New Diner Finds Niche Near Lenin

It was in the mail for six weeks. It arrived in pieces. It was put together in four days. Voila! Instant expat Mecca.

A new Starlite Diner has appeared in Moscow's Oktyabrskaya area, just in front of the Russian Central Bank and just behind Lenin's back. It will open before the end of the month, said the restaurant's president, Shawn McKenna.

The restaurant's first location in Aquarium Park near Mayakovskaya metro station has become a popular place to meet and eat for homesick foreigners and, increasingly, for Russians looking for a slice of Americana.

McKenna said that after nine months in business, the first site now has a majority-Russian clientele. The new location, farther away from touristy Tverskaya Ulitsa, is an attempt to further attract the Russian market, as well as to provide relief to customers used to long waits for tables at the diner, he added.

The new location is part of a plan to establish 20 Starlite Diners worldwide by 1998, McKenna said. There will be four more restaurants built this year, two of them most likely in Russia.

Starlite Diners, said McKenna, fill an important niche in Moscow between fast-food and "white table cloth" restaurants. Starlite vice president Bob Lorenz said there is plenty of room for expansion in that niche. "Moscow could absorb another 500 restaurants and still demand wouldn't go down," Lorenz said.

The Russian-American partnership that owns Starlite Diners, as well as Guilly's restaurant and the Moscow Beach Club fitness center, is obligated to continue the expansion in exchange for exclusive rights to diners built by Starlite, a manufacturing company based in Ormond Beach, Florida. The exclusive rights mean McKenna's group can build diners internationally at a far lower price than any potential competitors can.

Management is working hard, McKenna said, to create a Russian-friendly atmosphere in the American-style setting. "We're taking a traditional-style Western restaurant and customizing it to the Russian marketplace to ensure that it makes sense to Russians first," he said.

The new diner may be aimed at Russians, but it is located just a stone's throw from one of the larger foreign ghettos in the capital.

Assembled in four days after a six-week journey from Florida, it will seat 152, while its predecessor seats 114.

Though the diner was assembled by an American construction team, its 125 employees will be "almost exclusively Russian," he said.

"Working here is a chance to learn more about America, more about history" said Zhanna Burlakova, a manager at the new diner. "The diner is the soul of the '50s and '60s."

The new diner, assembled in four days after a six-week journey from Florida, has the same shiny-steel look as the Aquarium Park diner, though over 60 design changes were made. It will seat 152, while its predecessor seats 114.

Starlite, said McKenna, is one of only three companies to produce diners, and the only one to produce modular diners, which can be assembled at 25 percent of the cost for a non-modular diners, built from scratch on site.

This is partly in deference to local governmental sensibilities and partly just good business.

Our interpretation of the stance of Mayor [Yury] Luzhkov is that he encourages foreign investment, but the more you can do to have your business become more Russian, the better," said McKenna. "In any case, it also means more customers will respond.