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We all know Rostislav’s restaurants – Il Patio, The American Bar and Grill, T.G.I. Friday’s, Planet Sushi, Santa Fe, Cafe Des Artistes and of course Rostik’s, but few know much of the man behind them. In this interview, Rostislav Ordovsky- Tanayevsky Blanco, known to his friends as Rostik, kindly agreed to tell us something of his life and work.
Interview with Rostislav Ordovsky-Tanaevsky Blanco by John Harrison
Photo by Egor Chutsmarov

Q What is your family background; how did you come to move from Venezuela to Russia?

My father had to leave Europe during the Stalinist regime. After World War II many Russians and their children already born in the West were afraid that Allies would return them to Stalin. The West does weird things sometimes as well. At that point my father went to Venezuela. Why Venezuela? Because that was the first country to offer him a visa. It is as simple as that. If it had been Columbia, he would have gone there. Venezuela was very open at that time. My mom, who was Spanish, with three other sisters and three brothers, all emigrated to Venezuela at different times. All made good money in Venezuela. Some of them returned back to Spain. My mom stayed and married a Russian, and that’s how I appeared.

I was raised in a multicultural home in Venezuela. There was the Spanish influence – my mother’s country; the Russian influence from my father; and Venezuelan influence where we lived. My father, along with other first and second generation white Russians living outside of Russia, had been cut off from their motherland, so they had a strong need to pass the heritage of Russian culture down to their children. They built churches, and Russian schools. So I was raised both in a Latin and Slavic environment, speaking both Russian and Spanish. I picked up my commercial instincts from my mom and dad. We lived upstairs in a big house, and downstairs we ran our business. By 12 years of age I was helping to put together loads for trucks with furniture that was sold in our commercial center.

Then 1984 came. Soviet embassies in those days had been likened to embassies of the devil in different countries. That was why it was a surprise when I got a phone call from the Soviet attache, Valery Legonkov, who said “We heard that you are in the movie business.” At that time we had a thriving business – we had the largest video studio in Latin America, and we were representing some of the major movie companies. We were in negotiations with Walt Disney for five years, which then became our partners. Kodak was also a part of this partnership with a 50/50 joint venture status.

In Planeta Sushi on Taganskaya

When I received that phone call, Legonkov knew that I was a Venezuelan who spoke Russian. He offered me an all-expense-paid invitation to go to Moscow and Tashkent. They were running a film festival in Tashkent every other year for Asia, Africa and Latin America. I was very surprised to get this invitation. When I asked my father whether I should go, his response was: “You have nothing to lose, you have a Venezuelan passport, you have an opportunity to see the country of our ancestors”. So there I was, 26 years old, flying to Moscow and then Tashkent. I flew right into the middle of a huge propaganda machine. These guys were excellent. They knew how to forge the third world. Before leaving Venezuela a friend of mine, another Russian Venezuelan, Dr. George Gan, contacted me. He is a very prominent ophthalmologist. He asked me to help him invite Dr. Fedorov, the eye surgeon, to a conference in Venezuela in November. It was difficult to get in touch with Dr. Fedorov; but eventually, the day before my departure from Russia, I got a taxi to the place where he worked. I went straight to his office, and handed him the invitation. The Soviet Ministry of Health said that it was impossible, but he said “OK, I’ll go”. I had no idea how difficult it was going to be for him to go on this trip. Even someone like Dr. Fedorov could leave the country only twice a year, despite the fact of how prominent he was for his development of a special technique to cure myopia. This, after all, was 1984, with Andropov in power.

To make a long story short, regarding how I found my immediate family. The Russian National Folk Ballet “Berezka” came to Latin America in 1980. Among the four or five artists that we invited to our home was a young lady by the name of Tatiana. They came back to Venezuela again in 1984, two weeks before I was to leave for Russia. Tanya wanted to meet me there upon my arrival, but couldn’t because her troupe was continuing their tour. She contacted her friends in Moscow who helped me find our relatives, among them my father’s sister. We never thought we had family in Russia. By the way, Tatiana is now my wife.

Q What were your biggest impressions of the Soviet Union?

Very emotional. On the one side, here I was in the country of my dreams and here I was in the middle of a very tough reality. Businesswise there were two main impressions. First, the very basic state of the restaurant industry. Though I was being watched during my trips in Russia, I decided to go out on my own; I went for a walk and ended up on the corner of Dorogomilovskaya and Kutuzovsky Prospect in Moscow, where there was a huge pizzeria. It was 2 o’clock, and I was hungry. In those days, there was often a sign saying one of the following three things on the restaurant doors – ‘closed for lunch’, ‘no seats available’, or ‘sanitary day’. On the Pizzeria door the sign said ‘no seats available’. I looked through the window and saw that it was empty. Nevertheless, I managed to get in. I was given a really nice menu that was 10 pages long, but most of the items weren’t available.

The second main impression was connected to the film industry. During my trip I ran out of camera film. I went to all possible places in Leningrad and Moscow to look for film. I think I went to 30 Beryozka’s – these were hard currency shops, like in Cuba today. I went to the local shops, and the only thing that looked similar to a roll of film was something called ‘Orwo’. I bought 5 packs. At this time my relationship with Kodak was very strong, because I was a partner with Kodak in Venezuela, so I knew something about film.

Q So how did you end up working in Russia?

After this I came back to Venezuela, and many things happened. In 1988 Kodak asked me to become their representative in the Soviet Union. Until 1995, I was Kodak in this country. We put together the first laboratory in Estonia, the first 500 one-hour laboratories were sold and introduced by us. We created distribution all over the ex-Soviet Union, and continued this work until 1995 when Kodak decided to set up in Russia. We had a chain in the Ukraine of about 200 plus stores, and about 50 stores in Belorussia. At that time we had between 500 and 600 stores. Today we still have an important business in Ukraine and Belorussia.

