Hi! I am in my home country of Russia in beautiful Saint Petersburg. Yay! It is still quite hard to find a good cup of coffee around here; you usually have to travel across the city for it. It isn’t Seattle with independent coffee shops on every corner and hipsters painting the scene, but very slowly it is getting there. There is one place you can count on to get a good fix – Bolshe Coffee! “Bolshe” means “more” in Russian, so More Coffee! Nice simple name, ah? It is also located in a grot. How cool is that? I had a chat with the owner – Nicholas Gotko. Listen up:
V. Please tell us about the coffee scene in Saint Petersburg. I have noticed lots of coffee shop chains, but not so many independent coffee shops around.
G. I believe this year to be the best so far for independent coffee shops in Saint Petersburg, and I think that this interest will only keep growing until we have enough neighborhood coffee shops to serve all of the locals on every street and corner. Right now, many have to travel far to get a good quality cup in a friendly, relaxed environment. Just in the past year, my team, which includes me, my wife Zoya, and Nicholas and Tatyana Yarlanskie, managed to open five independent coffee shops. All of these shops have different names, themes, and carry a local character. Meaning, they are meant primarily for clients studying and working nearby.
V. I am sure that many of our readers are very interested to know more about the specifics of doing business in Russia. I know that westerners have that idea that the mafia still rules the streets here, and you also have to have a significant startup capital to do any kind of business. Is it so?
G. The mafia isn’t really here anymore, at least not in small business. It is easier to open your own business now; no one helps, but at the same time no one interferes too much. We didn’t have significant startup capitals; neither did we have rich parent sponsors. We got together with my partners, took out some loans, and started working. We realized that it would be naïve to compete with giant franchises. So we decided to play by our own rules. We decided to sell a high quality product for a lower than market price, even though we have a different standard of preparation. For our coffee we use a portion of 18 – 20 grams instead of the regular six to nine grams. In addition to that, our lever coffee machines introduce a completely different level for the Russian market.
V. Your spot is cool! A grot sounds like a great fit for a coffee shop. Did you have to introduce significant changes to the place’s architecture before you opened?
G. A search for the perfect place took almost six months. In the end, we got the grot! Until we got the place, the grot was empty for about three years. There were some questionable beer places here previously, and that is why when we got here, everything was pretty beaten up. We had to redo many things using our own hands. We got help for very challenging tasks only; breaking some walls, changing electrics, and preparing everything for a paint job. Overall, construction and preparation to open took us about a month, so everything went pretty quickly. We didn’t change place’s architecture, we decided to work with what we had and fit in organically. Many believe that a majority of your business expenses should be spent on the interior, but we believe that equipment and product are more important than fancy walls.
V. Did you get into coffee business right from the beginning of your professional career?
G. Before I opened my shops, for almost 10 years I worked as an engineer in big coffee company, and my partner Nicholas was a vice president in a roasting company. In the mean time, we also participated in barista championships and even judged some of them. We are still judges in championships organized by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE). It is a very prestigious title in coffee world. To become a judge, one must take up a really hard exam that lasts four days, and only if passed properly, you would receive an official certificate. Plus, you have to reconfirm that certificate every two years.
The idea of opening our own shops was in our heads for a long time before we started to act on it. The first talk about it was about three or four years ago, but we were too busy with current work at a time, until finally about a year ago, we started Bolshe Coffee!
V. So what is your secret, why people love you so much?
G. When we first thought about opening up a shop, we had different variants of what the final result would be. We decided not to play by the rules: we decided to offer excellent, sometimes even rare coffee for an affordable price. Basically, instead of making an uptight place with high prices (of which there are many in Russia), we waned to create a space where everyone has the opportunity to drink great coffee for a comfortable price.
We succeeded in our original task of not to create a flash that would appear and then blow out. Rather, we created a place that would become a part of the city’s legend that everyone would know about. Our places have constant movement, action, and life in them. It is really important for our clients to feel our presence and that we care once inside our shops. We have the environment where one can be comfortable and you don’t have to pretend that you are someone else. We communicate this message to our clients very clearly. We have people in expensive suites next to sporty clients in shorts. We have mates with dogs and little children roaming around freely. Our environment is so easygoing. “I want coffee and I go get it at Bolshe!” We made it simple as that in Saint Petersburg.
V. Any advice to other business owners like you in both Russia and other countries?
G. I would say learn to control your fears. Our biggest fear was that we weren’t sure if the Russian mentality would halt our progress – “if something is cheap, then it must be bad.” However, everything actually turned out to be great! It was more of a pleasant shock for our clients, they were confused, “Why is everything is so good and why does it cost so little?!” We love our customers, and we try to show it in the ways I described earlier.
Since we mentioned fear though, I would say that fear is a good thing! However, it has to be the kind of fear that is motivational, the one that makes you want to keep going further, even though you are scared. This kind of fear makes you more careful about the quality of your job. Lastly, I would like to add my most important advice: “Do your job well, and you won’t run away from success!