Up until 1998, Mikhail Goncharov was just a twenty-something guy with a business selling household electronics in Moscow, tape recorders, mostly. But then the Russian economy collapsed—the ruble was devalued, the state defaulted on its debts—and suddenly it wasn’t such a great time to be in the electronics business. So he did the logical thing: He started a blini business. Except that in Russia, in 1998, it wasn’t actually the logical thing at all.
His qualifications: a math degree from Moscow State University; an extensive collection of vintage Russian cookbooks; and a formative experience at Moscow’s first McDonald’s, which took the city by storm in 1990.
We’re sitting, me and Goncharov and his COO, Andrey Narkevich, at a small, tall table at Teremok near Union Square, one of two New York outposts of his now-international fast-casual blini empire. It would make sense, in this situation, to order one of the eleven blini on the menu (stuffed Russian crepes; blin, singular), but at the counter, Narkevich—himself a fan of the “Say Cheese” blini—mentioned the kasha was healthier, and I am nothing if not game for self-improvement. So I am eating a cardboard bowl of buckwheat groats topped with mushrooms, and, politely, they are eating nothing.
Now 47, Goncharov didn’t know much about the restaurant business when he invested “about $30,000 US dollars” (plus a $60,000 loan) and opened the first street kiosk in Moscow. His initial plan was to open something like Pret A Manger, the UK-based boxed sandwich chain, but then he decided boxed sandwiches were no match for Moscow winters, that he needed something heartier, more seasonally appropriate.
“In Russia, we have at least five, six months a year of cold,” he explains. Warm blini, he decided, would be a better sell. To hear him tell it, what happened next was very simple: he came up with a business plan. He opened for business. (Why, one wonders, talking to him, are any of us wasting our lives not starting fast-food chains?) Today, there are more than 300 Teremoks in Russia—Moscow and St. Petersburg, mostly—plus the two in New York.
Not that it was all a capitalist fairy tale. There was, for example, still the matter of the basic blini recipe, arguably the linchpin of a blini business. “I visited Paris two times and talked to at least 15 or 20 different crêperies, asking them how they make the batter,” Goncharov says, but then, back in Moscow, it wasn’t the same. He turned to Russian cookbooks. That was better, he tells me; let’s be clear: crepes and blini are not (quite) the same thing. blini are “softer and juicier,” he says, and yes, maybe “a little more oily.”
Here’s the thing, though: you can only get so far with cookbooks. To build an empire, you need something no one else has. Like, say, your mother. Six months after opening, he brought on his mom, Tatiana Vasilievna, to develop Teremok’s recipes, which she has been doing ever since.
Like her son, she doesn’t have a culinary background. By trade, she’s a pianist. Back in Goncharov’s hometown of Almaty, in Kazakhstan, she taught at a music school, and then worked as an accompanist for the ballet. When she moved to Moscow, after Goncharov, she joined him for a few years in the electronics business, so, you know, why not fast food? “In Russia, the women are the ones who hold the culinary tradition,” Goncharov told Russia Beyond. “She is such a holder of tradition.”
I ask him what it’s like, going into business with your mother, and though he is generally reverential, I get the impression he is perhaps choosing his words carefully. “It’s on the one side easy, and sometimes not easy, because she’s very … how can I put it?” Narkevich steps in. “[She’s] sometimes very stubborn,” he suggests, and they agree this is true. “Sometimes we ask her to make this or that recipe, and she says, ‘No, it’s impossible.’” But every time, she finds a way.
Teremok entered the Russian market with a major advantage, which was that there was nothing quite like it. That was also the hard part. The first step to selling fast-food blini is convincing Russians, who have, until now, never paid for fast-food blini, that perhaps they might like to start. Burgers, those were kind of exotic, at least. But home-style comfort food? Couldn’t people just ... make that … at home? “That’s why when they see the prices, they say, ‘why do you sell the blini at 200 rubles? It should be 50 rubles! Flour and eggs are just 13 rubles!’” Goncharov laughs. “We say, think! Like in Back to the Future, ‘Think, McFly! Think!’”
Apparently, they are thinking: Teremok, which they’ve only just begun to think of as a “medium-scale business,” is bringing in about $200 million a year, Goncharov says. And while right now they’re concentrated in Russia, their plan is to go global: first doubling down in New York—they want at least 20 restaurants—and then branching further, maybe Canada next, or Japan, though all that’s “still at the beginning of negotiations.”
So now the question is: how Russian to be? And the resounding answer is: not that Russian. If you know what you’re looking for, then sure, it’s not a secret. The logo is a matryoshka doll. The second New York location has a low-key birch tree motif, and the food, what with the borscht and the kasha, is not subtle. But “that’s enough,” Goncharov says. The slogan—“Where Flavor Meets Healthy”—is appropriately nationless. Who doesn’t crave flavor? Who doesn’t love health?
“We want to be the place that you can go every day, not some exotic place you go to taste exotic flavors and eat in the exotic atmosphere,” Narkevich says. Look at Chipotle: When you go to Chipotle for a burrito, sure, you know burritos are from Mexico, but you don’t think you’re at a Mexican restaurant. You’re not. You’re at Chipotle. You’re not at a “Russian” restaurant at Teremok. You’re at Teremok.
And it’s working, they agree, not that Goncharov is satisfied yet. In addition to expanding Teremok in the US, he’s also working on a “more hipster-oriented” variation in set to open in Moscow in March of 2018. It won’t be called Teremok, though. “It’s too big for the independent markets,” he says.
This story originally appeared on Foodandwine.com.