Restaurant pioneers don't regret the journey

  • 2006-03-08
  • By Jody Yurkowsky

WARM ESCAPE: Monte Cristo is one of several Canadian-owned establishments in Riga that has survived since the early days.

RIGA - In Riga, one thing is certain: Cafes and restaurants come and go. For whatever reason, the Canadians, however, seem to stick it out. They're behind well-known and stable additions to the food and beverage scene, such as the gourmet restaurant Vincents, Charlestons, and Pica Lulu. These Canadian-owned restaurants have survived since the early days - the children of pioneers who took a chance in the mid-90s, shortly after Latvia regained independence.

Andris Auzins, the owner of Monte Kristo Kafija, is one of these pioneers. His coffee shops have been in Riga for about 12 years 's long before the Double Coffee and Coffee Nation craze that has taken the capital. Monte Kristo was here before coffee became cool.

Auzins talks candidly about the success of Canadian restaurant businesses in Riga. While he suspects that it's more coincidence than anything else, he is unable to explain why so many Canadians have survived in such a precarious business.

As for coffee shops, Auzins says he simply chose something less complicated than a restaurant. And interestingly enough, he wasn't even an avid coffee drinker.

"I just chose something that wasn't available in Riga at the time," the entrepreneur says. "Something I thought would be manageable."

Today, those who know a good cup of Joe, know Monte Kristo. His choice to open an "easily manageable business" has turned into the longest operating coffee shop of its kind in Riga.

But Monte Kristo, which now consists of three cafes in downtown Riga and a coffee store in Mols mall, didn't succeed overnight. "It was discouraging at first," says Auzins.

The early days were a difficult back-and-forth between confusing bureaucratic paperwork and fierce competition.

"That was a time when everyone and their brother had a business," laughs Auzins. "In the beginning, there were stores in the basements, in the backyards, all over. Today's business environment is tougher, and we are seeing a lot more spaces standing empty."

Auzins points out that one of his key business points is providing good customer service. He adds that while locals may not outwardly demand quality service, as they might in Canada, they certainly appreciate it. This has meant a constant search for good employees, and he considers himself lucky to have found excellent staff.

"My manager works extremely hard, and you can see she enjoys her job," he says. "There are people out there who put their all into their work."

Over the years, Monte Kristo has developed a regular clientele consisting of both locals and the tourist crowd. It is difficult to describe the typical customer. There are the regulars who know what they want and are recognized by the staff when they come in. There are the Latvian Canadians who know Monte Kristo and drop by on their visits to Latvia. And then there are the rest 's simply people in search of a good cup of coffee.

What does the future hold for businesses such as Monte Kristo? Will Canadians continue to fare well in Latvia's food and beverage industry? Auzins laughs and declines to speculate. But he admits that, while start-up costs for Canadians doing business in Latvia have increased over the years, the overall investment is still less than it would be in Canada.

"It's a shame there aren't more businesses out there," he says. "This is a good place to do it.