Lorenzo, why did you decide to start a business in Russia?
I came to Russia five and a half years ago, after I met my wife. We studied together in Switzerland, at the International School of Hotel Management. We decided it would be better for a young couple to live in Russia as opposed to Italy or Switzerland. Switzerland is boring, and we go to Italy for vacation.
What was your first impression? You got off the plane and...
Oh my God! It was in the middle of February 2010, and it was negative 26 degrees outside. Switzerland isn’t the warmest place either, but I was shocked by the weather here. Of course there were traces of the country’s communist past - lines at Sberbank, the mail office, a lot of homeless people on the street (a lot more than there are now). So much has changed in five years. People have become more open, they make more jokes and trust their neighbors more.
What was your first job in Russia like?
First I got a job at the Italian restaurant Semifreddo, then I worked at Bontempi. I had a lot of experience in the restaurant business prior to this - I had been doing it for almost my entire life. The most challenging part was learning Russian. I didn’t know Russian at all and had always communicated with my wife in English.
How did you decide to open your own business?
I really missed Italian food and real italian products. Italians love to eat well. I met two Italians while taking Russian classes, Ivano and Filippo. We have been partners ever since. We started by opening an online store that delivered products to people’s homes. Then we opened an Italian stand. In a couple of months, I rented a bigger space and started to host Italian cooking workshops. These were workshops plus a party with wine and music. We thought of this format back then and still have these events once a week. There options for individuals and groups, as well as for children. These workshops are always really popular.
Then we opened a 3-in-1 cafe. This is a family cafe with a simple decor. We use fresh ingredients and incorporate products from farms. It’s a good approach, as 99 percent of our customers are long-term clients. We create an atmosphere for people that they want to come back for.
I wanted everything to be Italian - a job that is close to home, in an open area with a lot of flowers and color, where everything is infused with romance. This is unusual for Russia. For me, the best compliment is when customers say that we’re just like the cafes in Italy.
Do you miss home?
A little bit. I miss the leisurely Italian life, when you can take a break for lunch or a nap. Dinner with the whole family, healthy food that’s good for you. This is why people live until they’re 90 back home. In Moscow, I try to maintain and spread our traditions, to pass them on to my three children. It’s very important to preserve family and traditions - the things your parents teach you, which you are also going to teach your children. I really want a lot of kids, seven or eight, almost like an entire football team.
I really like Moscow and I would choose to live in Russia again if I had to do it over. I really like Russian people and their perspective is similar to mine. I have more friends here than I do in Italy, which is important.
I think that Russia has a lot of potential for business, a lot of opportunities. But I dream of living in Russia for 8 months out of the year, spending the other 4 in Italy and working remotely.
Do you want to pass your business on to your children?
Of course! A family business is something that is built over several generations. I started working in the kitchen when I was very small. I was learning how to make coffee before I could even reach the coffee machine, and they used to give me a box for the water.
What are the differences and similarities between Italy and Russia?
The situation is very similar in terms of bureaucracy - it’s tough both here and in Italy. Networking, or personal connections when you’re friends with somebody who can do you a favor and you can do something for them in return, is also important.
The one thing that Russia is lacking is positive thinking, a good attitude and the understanding that work can be fun and enjoyable.
Did the sanctions affect your business?
At first there was a big impact, but now it’s easier. The exchange rate had a bigger impact.
What are your plans for the future?
We are starting to create a new brand associated with consulting - buy Italian, from an Italian. I go to restaurants often and see how things are set up there. I can say that I see a lot of things that need to be changed immediately, so we can share experience with those who are starting a restaurant business.
The big problem is that Russian investors do this only for the money. I always ask - why do you want to open an Italian pizzeria? The majority say that it would be profitable. This is the wrong answer. Money should not be the most important thing, the focus of business.
Do you plan on opening a cafe chain?
I’m not a fan of franchising. I don’t think that the same thing can be done over and over equally well. It would be better to open other kinds of cafes. The format of the future is not a huge restaurant or a chain, but the 3-in-1 family cafe, which is a combination of an open kitchen, a shop and a place to eat.
I want to manage several locations under our brand for about 10 years, and each format should be unique. For example, one can be a social cafe - a 24-hour party atmosphere where it’s easy to meet people while you drink coffee. There would be big tables where people need to sit next to each other and themed parties.
Another format is a family cafe where people go with their kids. A third one could be a place where there are 3-4 chefs that cook the food and bring them out to guests themselves. There would be a lot of small portions and simple snacks that people could eat over a bottle of wine. This would be a place where people can bring friends and have the chef talk about the food they prepared or even their personal lives (I can see that Russians love to socialize).
There are also small cafes, where the entire menu is comprised of one product prepared in different ways. There are a lot of options and recipes for gourmet food loves. There are thousands of places like this in Italy. For example, there are a ton of ice cream options - milk-based, sorbet, fried ice cream, ice cream cups and so on.
What advice would you give to foreigners who want to start a business in Russia? Three bit of advice.
First and foremost - do what you love. Second, always have a backup Plan B and even Plan C. And third, be kind to everybody and try to help people. Here, it’s important to lend a helping hand first in order to be helped in return.
All those terrible stories about russian tax officials are highly exaggerated
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