Bringing eastern flavors to the Baltics

  • 2000-03-09
  • By Brooke Donald
The restaurant business is tough no matter where it is undertaken, but a foreign country poses risks and rewards not often realized at the outset. Reporter Brooke Donald asked one foreigner how he found success with food in not one, but all three Baltic states.

In the restaurant business, the common credo for success is: location, location, location. For Raj Chaudhary, of New Delhi, that meant operations in Vilnius, Tallinn and now Riga.

The 62-year-old restaurateur will open his fourth restaurant in three countries in two years on March 16 in the Latvian capital. Sue Ka Thai in Riga shares its name with Chaudhary's Estonian and Lithuanian ventures that serve the same exotic (to the Baltics, at least) southeast Asian flavors.

"I'm probably the only one in the Baltics after McDonald's that has a so-called chain," Chaudhary said over a hot plate of curry the American fast food eatery would have trouble emulating.

The Indian-native opened his first Baltic restaurant in Lithuania in spring 1998 which offers tastes from his home country. He switched his interests to Thai food after noticing the fare's absence from the menus of the capitals' restaurants.

"I chose Thai because Indian was already there," he said. "But, Balts are also traveling more now and Thailand is a cheaper destination. People try things abroad and are interested in having the options at home too."

Like many foreigners who end up settling in the region, Chaudhary was introduced to the Baltics by way of Moscow. He worked in the Russian capital for four years, two years with a British company and two years selling goods from Dubai.

"I visited the Baltics and liked the ethics, the work culture and the smiles on people's faces…The business environment in Russia was becoming uncomfortable and I thought a change would be nice," he said.

Chaudhary's first attempt at a Baltic restaurant failed in June 1997. His then wife, Sue, who has since passed away, fell ill, and the couple decided to return to India amidst a difficult process to establish a restaurant. A year later, however, Chaudhary made the trek back to Vilnius, but this time with more knowledge about the logistics of setting up a business in the former Soviet republic.

"I changed my methodology. We (Chaudhary and business-partner and now wife, Lina Skutaite) take a place that is not doing well and change it, rather than invest in something new altogether," he said.

The new strategy has proven successful for the couple, who have apartments in all three capitals. Chaudhary said by converting a struggling restaurant into a newer venue reduces his risk if the business goes under. His partnership with Skutaite also helped him bypass some of the bureaucracy that inhibited a venture the first-time around: As a Lithuanian, Skutaite provided the Baltic authorities with proper—and legal—paperwork and the assurances that the couple won't just eat and run.

Doing business across the region, however, is difficult as Chaudhary lists the different rules and regulations in each country.

"Each country has some good points and some bad," he said. "They need to sit down and make a uniform policy on doing business because it shouldn't be this difficult and this different."

Chaudhary no doubt recognizes the independence of each Baltic republic and respects their individuality, but with small economies inhibiting the nations' international market penetration, he suggests that some policies on imports, licensing fees and taxes should be common and easier to navigate by the foreign investor.

"For a businessman (the bureaucracy) is confusing to the extent where you get frustrated," he said.

Another roadblock to pan-Baltic business is customs, Chaudhary said. Between different permits for each country and varying tolerance of immigrants, the restaurateur says every border crossing is an adventure he would rather do without.

"I have a work permit or business visa in the countries, yet I am harassed at the borders. Customs agents think all Indians are illegal drug traffickers," he said. "Every person cannot be illegal."

Despite the hardships of doing business abroad, Chaudhary is enthusiastic about his restaurants and positive about the business climate in the Baltic states.

"The Baltics are a growing market and the atmosphere is becoming very professional," he said.