What can show better the economic and social development of a nation than a thriving pizza business?
Myron Spolsky, a Canadian of Ukrainian descent, moved to Ukraine 29 years ago and in three decades built a successful pizza brand in the country’s capital of Kyiv. Today it has two locations, unique takeout and delivery services, a wide array of pizza selections, and a handsome website (http://vesuvio.ua/en). The marque proudly reads “Vesuvio.”
“There was literally nothing else in terms of a normal restaurant in Kyiv. There were a couple of ‘hard currency’ hotel restaurants and that was all,” recalled Spolsky in a recent telephone conversation. “In the first few years, people were lining up outside the pizzeria. It looked like the line up at the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow. People came for the experience of eating a pizza.”
In the midst of a society transitioning from socialism to capitalism, Spolsky learned about pizza making and Ukraine’s nascent commercial bureaucracy. He also had to adapt to an evolving consumer mentality.
With no distributors coming to the rescue, Spolsky alone found and established relationships with suppliers. For the first two or three years, when the inflation rate was several thousand points a year, he scrambled every day to buy the right amount of products without waiting.
“Now there are established manufacturers. We have cheese makers that we’ve been dealing with for 10-12 years. We have meat producers and we’ve established close relationships with them. We actually go to the plants monthly and meet with the people,” Spolsky said.
Spolsky described his pizzas as being similar to what patrons eat in Toronto and New York City, though there are subtle differences. First of all, local patrons have developed a strong liking for a Chicago deep-dish pizza.
The dough is slightly different because it is yeast based, a local preference, he pointed out. The dough and tomato sauce are slightly sweeter and the flour has a higher gluten level because of the nature of Ukrainian wheat.
“We have a market here that likes our pizza and as the saying goes, if you think you have a lousy product but the people are lining up for it, don’t change the recipe. Our clients have been with us for 25 years. If we start making changes to the recipe, they tell us they don’t like it and we go back to the original recipe,” Spolsky said.
Oddly, he said, he never experienced difficulties with hiring chefs and wait staff. When he was setting up his business, the big Soviet-style operations were closing, resulting in unemployment.
“We had our selection of chefs, cake bakers, and wait staff. We had a lot of highly educated people with two or three degrees coming to work for us. We were also paying two or three times higher than average salaries. We had computer specialists, master bakers and teachers. Highly educated drivers were delivering pizzas,” he said.
Staff training was undertaken by Canadian professionals and the employees in turn passed their knowledge to the next generation of workers.
“We have the grandchild of one of the original employees with us today,” Spolsky beamed.
Food safety and health inspections are evolving along with contemporary foodservice in Ukraine. Spolsky noted that since the country adopted EU standards, operators are obligated to abide by its higher norms and ensure that food products meet manufacturers’ specifications.
“The requirements here are far greater than they ever were in North America. Our pizzas have to be better than the ingredients we use and they have to be cleaner and safer,” he said.
As for health inspections, they’ve been cancelled because the process bred corruption. Spolsky remembered that early on, when inspectors visited his pizzeria, he had to be ready with the payoff. For the time being, operators monitor food safety.
Vesuvio has two locations in the capital city, one with indoor sating for 120 and the other with 60 seats inside and 60 for alfresco dining.
The pizzas are admittedly big with the largest varieties measuring 19 inches and weighing up to 6.5 pounds. Additionally, the pizzeria offers North American style salads, Greek salads, Caesar salads, lasagna and spaghetti. It also prepares popular Ukrainian fare such as varenyky and borshch.
In some three decades, Vesuvio has established an envious track record with second and third generation of post-independence pizza lovers lining up for a meal. Its website and word of mouth advertising help as young customers say their parents had brought them to the pizzeria when they were children.
Reflecting on his personal ingredients for success, Spolsky admitted that micro management and strict control of the staff, suppliers and vendors are essential. Nothing can be left to chance.
“In North America, I would never raise my voice to control the operation and fend off the stupidity that could happen. Here, you have to nip everything in the bud. It was a crass, crude, semi-criminal society in Soviet Union. You have to deal with remnants of that society in a manner in which they understand,” he said.