During that period, I was in negotiation to bring Burger King to Russia. That was a result of a meeting with the famous Venezuelan restaurateur David Epelbaum. That took two years of negotiations, and we had covered everything – field work, supply work, site allocations. At the end, Burger King considered the project too risky and called off the venture. At that time I already had my project approved, in Estonia and Moscow. Perhaps, Burger King would be bigger than McDonalds today in Russia if they hadn’t pulled out of the project.

Q Do you consider yourself to be a foreigner or a Russian?

That is a very difficult question. I have learned to live with these dualities. Sometimes it brings some problems inside of me, because one wants to belong to one place, not two or three. I lived in Venezuela until I was 28 or 29, although I had started traveling to Russia when I was 26. But even then I was raised in a Russian culture inside Venezuela. To answer the question, do I consider myself Russian or Venezuelan, I will say that I belong to both of these places. I don’t want to say 40/60 or 60/40. I feel at home in Russia and in Venezuela. I even feel at home in Spain.

Q Do you have time to be with your family?

I think we can divide it into three parts. Up until about 1993, 1994, I was a workaholic. At 11 o’clock at night I was still answering phone calls: After a big push from Tanya I started to change. On the weekends we started spending more time together. Then, after 1998, after the crisis, I started to re-think what life is. After that I began to spend much more private time with my family. Whenever the kids have a vacation, that is sacred, and of course I go with them. I have learned to understand that those years which you can spend and enjoy with your kids are limited. I spend a lot of time with the younger one. With the older one, I haven’t spent as much time as I would have liked; but I’m doing it now - as they say better late than never.

Q Do the kids go to school in Russia?

Yes they go to school here.

Q Your restaurants somehow have a certain ‘X factor’ which makes them very attractive to expats.

For the first five years, in the first restaurants, every director and every chef was a foreigner. All my top management were foreigners except the financial people. I brought 40-50 expat families here. Now, the management is 95% Russian, but at the top there are people like Henrik Winther and Emilia Garcia Bedford who have been with me since we started. I think we can say that we introduced the service culture into Russia, but we are not the only ones any more. There are great operations out there.

Q Do you franchise?

Like everything, the commercial and entrepreneurship activity has always been ahead of legislation. Even today, I think this is true. There are some countries that like to predict and offer incentives; but Russia is still not in a state where it can predict and offer incentives, though the gap is narrowing. Yes, the law on franchising is very basic; nevertheless we started franchising based on commercial principles. Some of the agreements were not enforceable by law, but by commercial common sense. I started ‘franchising’ in 1992 by looking for partners outside of Moscow, and working with them on a 40% or 45% basis. It was a partnership, but it was a sort of franchise of the product, with a controlling stake, to make sure that the franchising relation and obligation was maintained. When we started opening restaurant businesses in the regions, we piggy-backed on our Kodak infrastructure. We had already developed a team of commercially orientated partners, and in Moscow we already had critical mass; so we started doing pure franchising deals. Today we are developing franchising as one of the key directions of our business.

Q Your recent deal with the YUM! brands must have been a tremendous step for your business. Are you going to open up a separate department or even a separate company?

Making the deal with YUM! was a very difficult and emotional step, because it included the transfer of my baby, which is Rostik’s. I had a dream, I wanted Rostik’s to become the national quick-service chain, which is why although we used chicken, we also included national flavors and pelmeni in the menu. When I met the CEO of YUM!, Mr. David Novak, and had dinner with him, we understood that we could do something together. He was the one who came up with this clever idea not to do KFC, but to keep Rostik’s. We will run Rostik’s, and this will not be a purchase or a joint venture at this stage. Signing this deal implied a lot of knowledge and will on both sides. On our side we counted on a very good friend and a board member, Mr. Pedro Burelli, who lead the negotiations very effectively.

This deal may imply in the future that I will sell Rostik’s. That is a possibility, and it is clearly written in the agreement. Whatever happens, Rostik’s will remain in Russia and one of my dreams will come true. We have created a national brand, and it will live on. Large fast moving consumer goods companies buy local companies, and keep the local brand, because of the tie with local heritage. In the restaurant business however, this never happens. So this is a historical event. Rostik’s and the rest of the business was very cleverly put into separate legal entities five years ago, because we felt that we had to give it an independent approach, a separate identity. Otherwise it might merge into the stable of casual dining milieu. Five years later our intuition proved right. We gave it a separate identity, and that independent identity will grow during the 5-year transition period.

Q When do you think you will retire?

Rostislav with wife Tatiana Latinina

I don’t think I am a person who will retire in the classical meaning of the word. But I have learned that decentralizing and the transfer of decision making is important. Again, I had the advice and guidance of a very good friend, Willi Tischenko. I also learned from people that are much higher than me in the business world – people like Howard Shultz of Starbucks, or Bill Gates of Microsoft. They have moved from CEO to become the chief strategic officers; so when a business grows so much, you need different skills. I wouldn’t say my strongest skill is management. My strongest skills are marketing and strategy. I have started delegating some management responsibilities, and taking on more of the marketing and strategic responsibilities. I think as time goes by, you will see professional managers taking the role of CEO, and we have done this already with Rostik’s. Henrik Winther is well known in the expat community. He is on the board of directors of the American Chamber of Commerce, and he has been appointed, among his many responsibilities, as a CEO of Rostik’s. So this process is happening.

As you have already noticed, I practice the Russian saying: “It’s better to have a 100 friends rather than a 100 rubles”… although it’s better to have both…

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