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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A 'Giant' Endeavor in Vladivostok

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- If Dick Schind-ler has his way, buying food in Russia will never be the same.

Heading up a Russian-American joint venture, Schindler plans to open the country's first American-style mega-supermarket here, a $16 million investment to be appropriately called "Giant."

"It will look like a Russian version of an American supermarket," said Schindler, 65, the former president of the New York-area supermarket chain Gristede's.

That means that locally grown produce and food will be featured, not American junk food, on well-stocked aisles of food. Assisted by a $6 million U.S. government grant, a team of local farmers will, in theory at least, provide the supermarket with a steady stream of quality fruits, vegetables, meat and fish. They will also make their own sausages and baked goods.

"Our program is to develop the food system from the beginning to the final customer," said Schindler, who oversees the project from a spartan office in downtown Vladivostok. Giant will also sell food from their suppliers to other food stores in a separate wholesale wing of the supermarket.

Shoppers weaned on generations of waiting in lines to order from an often hostile salesperson will have a chance to choose for themselves at Giant. Even more radical for the Far East, shoppers will pay for the food at one of 18 checkout lines where cashiers will log purchases by computer code. Schindler said he is aiming for service at the checkout as friendly as McDonald's in Moscow.

If Giant catches on, locals will also no longer need to shuttle between a series of poorly stocked state shops in bitterly cold weather to fill their cupboards. But they will have to travel 28 kilometers from the center toward the airport and walk for 10 minutes if they are taking public transport. Those with cars will find a parking lot for 400 to 500 vehicles.

Schindler said he originally traveled to Moscow 2 1/2 years ago to seek out opportunities there, but then decided that Russia's Far East was the wave of the future.

"The growth area of Russia, I feel, is going to be the east, because it is the closest natural port to America, Japan and the Pacific Rim," said Schindler, whose determination and straightforward manner of speech recalls Texas businessman and maverick politician Ross Perot. Giant does not expect to see profits for at least three years, although they are already planning expansion in Russia, he said.

"From the two stores, I can visualize 10 more over the next two years," he said.

Still, Schindler acknowledges the project is a gamble that faces significant obstacles. His biggest headache at present comes from Russian customs, which is holding up $5 million of freezers, computers and other equipment. They say Giant must pay about a million dollars in customs duties, money Schindler says he will not pay. He is appealing to officials locally and in Moscow for help.

"There's nothing easy about doing business in Russia," he said. "It's a crusade really -- we've got it this far and we will get it open."

The question then becomes why does a non-Russian speaker who was already living in semi-retirement in Florida decide to go through the hassle of setting up supermarkets here in the first place?

"It's kind of my last hurrah," Schindler said. "Either I'll benefit from it or my family or my kids will benefit from it and ultimately the country will benefit from it."