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Venezuelan in Russia Prospers With US-Style Restaurants

THE menus at Rostislav Ordovsky-Tanaevsky Blanco's restaurants are as long as his name, and, by Russian standards, twice as exotic.

They are also making the Venezuelan-Russian businessman a lot of money.

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The American Bar & Grill is one of the more profitable of his 13 restaurants. It fills nightly with Russians and expatriates craving everything from hamburgers to barbecued ribs.

The American cuisine is so popular, and so novel, that customers willingly wait an hour for a table. Service is polite but slow. The Western look is completed by Russian waiters in faded jeans and T-shirts busing dishes to the beat of country music.

Business is so good that Mr. Ordovsky-Tanaevsky Blanco, who goes by the rubric Rostik, doesn't mind shelling out the $35,000 a month the city demands in rent - though he will not reveal his actual profits. As long as the cash keeps flowing, he says, he'll forge ahead with plans to open two franchises here, identical in every way - except the name.

``I'm just a little bit against the word `American,' as for so long Americans and Russians were enemies,'' Rostik says from his sprawling office, where a photograph of his great-grandfather, a White Russian politician, hangs just below a large portrait of himself. ``Maybe we'll call it `John Wayne.' Or `Texas.' ''

Premier restaurateur

Given Rostik's track record, by whatever name, the franchises are likely to be successful. A decade after his first visit to Russia, and only four years after opening his first Moscow eatery, Rostik is probably Moscow's most successful restaurateur.

Rostik's success formula wouldn't surprise capitalists eleswhere: decent quality at reasonable prices. In a city where Western-style restaurant food costs far more than in the West, ``it's such a relief that you can actually now go to dinner and not have to mortgage your house,'' says Lindy Sinclair, food writer at the daily Moscow Times.

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``The food is good. It doesn't sparkle, but at least it doesn't give you food poisoning,'' she says.

A 35-year-old chemical engineer from Caracas with a Spanish mother and a Russian father, Rostik has an impressive range of restaurants under his belt. The diminutive, bearded businessman runs four ``Kombi's'' - New York-style delicatessens, two Rostik's fried chicken outlets, and seven full-service restaurants, including the Patio Pizza, the Swiss Chalet, and Santa Fe, a Tex-Mex joint.

He says he plans to open new restaurants in St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and Minsk, and dreams of one day bringing his fast food to the vast Siberian steppes.

Success through ingenuity

In a country where businesses seem to fail as fast as you can say ``mafia,'' Rostik seems to have thrived, thanks to a combination of serendipity, good instincts, and good connections.

Four years ago, Rostik was selling Kodak products in a joint venture with Eastman Kodak Co., and looking for a way to earn dollars to import more materials.

He found that a distant Russian relative knew the director of food services at the Hotel Moskva, opposite Red Square. At the time, restaurants were among the few hard-currency commercial activities that the Soviet government allowed. A restaurant in such a strategic spot, Rostik reckoned, was what he needed to earn more dollars.

Importing everything from the plumbing to the chorizos (sausages) that hang from the ceiling, Rostik opened ``El Rincon Espanol,'' a Spanish bar in a tiny corner of the hotel. It was an instant success with tourists and foreign residents.

``The reason I opened a Spanish restaurant and not a Chinese restaurant was that I wanted to give a gift to my parents,'' says Rostik, who speaks both English and Russian with a strong Venezuelan accent.

Today, Rostik employs 2,700 people in his restaurant and Kodak film businesses. Most employees are chosen for their limited work experience to ensure they are free from Soviet work habits.

``We've begun to grow Russians from scratch. It's not that they're stupid, they just don't know. You need to train them,'' he says, acknowledging that food sometimes arrives cold and waiters have been known to forget orders. ``You can have here an excellent engineer, but you cannot have an excellent waiter, because there never was one.''

There are also logistical problems. Although today he tries to buy all his produce locally, Rostik still has to import some items. ``It's so difficult to rely on local supplies,'' he says. ``In May we had to import cabbage.''

Coping with mafia

One problem he says he has licked, however, is the ever-present mafia, which demands protection money from almost everyone. His way of coping with threats has been to hire his own protection. ``We have our own security team, of course,'' he says. ``But the real basics is that we have no black money, no undeclared money.''

Business is good enough for Rostik to want to stay in Moscow, where he has a Russian wife, two children, and a weekly date with the banya, or traditional Russian bathhouse.

While his Slavic ancestry called him to Russia in the first place, he says he doesn't feel Russian enough to open a real Russian restaurant. ``I am afraid I won't do it correctly,'' he says sadly. ``For me, it's a big responsibility.''

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