“I exchanged prestige for adventure”

From ice cream parlors to full restaurants: Elena Kuznetsova, co-owner and general manager of Caffe Venezia, Caffe Italia and La Mensa canteens, told Novy Prospekt how to set up a booking facility several days in advance, why you are interested in the shape of the canteen and is today take care of your business.

From the consulate to the cafe

Elena, as far as I understand, you were not going to become a restaurateur: you became one when you married an Italian. How did you meet your husband?

– On the Internet! (Laughs.) I knew Italian, I was a translator. But I was an active translator, I wanted to improve my language, expand my circle of acquaintances and I found a site dedicated to Italians living abroad – outside Italy. For me, then still a girl learning the language and unfamiliar with living Italians, who were very few in Russia at the time, this turned out to be a great opportunity, especially since the page dedicated to St. Petersburg was broken: there was no administrator. Of course, I offered and they took me. (smiles). On this site, Franco and I met.

Has he already lived in Russia?

– No, he lived in Italy, but he wanted to change his place of residence. He was involved in the design and production of bags, creating and sewing them from scratch. And initially, his goal was to introduce his products to our market. We started talking, he came here, we started a relationship and a goal came up – to organize our lives here, because I really did not want to go to Italy.

Caffe Italia

Why;

– My career was evolving: I translated for politicians at the G8, helped with meetings with Boris Piotrovsky, Alexander Sokurov, Elena Obraztsova, and so on. I was hired by the Italian consulate. It was a new world and for me it was just wow! But then Franco arrived, we were looking for a place to open his exhibition. I even managed to display his bags at the Gostiny Dvor. But then his style was very avant-garde and our audience was not ready for that. This business did not take off and Franco offered to open a cafe.

Our guests find us

Did you immediately open a full restaurant?

– Of course not, we opened the ice cream parlor Caffe Venezia. Franco knew how to cook Italian ice cream, there was no such thing in St. Petersburg and we decided it would be interesting. I decided to leave a steady job and we opened Venice: at first we only worked with ice cream and then we presented a kitchen.

Cafe Venezia

Were you afraid to go almost anywhere? Still, a growing career, a promising direction.

– What to fear? By nature, I’m quite an adventurous person. And there – here is your partner next to you, you have a relationship, a certain trust in each other and you, like the wife of a Decembrist, are already following your other half into the unknown. So I exchanged prestige for adventure. There was only one room in the cafe, Franco repaired it by hand and we started working.

Together or did he immediately pick up some staff?

– Together, of course! There was no talk of staff, there was no money. We opened it, he taught me how to work with the coffee maker along the way and he dealt with the equipment himself. We were one of the first foreign owners of a restaurant where the owners were standing right behind the counter, and, it seems to me, the first to introduce democratic Italian cuisine: all the Italian shops at that time were very neat and expensive.

Was it Venetian cuisine?

– Not. Franco is from the Emilia-Romagna area, so we drove this kitchen.

What are its features?

– Bolognese lasagna is made in Emilia Romagna. The name itself reflects the name of the capital of this region – the city of Bologna. The kitchen is generally simple. The inhabitants of this area are hunters, which means that various pieces of sausages are served at the table. are carnivores. Slowly, even at the ice cream stage, we had a pool of regular guests. With the advent of the kitchen, it expanded, a reputation spread for us – that’s how we grew, naturally. We did not even have a sign, and it does not exist now, our guests find us themselves. You must book a table a few days in advance.

Restaurant like home

Your Caffe Italia is not exactly a restaurant: it makes you feel at home – very atmospheric, welcoming, free…

Caffe Italia

– Originally built as a house, being a continuation of the first house – “Venice”. We opened “Italy” with more rooms, transferred all the equipment here, and closed the kitchen in “Venice”, leaving ice cream. And all the dishes served there began to be served in “Italy”: this restaurant lives on 80% of the “Venetian” recipes 15 years ago. Then we rebuilt Venice, added another room there and in 2016 we started the kitchen again.

Are these two restaurants similar?

– The “Italian” scheme is more democratic – not in terms of prices, but in terms of atmosphere. “Italy” is much younger, because “Venice” has a completely different design that requires a different approach, so there is a slightly different audience. But both of these restaurants were our homes: we really lived in Venice, and when we opened Italy, we already rented an apartment nearby, but we spent all our time here in the restaurant. Maybe that gave a homely atmosphere.

Caffe Italia

At the same time, the restaurant has many rooms and each one has its own peculiarities. Did it happen on its own?

“Initially there were three rooms here. Then in 2012, we opened the EVO hall – a music bar, in 2016 – the Caffe 500: a large showcase with 24 types of ice cream (previously there were 12), the whole patisserie and fresh pasta went there. But in the minds of the people it is still Caffe Italia and we stopped fighting it. And in 2020 we opened the La Mensa canteen over Italy.

