Russia's meat culture beefs up its patriotic reputation

Russia's meat culture beefs up its patriotic reputation
By Ben Aris in Moscow January 11, 2016

In the shadow of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral, made famous by punk rock band Pussy Riot's scandalous performance in 2012, a new revolution is cooking. This time it's one that plays to Russia's increasing sense of national pride and self-sufficiency - the Voronezh burger bar and meat restaurant, opened in September, serves only prime cuts from the eponymous region, and not a golden arch in sight.

The Tsarist-era building in one of the prime locations in the city has been divided into three floors, each offering a different culinary experience, but all heavy on meat and patriotism.

The first floor of the restaurant is a café style food bar, one step up from the classic fast food format: punters are squeeze cheek by jowl on to long benches to munch on quality burgers or giant sliced beef sandwiches made exclusively from Black Angus beef farmed in the Voronezh region, located 470km south of the capital.

At RUB290 ($3.80) for a cheeseburger (without fries), it matches a Big Mac combo at McDonalds in price, but the quality of the meat is far superior.

"We opened in September and the place is always full," says Andrey Nitsenko, the manager. "We buy all the meat in Voronezh and it is exclusively Black Angus, from a Russian company there called PrimeBeef."

The second floor houses a more traditional Russian cuisine restaurant, and Russian fare is pretty meat-heavy to begin with; shashlik, or kebabs of beef, chicken and pork, feature at the centre of most menus in any good Russian eaterie.

Finally the top floor of the building is a "meat club" for fine dining, a increasingly popular Russian food concept that is an upmarket version of the western steakhouse.

Battle for the bellies

McDonalds introduced Russia to the concept of fast food in 1990 with its iconic Pushkin Square branch and fast food outlets have opened steadily since then. But counter intuitively there was an explosion of new chains following the 2008 global crisis. Over the next two years most leading chains entered the Russian market and invested heavily on rapid expansion.

KFC had one lonely branch in Moscow throughout the 1990s but in 2008 its owner Yum! Brands parted with an reported $400mn to buy out Russian copycat Rosticks and quickly rebranded all its restaurants with its Colonel Sanders logo.

Burger King also set up shop at the same time and has opened hundreds of restaurants since, including its first Siberian branch in 2009, taking over the much smaller Rusbuger in the process. And on a smaller scale Denny's, Dunkin' Donuts, Chilli's and Shake Shack have all launched operations in Russia.

The chicken restaurant Rosticks was the only successful domestic fast food chain, but even its outlets were almost exclusively found in Moscow. Former mayor Yuri Luzhkov also tried to launch a patriotic pie chain serving the much loved pirogi in the 1990s called Russkoe Bistro, but the chain never really got off the ground.

'Voronezh' is the latest attempt establish a domestic fast food brand, but unlike its predecessors it has two big advantages. The first is the surging wave of nationalism that followed Russia's showdown with the West over Ukraine's fate and created the marketing opportunity. Second is the Kremlin sanctions on European agricultural goods that has created the business opportunity.

Russia has been self-sufficient in chicken since the 1990s following a trade spat with the US, formerly the biggest exporter to Russia of frozen chicken, known locally as "Bush's legs" after the former US president.

Pork production has been growing fast as producers rushed to capture as much market share as they could before import duties on pork were nixed as part of Russia's WTO accession in August 2012. Russia still has a pork deficit but should be self-sufficient in about two years. Imports of pork have fallen from about 1mn tonnes a year in 2012 to 200,000 tonnes expected to be shipped this year.

But Russia is still badly trailing with beef production. In the depths of the crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union, unable to afford feed grain farmers slaughtered their cattle, atrophying herds that took years to build up.

Investment into beef only really took off about three years ago when the state targeted it as a strategic sector, by offering cheap loans and cutting profit taxes to zero. Beef has become an a la mode investment in some circles; some rich fund managers began to eschew equity investments, preferring to plump their money into farms where they anticipated better and more stable returns. Charlie Ryan, the founder of the UFG brokerage, and Florian Fenner, still the head of UFG Asset Management, famously bought a large grain farm in Bryansk on the border with Ukraine with part of the money they got from selling UFG to Deutsche Bank just after the 2008 crisis started.

The Voronezh restaurant is not alone as the region's Black Angus beef can increasingly be found at a growing number of other restaurants. Thanks to the sanctions, the steaks at Chicago Prime, another very popular Moscow meat specialist, no longer come from the US, but also from Voronezh.

And the latest addition to the long line of Alexei Novikov's up market restaurants is called Farsh, or Minced Meat, which also specialises in Russian-made beef dishes.

So far Voronezh has no immediately plans to open any more restaurants as the company wants to see how the first one fares, says Nitsenko, but give the quality of the burgers and the packed tables on a recent Sunday afternoon visit more could be on the way soon.

            Russian meat production vs import deficit


             Russian meat production (all types)