travelled independently in Asia, and lived in China.
– What did you do in Moscow?
– I opened a design studio with Russian partners. We worked for companies, developing their house style, logos, booklets and brochures, and organised image events.
The blood of my ancestors flows in my veins. They were never afraid, and always tried to be first in everything.
– Was it difficult to register your own business?
– I had to obtain a business certificate to open it. The French side supplied the Russian administration with evidence that their fellow applicant was not mentally ill, had no criminal record and had a certain amount of money in her account. This used to be quite a longwinded process, but everything's much easier now. And business people can always find support in the French Chamber of Commerce. Very nice folk work there.
– What was your working capital?
– My partners and I invested five thousand dollars each. In my opinion, this is the minimum amount for opening a business in Moscow.
– How long did your first Russian enterprise last?
–Three years. Once we had earned some money from it, disagreements arose between us about how the business should be conducted in future. Relations with the other partners broke down, and I left the project.
Parisian bistro just round the corner
– You had no partners when you started your next project?
– Nikolai and I were the founders of the creative agency Lieu Commun Groupe. There are 15 people in the company. We design booklets, posters and other printed products. We also hold unusual events and presentations, where it is necessary to talk about the products, or about the strategy of some particular company.
– What difficulties have you come across at this stage?
– The worst thing is certainly the cost of premises. Artists are people who by definition, don't have large sums of money. We managed to buy our office as our own property, but we have to pay exorbitant rent for the workshops. Hotels in Moscow are also very expensive. It's cheaper for foreigners to rent an apartment. I would also like to mention the complex and confused bookkeeping. We had to take on an experienced and capable local specialist to handle it for us.
We managed to buy our office as our own property, but we have to pay exorbitant rent for the workshops.
– How did you get the idea of opening a chain of bistros in Russia's big cities?
– There are many de luxe restaurants in Moscow, very expensive and posh, but with terrible service by Western standards. I missed having a real Parisian bistro "just round the corner", with reasonable prices and a home-like atmosphere. I wanted to create my own "little Paris" here, where it would be possible to spend time with friends and chat over a cup of coffee with another woman. I thought of it like this: if young people don't have 100 dollars to dine out, that doesn't mean that they can't eat in a decent café. The first "Jean-Jaques" opened in Moscow at the end of 2004 on the Nikitsky Boulevard, Nikolai and I designed the interior and the company style. It's a typical French bistro, without pretensions.
. I thought of it like this: if young people don't have 100 dollars to dine out, that doesn't mean that they can't eat in a decent café.
– How did you manage to recreate the Parisian atmosphere?
– We thought through every detail – views of France drawn in white paint on mirrors, wooden bookcases with built-in wine racks, unusual photographs, antique lamps, and historic glass tableware such as curved, floating "drunken" glasses. Memory and the heritage of the past are very important to me in marketing. I find new things boring. I like to work with traditions. This is capital which has to be adapted to the present day. Our restaurants have history, and people like that.
– Why does the colour green predominate in your bistros?
– It is a tribute to the gardens of Paris. The tables for newspapers and handbills in Paris are also green. It's a very symbolic colour for me.
Vladimir Starok, CAO of the "Svetly" restaurant:
– The main problems for the restaurant business in Moscow are the weakness of tourist business, and also the presence in the market of pseudo-restaurateurs who open their establishments without expert knowledge or understanding of the situation in this business segment. As a result, lessors set inappropriate prices. Property leasing rates in Moscow are unjustifiably high, and the search for premises suitable for a restaurant becomes a severe trial, and may last from six months to a year. Another problem is the absence of high-quality products from this country. This concerns furniture and equipment as well as food products, if we are talking about the stage when the restaurant is already up and running. For delivery of equipment and furniture we usually work with Spain and Italy; and also with China, for certain elements of the décor.
All the above problems make any restaurant project in Moscow considerably more expensive. If, for example, we are talking about opening a restaurant with a floor area of 400 square metres, this would cost £400,000 in London and at least £800,000 in Moscow. In the West, the average life of a restaurant is from five years upwards, but in Moscow, because of the intensive pursuit of trends, it is three to four years. However, a restaurant in European countries takes three to four years to recoup its cost, but in Russia, if the concept is successful and it takes off well, it is one to one and a half years.
– Were the materials brought from Paris or acquired locally?
– We had a lot of help from the Leroy-Merlin specialist shops operating in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
– Who are your partners in "Jean-Jacques"?
– The restaurateurs Dmitri Borisov and Dmitri Yampolsky, who have taken part in the creation of such successful projects as "Alshu", "Gogol", "Mayak" and "Kvartira 44" ("Apartment 44").
– Did you name the bistros in honour of your ancestor?
– Yes, the name of my great-great-grandfather the philosopher has become a talisman for me. His political ideal was direct democracy. I hope I am a worthy successor to him. The average bill in our bistros is only 25-30 dollars.
– And you allow your patrons to draw on the tablecloths?
– In Paris too, everyone draws or writes on the paper tablecloths – their thoughts, phone numbers they need, poems, games of noughts and crosses, then they tear off the pieces they want and take a particle of free unhurried France with them. We even leave well-sharpened pencils in glasses on the tables for this purpose.
– How many bistros are now in the "Jean-Jacques" chain?
– Twelve. The first "Jean-Jacques" in St. Petersburg opened in 2007. We now have three bistros in the Northern capital.
– Each of your restaurants is something like the last "Jean-Jacques", and yet there's something different about it too?
