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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting a Thumb in Many Pies

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Three university dropouts have set up a thriving chain of eateries offering affordable food, live music and even the occasional Bible reading in a bard-like atmosphere. Torrey Clark met with the owners to find out how Project O.G.I. got started and about their ambitious expansion plans this year.

In a city famous for making the top 10 list of the world's most expensive cities and for its extravagant over-the-top night life, there aren't many places to go other than the kitchen table when you have 150 rubles in your pocket and want to talk with friends over a glass of wine and some food.

Project O.G.I. is an exception.

Despite the allure of high short-term returns and wide profit margins, Project O.G.I. founders Dmitry Itskovich, Mitya Borisov and Alexei Kabanov are betting their money on the middle class. Subjugating sparkle and high fashion to affordable prices and comfort, the three former language students, who all left university before graduating, have transformed in three years an intellectual publishing house, a cult music promotion and an underground club opened on $400 into three popular multifaceted cafe-restaurants in the center of Moscow.

And that is just the start. Club-Project O.G.I., the cafe PiR O.G.I. and the restaurant Ulitsa O.G.I. will be joined by a chain of PiR O.G.I. cafes in June and a multimillion-dollar complex this fall.

At the Beginning



The black-bearded Itskovich is the elder statesman of the three founders, in charge of raising finance and the bazar — the whole shop. Borisov's unkempt red hair and energetic patter suit his talents as the organizer of various cultural events, the promoter. Kabanov takes care of personnel, finances and other fundamental business issues, and unlike the other two, could easily get lost in a crowd of good-looking, middle-class guys. But the roles also blur, and everyone contributes to their projects.

Once they start speaking, their physical differences give way to strong ideolO.G.I.cal and conversational similarities. They each repeat the word normalny, which is closer to "nice" than "normal" in English, to describe their audience: "normal" people with "normal" values who want a "normal" life. They talk of "cultural centricity," a set of values shared by people who grew up under the same system and voluntarily — or not — read the same books. Culture takes center stage.

It is fitting that the project was set in motion by chance in 1992 when Itskovich switched from writing and teaching literature and art classes to helping friends in publishing. By 1995, his O.G.I. — the abbreviation in Russian for United Humanities Publishing House — had found its niche in literature, academia and poetry. Even with a small average print run of about 2,000 copies, O.G.I. manages to break even. "It is, after all, a business," says Kabanov.

Also in 1995, Itskovich joined Borisov in Group Y, which managed the Petersburg rock band Auktsyon. Taking a relatively big monetary risk for that time, Group Y bet on using a big promotion to scale up from the standard format of small concert plus small venue equals a small payoff. They ran ads in the Moscow metro, which was a first for a cult band, says Itskovich. The group's final concert attracted more than 2,000 people.

Failures such as misunderstanding the audience also provided valuable lessons. Borisov says one such misstep came at a concert that they "didn't particularly want to go to ourselves."

"We thought it's the same business, we did the same thing, and people didn't come," he says. "Something was missing."



The First Project PiR O.G.I.



When the 1998 crisis wiped out their chances of recouping several music-related investments, Borisov and Itskovich took $400 and started a club featuring poetry and music in a friend's four-room apartment on Tryokhprudny Pereulok. It was an experiment that Itskovich admits he was hesitant to get involved in.

Borisov credits the club's success to former classmate Kabanov, who joined the project two weeks after the opening.

The original Club-Project O.G.I. started small. The menu offered four or five dishes — soup, salad and entrees. Like at home, guests were served whatever the cook decided to prepare. The bar was more diverse, but wholly unlicensed. Their restaurateur skills may have been uneven — food and drink tended to run out — but the three founders were learning how to bring in people. The atmosphere drew crowds of artists, musicians, journalists, friends and family.

The club quickly reached its potential and, confined by lack of space, disgruntled neighbors and a dubious legal status, the trio closed its doors on June 24, 1999, planning to reopen in two days at a new and more suitable location.

"On the 25th, the new landlord disappeared," Kabanov says. "[Everything] from the club — well, we drank the alcohol — lay in our apartments for six months while we searched for a new location. And it was normal. Now we have lawyers and [lease] agreements. … Then, it was classic Moscow."

