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Business

Natalia Bragina the Pasta Lady
The pasta is starting to get a bit of a glossy reputation amongst some of Moscows expat chef community, and one restaurant managed to shock Natalia, in the pleasantest possible way, by making the discovery that once on the menu, they were going through it at a rate three times that forecast when they first ordered. Its the sort of news that goes down well with investors, and Natalia isnt ashamed to confess she gets a kick out of it.
By James Blake
Photos by Alexey Zhukov

High energy, plenty of determination of course, the vision to think beyond the ordinary, and that little dash of madness that all true gourmands exude when talking about their product. Natalia Bragina isn't your ordinary entrepreneur, there is a little something in the blood; and if you sit and have a coffee with her you can get her to confess. Its something about being in the gourmet food business that is difficult to get rid of, once its in; and her latest venture, into the fresh pasta production and delivery world is testament to the weird, and wonderful forms it can take.

As one of many Russians completing a business MBA in the United States in 2002, it would have been relatively simple for her to stay there and slip into comfortable corporate obscurity; but she not only returned to Moscow (where it would have been just as easy to slip into corporate obscurity), but set sail in driving Russia's first top end wine maker Chateau Vostok from nowhere to a thriving business. Whilst many of her MBA toting counterparts were gracing the hallowed hallways and offices of the corporate world talking mergers and acquisitions, she was arguing with grape growers and winemakers about sugar levels and machine maintenance. Eventually this became tiring and once the company was up and running steadily, she moved on. But she quickly discovered that the corporate mainstream she had moved into (a large international oil company) could be boring in its own right, that the hallowed corporate halls werent for her, and that something was whispering food. Gourmet food. But not just any gourmet food, one that involved overturning a little bit of Russian food culture.

"When I came back from the States, I noticed there wasn't any fresh pasta here at all; and at some point my friends and I realised that if we introduced it, then people would like it and buy it."

From having an idea to putting it into practice isnt usually all plain sailing, and it hasnt been the case here either. Putting together a business plan and getting two partners into the project to bring fresh pasta; into greater prominence on the local market was straightforward enough. But from there it was on to details, business and food. First there was choosing the pasta making machines, and the start of a substantial learning process about the making of fresh pasta, then came facilities and employees.

But once all this was ready to go, there was the slight matter of getting the product approved for sale by the health authorities. This wasnt a simple matter when you consider that they had absolutely no standard against which to gauge fresh pasta, as opposed to its dried counterpart.

"They had to essentially develop the standard for it, because there wasnt another product like it being prepared for the market and it took forever. If I had been making dried pasta, or something which had been eaten here forever, then it wouldnt have been a problem. But because they had to completely work out what the standard was, then it became one."

Bravizzi pasta is already being sold in some restaurants around town, and its starting to appear in supermarket shelves also. But the really interesting phenomena, especially for those starting to drool at the thought, is that you can log onto the internet site at www.bravizzi.ru order from the fettuccine, tagliolini, and pappardelle on the menu there, and have the company deliver it to you.

The pasta is starting to get a bit of a glossy reputation amongst some of Moscows expat chef community, and one restaurant managed to shock Natalia, in the pleasantest possible way, by making the discovery that once on the menu, they were going through it at a rate three times that forecast when they first ordered. Its the sort of news that goes down well with investors, and Natalia isnt ashamed to confess she gets a kick out of it.

"That made my day! Thats what any food producer wants to hear, and when they called up and told me they were going through three times as much, it was just a great feeling. And its kind of nice seeing it on supermarket shelves too."

Getting it onto supermarket shelves isnt as easy as it may sound. It involves chatting to that most crusty and conservative sub species, the supermarket chain buyer, and these like their products well known, inclined to walk out the door by themselves, and possessed of a suitable margin. Being a quality end gourmet product will help the margins, to know about the product is to buy it if you can take the word of chefs and restaurant customers; but its weak link is that here in Moscow most of the public have absolutely no awareness of fresh pasta whatsoever. When they think pasta, they think the dried variety, which has indeed walked off the shelves for more than a generation. When they think of types they think of flat, tubular and a range of shapes and sizes; but they also think in terms that supermarket chain buyers like dried and relatively easy to handle, virtually no use-by date, and straightforward to prepare. Selling the supermarket buyers, at least in the first instance or two, wasnt that easy. But progress has been made, and Bravizzi is now on the shelves at various locations around town.

"Well, I thought maybe they were trying to get me to lower the price, but I can sort of see where they were coming from. Russian consumers can be pretty conservative, and we are just a small company."

But shes been helped in her quest by growing affluence in the community, along with increased travel to Europe and the US, which means increased awareness of the magnificent array of flavours and textures which can be achieved with fresh made pasta. And ever so gradually shes also seeing, with the rising prosperity around, an increased interest in trying something a little new.

To help spread the awareness, there have been sales in Ekaterinburg, Voronezh and Saratov, and a marketing campaign is in the pipeline to get further exposure for Bravizzi. If that isnt enough shes already talking new pasta varieties, filled pasta, and maybe bureaucrats, retail purchasers and interest of the general public pending sauces. But this is all off in the future somewhere. For the time being, it is one step at a time, making sure the product is top quality, is getting to where its wanted, and working on making it wanted more.

When asked about being a female entrepreneur in a world full of male counterparts she says she finds it an advantage. She thinks as a woman; she is more prepared to go and deal with the bureaucrats and buyers in person, more understanding of the points they make, and that the generally male people she needs to deal with are possibly more helpful when dealing with a woman. In fact, most officials and buyers are women, and more often than not they are surprisingly supportive, she finds.

She adds that she feels privileged and that shes accessing opportunities that might not have come her way. When she mixes with her friends she has the advantage of being something different, in that shes helping to change tastes, and letting customers know that a small Russian producer can do something new, and make a good quality product while they are at it. And anyone who likes their pasta fresh, has got to be thankful for that.







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