– The heroes are the same, the interior, the image, the spirit are the same as in the first "Jean-Jacques", but the subject develops and the architecture changes. We play with it. For example, there was a bookshop next to our bistro in Stoleshnikov Avenue. We put table lamps on little tables, and book racks next to them. The thought was that people would come in, take a book from the shelf as in a library, and read. A bistro is a sort of club, where people socialise. There are many little nooks and crannies in them.
The heroes are the same, the interior, the image, the spirit are the same as in the first "Jean-Jacques", but the subject develops and the architecture changes.
– How do you select a location for a new bistro?
– We conduct market analysis. I am proud of the fact that I managed to persuade my partners that we should not only open bistros in the centre. They can be a success elsewhere too. In Paris, for example, at street intersections there are bistros on each corner. This is an excellent location from a strategic point of view. Flows of people cross here. Unfortunately, I have not been able to transfer this principle to Moscow. Here there are wide boulevards and long straight streets.
– Where do the most people visit bistros? In Paris or Moscow?
– In Paris, of course, It is customary there to eat breakfast in the nearest bistro to home. To drink a cup of coffee and eat a freshly baked croissant, you only have to go out into the street and walk 30 metres at the most. Restaurants in Paris frequently close after lunch, at about three p.m., and open again for dinner at half past seven. In Moscow, our bistros are open round the clock. At any time of day a visitor will be offered a comfortable table, an up-to-date newspaper, a warm shawl and a glass of water.
Aleksandr Minayev, "Art People Group":
– There are few restaurants in Moscow in the medium price range with interesting concepts and efficient technology. During the past five years, up to 1000 restaurants and cafés have been opening every year, but 700-800 close within the first 12 months. Only those restaurants and cafés in good sites and with a well thought out concept survive. But the requirement for restaurants is huge. Moscow has doubled in size, and several million square metres of housing are being built every year. There is a particular lack of restaurants in the new dormitory regions of Moscow. A couple of dozen restaurant holdings are developing actively. The biggest are "Arlikom", "Rosinter", "Romashka Management", Arkady Novikov's group of companies and Ginza Project. In Moscow, unlike the West, there is no system in the way a restaurant business is built and organised. There are very few professional companies helping to construct and open restaurants, and those few are greatly overloaded. No supply system for restaurants has been developed, and there are hardly any professional schools and staff training centres left. A foreigner opening a restaurant in Moscow must first of all obtain a properly formulated work permit. You must have registration in Moscow or Moscow oblast, open a legal entity and register with the Tax Inspectorate. It is best to have a local partner to simplify the process of filling in the forms correctly. Leasing property in the city centre can cost as much as $2000 per sq.m per annum, and in the dormitory regions, $600-1000 per sq.m. Investments, not including leasing, average from $1300 to $2000 per sq.m. You must leave 10-15% of the sum of your investments for procurement of produce and to cover expenses in the first two months of operation. It is worth remembering that not all the premises you will be offered for a restaurant will suit you. Some premises which at first glance seem suitable will need far too much money and time invested in them. Take restaurant property consultants with you when viewing premises, they will help find all the drawbacks and will also help in filling in documents. If you want to sell alcoholic drinks in your restaurant, do not lease premises next to schools or other places for children, otherwise you will not be granted a licence to sell alcohol.
– Should foreigner opening a business in Moscow worry about the bureaucratic practices of Russian officials?
– There is even more bureaucracy in France. It's much easier to come to an agreement with officials here than in my homeland.
Liberty, equality and fine cuisine
– Do Moscow waiters differ from those in Paris?
– Yes, they do. And it's understandable. There are no long-standing traditions here. In Paris, waiters frequently work in the same bistro for 30 years. Neighbours meet every evening in a family restaurant to talk, sit over a glass of calvados or cider and discuss the latest news with the waiter. It is hard physical work, which requires a great deal of fantasy, cheerfulness and optimism. The waiters in our Moscow bistros are sometimes very inhibited. But I would like them to feel at ease and to be more cheerful. They ought to become good friends of the clients, be able to talk to them about anything under the sun. We have a very good team, people want to come and work for us.
They come to us as if they were visiting their beloved grandmother – for the sake of a tasty, filling home-cooked meal and a free-spirited friendly atmosphere.
– What can you say about your target clientele?
– - It is quite wide: it includes creative people, actors, producers, journalists, artists and designers, student, clerks working locally, foreigners and top managers, who like to come to us to relax and escape the pretentiousness of the expensive places.
– How is your menu made up?
– We try to combine classic French cuisine with original, almost home-like recipes. Unchanging successes from year to year are salad with chicken liver and raspberry wine vinegar, onion soup, grape snails in cream garlic sauce, duck's foot confit, and frogs' legs with aioli sauce. They come to us as if they were visiting their beloved grandmother – for the sake of a tasty, filling home-cooked meal and a free-spirited friendly atmosphere with accordion trills and the sound of guitars.
– What would be your advice to foreigners wanting to open a restaurant in Moscow?
– It requires a lot of energy, a very great amount of energy. To open your own business in a foreign country requires boldness and patience. You will have many difficulties to overcome.
– How difficult is it for a foreigner to master the Russian language?
– Unfortunately I don't speak Russian very well, because I've never specially studied it. I understand everything, I can read from the printed page, but sometimes it is difficult for me to express my thoughts. My French fellow-countrymen and women sometimes joke that it is better not to know Russian, so that you don't understand all the unpleasant things going on around you in Russia. On the other hand, knowing the language makes it a lot easier to communicate, and it is generally very interesting to talk to Muscovites. That's important to me. After all, socialising with people is my profession.