Praise the boss and pass the sauce

  • 1998-08-27
  • By Philip Birzulis
With six bistros, two bars and two restaurants in Riga, the Lido restaurant chain is a genuine, home-grown Latvian success story. Ambitious plans for further expansion make it seem like a model of how to succeed in a transition economy, Philip Birzulis reports.

Of course, blindly copying someone else's recipe for success is the shortest path to mediocrity. To do as Lido has done would take you someplace out of this world.

The company was set up in 1987 as a cooperative venture, when perestroika allowed the first seedlings of capitalism to sprout. Information is a little sketchy about these early days, as it is about its mysterious founder and sole owner, Gunars Kirsons. He almost never gives personal interviews, but the company legend claims that he rose to his present heights after starting as a barman in suburban Riga.

His staff speak of him in terms that would put the most optimistic workplace relations manuals to shame.

"His employees truly love him," said the firm's advertising director Zane Kreslina, one of 700 grateful workers. "I look at Him with love and wonderment, He never ever thinks of Himself, He has great joy in giving and helps children and orphans."

"We adore Mr. Kirsons because He gives us the opportunity to set free our creative spirit," sighed Ilze Gaigala, in charge of the company's program of sponsored cultural events. "How can you not adore Him who mops the floor together with His staff before functions?"

Amen. However, even without the hyperbole it seems that the company is doing something right.

Lido's Alus Seta (Beer Courtyard) restaurant in Riga's Old Town is packed at most times of the day or night. The shish kebabs, potatoes, salads and beer are just what local tastes demand, and many tourists enjoy the quirky Latvian-style decor.

The same goes for Staburags, where the interior, complete with a working water wheel, was made by craftsmen from the Open Air Ethnographic Museum.

Lido Vice President Vilnis Cirulis said that the company has found a formula that reflects a "Latvian mentality." A very important part of this is hygiene and a respectful tending of surroundings. The Kekis (Cookhouse) restaurant in a Soviet blockhouse area looks like a neat farming village surrounded by truly hideous high rises.

The next project that should open early next year is a recreation park near the highway heading east out of Riga, a previously desolate area. As well as food and drink it will offer patrons several waterfalls and windmills.

"This place will let people experience a small Latvia in a concentrated way," said Gaigala. "It is the culmination of Mr. Kirsons philosophy, showing the interaction of the four elements of earth, wind, water and fire."

Some Latvians have praised Lido for offering a viable local alternative to McDonald's. However, Cirulis plays down this claim, saying that what his firm offers is quite different. Ultimately, when customers can afford it, its prices will have to be higher because it offers a higher level of service.

The company has cleverly adapted to rising prosperity in Riga. A few years ago, the premises of Alus Seta were occupied by an earlier venture which was one of the most expensive places in town. The "Kirsons-Lido" restaurant was tastefully decorated with plastic pink flamingoes in the front window, and Cirulis said that customers would come in and ask for "whatever was most expensive."

Now there are numerous other restaurants near Doma Square serving reasonably well-off "ordinary" people, not just the nouveau riche.

Lido has also branched out into delicatessen meats and catering for outdoor functions all over Latvia, but so far it only has restaurants in the capital. This comes down to simple economics, since people in the countryside do not have much money. It is also difficult to find good middle managers, since even those in Riga come from different backgrounds to public catering.

"The larger part of the population is in Riga and a middle class is forming here much quicker," said Cirulis. However, he thinks that eventually Latvia will arrive at the same point as small towns in Western Europe he has visited, where diners and cafes do good business because people have more money than time to cook at home.