If you want to win the hearts and minds of Americans, start with their bellies.
That’s Mikhail Goncharov’s recipe. The founder of Russia’s largest chain of blini -- thin, fried pancakes filled with everything from caviar to cheese -- is kicking off the global expansion of his fast-food chain Teremok in Midtown Manhattan this fall.
Teremok is testing the U.S. market at a time when many of Russia’s largest state companies are cut off from the global financial system due to sanctions imposed over Vladimir Putin’s policies in Ukraine. The 45-year-old Muscovite, who started Teremok with his mother before Putin became president, may make for an unlikely ambassador, but he has a knack for diplomacy.
“Ties like this are important like never before,” Goncharov said by mobile-phone from New York, where he was scouting locations for his first two outlets last week. “We’re about business, goodness and caring -- qualities valued by people all over the world.”
Born in Kazakhstan during the Soviet era and schooled at university in Moscow, Goncharov has thrived in adversity before. The debt default and devaluation of 1998 wrecked his cassette-recorder business, but it also spurred him to act on his longheld dream of creating a Russian version of McDonald’s.
Backed by his mother’s cooking, $30,000 of savings and a $60,000 loan, he opened the first Teremok, or Little House, a few months later. Now he’s serving 30 million customers annually at about 300 outlets in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
With 6.5 billion rubles ($120 million) of sales last year and 20 percent growth in the first quarter, Goncharov said he’s funding the $150,000 to $250,000 cost of opening each store in New York out of the company’s cash flow.
While U.S. chains like Burger King and McDonald’s are thriving in Russia, nobody’s ever tried going the other way with a food similar to crepes. Still, Teremok won’t be alone in Manhattan, where several Russian restaurants have had years of success, including Samovar, Mari Vanna and the Russian Tea Room, which was founded by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet in 1927.
Goncharov said Teremok’s secret weapon is his mother, Tatiana, who continues to develop all the company’s recipes and remains in charge of quality control. Teremok, which makes blini to order in front of its customers and offers about 30 stuffings and toppings, also serves Russian staples such as borscht, pelmeni, syrniki and buckwheat kasha.
Teremok is still debating what modifications it might make to its menu to appeal to American tastes, but one item the U.S. restaurants will definitely have that Russian ones don’t is maple syrup, Goncharov said, adding that each dish will be priced between $4 and $10.
One of Teremok’s biggest challenges will be convincing Americans that pancakes aren’t just for breakfast, according to Lauren Hallow, who covers emerging restaurant chains at market research firm Technomic Inc.
“Since grain bowls are trending right now, it does looks like there’s some opportunity for its buckwheat dishes -- possibly a build-your-own option with Russian ingredients,” Hallow said by e-mail.
Teremok already has the support of two of America’s largest media outlets. CNN ranked it among the world’s best fast-food chains outside the U.S. in 2011, followed two years later by USA Today.
Goncharov said he’ll continue to look at other countries to enter, including Germany, the U.K. and China, but a lot will depend on what happens in New York.
“I would agree with Frank Sinatra,” Goncharov said. “If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere.”