Is the dining room also Italian?

– Russian-European, but when our regular guests get tired of eating the same thing on the first floor for years, they go for something new on the second (smiles). There is a completely different price: you can get a full form of lunch for 400 rubles. This canteen works very well and I am thinking of further developing it, reproducing the form.

What is impotence

You went through a complete restaurant school: from standing on the bench of the first establishment to building new restaurants…

– I stood behind the counter not only in the first institution (laughs). I left the room from the moment the child was born and then survived until the last day, went to the hospital and returned when my daughter was 10 days old. And so, from the age of 10, my daughter was hanging behind me on the couches, and I stood at the checkout and ran around the room because there was no replacement. At the age of one and a half, the baby went to kindergarten and I continued to work. When I needed to promote EVO, I worked at night. But because I do not know how to mix cocktails, I washed the dishes or stood at the counter. And objectively, I left the story of the room, probably six or eight years ago, however, then I had escaped the flow of guests and stood behind the bar – in the coffee shop or at the cash register (smiles).

Caffe 500

Did he flee because the flow was already too heavy?

– When you work with people for a long time, you start to “scan” them. The guests are different, but the right waiter will not respond to rudeness with rudeness. And with age, patience, it happens, runs out (laughs). So in that sense, I’m just unfit. And to protect people from my very violent reaction, I limited myself to going out into the room. Now I get into conflicts when they start insulting my staff unfairly or when we make a very big mistake. But both, fortunately, rarely happen. When there are some outdoor events, for example festivals, I stand with the kids “in a stroller” – on ice cream, because everyone counts there and, in principle, I am a very strong line player.

The other players on the team

How did you survive the pandemic?

– Both “Venice” and “Italy” were working out the window – accepting and issuing orders. People were then shocked and walked in the light like moths. They had to show that you were open and I had all the windows wide open. And then we redesigned one of our stores, we made a range of products and that allowed us to give people a chance to get in so they wouldn’t freeze on the street.

Is it legally possible to remodel a restaurant into a store so quickly?

On the one hand I was lucky, on the other not. One of my companies had an OKVED store and we worked under it. This allowed us to quickly open a store in one of the halls, but this did not allow us to receive support from the state and with all the measures for the restaurant, I flew specifically. But the store helped withstand the lockdown.

After all, at the time of the pandemic, you opened a canteen, right?

– Yes, I saw that the industrial canteens could work, I realized that it makes sense to open it and I did it in just 2 months. I transported food for all the staff and food for the business center there.

Caffe Italia

Did you manage to keep the staff?

– I gave a job to everyone who wanted to work. Waiters were retrained as couriers, managers were retrained as packers or cleaners. I notice that the pandemic has made people very clear: it turns out that sometimes those you thought of as your team are not like that at all. This is good too! Only the really team players remained.

Annual product stocks

Now the history of the pandemic has been overshadowed by another – a special military operation. How did it change the life of the restaurant?

– Adjust the price. Products before went up in prices, and in March prices skyrocketed and did not decline much, because logistics are changing drastically. A bottle of water in my market has increased by almost 100 rubles. There are posts that have increased by 2.5 times and some just no longer exist. For example, all imported beer is gradually disappearing: now all bottling stops for me, because I do not want to put Russian beer in the bottle yet and, most likely, I will change the idea and put a bottle.

Caffe Italia

Italian?

Yes, I hope to find an Italian bottle, but I may not find it, because Italian wine is imported, but for some reason the beer is not. All cuttlefish disappeared from the city. For a while the whole cash register disappeared.

How do you get out of the situation?

– When all this happened, I had some financial reserves and invested a lot of money in food stocks. Now I have six months and even a year supply of non-perishable. I just bought them because I did not understand what would happen. Now I see that I somehow sank into money, because I bought something at inflated prices, then they fell. But on the other hand, for a while I was calm with the products: I have them.

Do you see any perspective?

– Yes, everything will be fine! People will never stop eating, getting sick, cursing and dying. Doctors, lawyers, undertakers and restaurateurs will always be needed (laughs).

Caffe Italia

certificate of the new prospectus

Elena Kuznetsova in 2006 he graduated from St. Petersburg State University, School of Philology of the Italian Department. In 2005 she met her future husband, Italian Franco Casadei and in 2006 she started working at the Italian consulate in St. Petersburg. In 2007, the couple opened Caffe Venezia (Nevsky pr., 107), in 2010 – Caffe Italia (pr. Bakunin, 5), and in 2012 and 2016 – EVO Bar and Caffe 500, respectively. In 2020, the team began developing the canteen form by opening the La Mensa canteen above Caffe Italia.

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