Club-Project O.G.I. reopened deep in a courtyard off of Chistoprudny Bulvar in early 2000 with a budget in the tens of thousands of dollars. An inconspicuous door leads down to a dark basement cafe with crude mosaic floors and a small gallery. On the second floor is a bookshop for the erudite. On word of mouth, Club-Project O.G.I. fills up to overflowing for smoke-clogged evenings of poetry and music. (Programs are listed at Project.O.G.I..ru)

On one memorable evening, the hard-rock group Leningrad played while a poetry reading and a nun-led Bible reading went on in other rooms.

Itskovich and Borisov say the club broke even within 18 months, but their real success came four months after the opening. The club had already become such a part of guests' lives that some were overheard reminiscing about visits to the club five years earlier.



Getting Bigger



To absorb customer overflow, Itskovich, Borisov and Kabanov opened the cafe PiR O.G.I. in August 2000. PiR O.G.I.'s green and red-walled cafe gives way to an upstairs bookstore cum cafe-bar added in April, with a newspaper ceiling in the stairwell and metal floors in the back room. Like Club-Project O.G.I., the interiors are low-budget hip, relying on color, wire, wood, metal and art work to engage the eye. Notable for Moscow, it hums with conversation, not music.

"PiR O.G.I. is for people who are already earning enough that they do not have to think about tomorrow — although maybe the day after tomorrow," Kabanov says.

PiR O.G.I. will gain an additional 2,000 square meters by fall 2001. A pub-restaurant will take up residence in the basement and a cabaret on the third floor.

A new PiR O.G.I. will open by July outside the Garden Ring — if a suitable location can be found. The Moscow real estate market for small business space is so disorganized that searching for suitable locations has taken up to 25 percent of the planning period.

All but one of the company's locations were found by chance.

The main office was found as a hasty relocation when the owners relinquished space to expand their third venture, a restaurant, to include an art gallery. Huddled in a courtyard and looking suspiciously uninhabitable from the outside, the office exemplifies the O.G.I. values: a culture of people, not flash.

The third venture, Ulitsa O.G.I., is also located deep in a courtyard, through an arch off Ulitsa Petrovka. Its white brick and metal interior, designed by contemporary architect Alexander Brodsky, provides a backdrop for a more formal restaurant and the multicolored silk-screens currently on sale in the upstairs gallery. Starting this month the restaurant plans to introduce lunch menus from around the world and a new dinner menu of "restoration" cuisine, exploring the history of food and reviving dishes from bygone cultures.

On an average Saturday, more than 3,000 customers pass through the three O.G.I.s. Despite the demand, the owners say there is no tangible competition. Maybe their "normal" customer base is not as limited as it might seem at first thought — customers span economic and age ranges, from students to families to general directors. Maybe, as Borisov argues, when such places open, it creates awareness that such places exist, which gives rise to the desire to go out, and demand increases.

The owners declined to discuss the chain's profitability or say exactly how much has been invested in its operations.

The popularity of the O.G.I.s may simply lie in the fact that the founders are creating places that they and their friends want to go to. Itskovich, Borisov and Kabanov themselves frequent the O.G.I.s. They don't have much free time to go other places, although Kabanov admits, "I never get past face control at Moscow clubs. I have to have my staff get me in."

In response to the demand, Project O.G.I. is building an ambitious 8,500 square-meter complex near the Tulskaya metro. The floor plans, taped to the O.G.I. office wall and crisis-crossed with orange and pink highlighter, reveal a "stolovaya club" with room for performances, a dance floor and a music and bookstore, as well as food processing and catering facilities.

When the complex opens in the fall of 2001, both staff and floor space of the O.G.I. outlets will triple. From a small start with the three founders (and helpful friends) the project has grown to 550 employees. Borisov jokes that their next project will be a club for their employees.

Financing for their projects comes from 30 to 40 private investors who range from professors to bankers. The investors are invited to contribute ideas, but the final decision remains with the three founders.

Asked what their greatest achievement has been, Kabanov thinks for a moment before saying: "How did people make money in the early '90s? It was all redistribution of property … that already existed. There were enterprises, resources, factories, offices; they were just redistributed to new owners.

"We ourselves created the property that we have."