The mystery of Eric Shogren

 How the founder of the first fast food chain in Siberia built America around himself  08/6/2013, 02:27
The mystery of Eric Shogren
Photography by Roman Brygin

We agreed that the interview would take place in Kuzina. When I arrived, Eric was involved in the working process of his establishment: made someone coffee himself, went behind the glass into the pastry shop to see what’s going on with the rolls. He came out, saw me, nodded and asked if I wanted to order something — not because I came for the interview, he just thought that I was a customer and wanted to serve me. What can you say, few owners of such businesses work behind the counter to kill time while waiting for journalists.

We met 17 years ago and have regularly said hello to each other ever since. I think after a while Eric forgot where he knows me from but my face just reminded him of something. In fact, I was probably the first person in Novosibirsk to interview him in connection with his new project New York Pizza, an exclusive for Thursday magazine with a taste test of the entire product line.

In memory of my first «real pizza» (I think I liked the Hawaiian most of all), I decided to talk to Eric Shogren about his new project in a historical context, rather than a gastronomical one.

At the same time, I decided to clarify a question that had been tantalising me for many years: why does NYP so persistently hold on to the outline of the World Trade Center towers in its logo.

415 the height in metres of the World Trade Center’s twin towers

I first heard about Eric in the early 90s, albeit in a roundabout sort of way. The father of one of my girlfriend’s friends was a tough businessman who did business with the «True American» — such a rarity at the time. I heard almost first-hand stories about cool cars from across the ocean, warehouses and plans to organise screwdriver assembly of Fords in Novosibirsk. My, now deceased, friend, a member of an organised crime group, drove a gorgeous Ford Explorer, one of the first in the city that was imported as part of the project. A little later, the first «real supermarket» in Siberia, a bulwark of transatlantic democracy, opened in Akademgorodok. People went there to shop all the way from the city centre, sometimes as if they were going to a museum to see the multi-coloured «foreign» food. The only thing is that it wasn’t always possible to get what you were after: everything sold out so quickly that the «first supermarket» scared away its customers with half-empty shelves.

Eric believes that he was ahead of its time and bit off more than he could chew with these projects. The items in Supervalu moved quicker than the money, logistics and customs, which culminated in the store’s closure. The cars didn’t really get going either and since some of the investors were gang members, they weren’t interested in restructuring the business.

They got out what they could. Shogren’s parter was forced to emigrate, while Eric found himself out of a job.

But in some mysterious way he managed to fall in love with this city and correctly evaluated the commercial potential of Novosibirsk: the competition is too high in central Russia, whereas the capital of Siberia has more than enough opportunities for an American to live on. That’s how New York Pizza got started and, shortly after, his first «glamorous» restaurant Klassika.

The owners of Klassika were the New York Pizza holding and banker Igor Kim

Accordingly, I couldn’t help but be surprised that Eric, an American without kith or kin (although he is distantly related to Soviet cinema sex symbol Oleg Vidov) who has no links to corruption and never worked in the Party or Young Communist League contrived to start businesses over and over again, among other things supported by various criminal organisations. I asked Eric how he, a simple man, to all intents and purposes, managed to surround himself with influential friends.

«I don’t work with criminals,» smiles Shogren. «I work with people. People are responsible for where their money comes from. I don’t do anything illegal. I’m trying to make this city better. As I see it.»

Today, if you look at the results of his work, it becomes clear that for all these years Eric has been trying to build a piece of his home here, «making this city better, as he sees it». In short, he didn’t cave in to the changing world. He behaved like the Englishman from the joke, washed up on a desert island: «This is my club, this is the club that I ignore and this is the club that doesn’t let me in». He brought Fords to the city and opened a supermarket, a pizzeria and a good restaurant. Recreated his natural habitat as best he could. It’s telling that he never learned to speak Russian, although doubtlessly understands almost everything.

Shogren didn’t lose himself in Russia. He decided to build America around him, and to some extent succeeded.

We should ask ourselves whether everything we see around us — supermarkets, cinemas with good sound, restaurants and car showrooms — is just a continuation of the processes that Eric initiated. As a true son of his land, he opened up new markets and new opportunities to us foolish natives. Joking aside, you can’t fight the facts. Much of what we encounter in everyday life was done for the first time in Novosibirsk by none other than Shogren.

Supermarkets began to develop rapidly after the invention of metal trolleys on wheels to take the place of handbaskets

I asked Eric how it panned out that he was a pioneer in many lines of business but didn’t achieve the same success as many of his «junior partners» and associates. Christopher Tara-Browne, who rented a corner in one of Shogren’s establishments for his first «Starbucks-style» coffee shop, is the man behind Traveler’s Coffee, one of the largest coffee chains in the country. Denis «the American» Ivanov, who also started out with Eric, is now the owner of serious restaurant and café assets and the invincible king of the Novosibirsk fine and casual dining segments. Even many of the former waiters from Klassika are co-owners and managers of restaurants and cafés. There are many more examples.

Shogren said that he has always paid a lot of attention to working with staff and that, in fact, the foundation of any business is people, not plans. He always devoted a lot of effort and energy to people, so he’s actually glad that things are going so well for his colleagues, partners and subordinates. All of them, like Eric, certainly make this city a better place to live.

I think he really meant it. Even so, it sounded slightly wooden, as if he has these sort of evasive, proper answers to everything that are all a bit similar to each other.

Perhaps that’s why accusations of espionage spring up from time to time — Shogren obviously works with the CIA, that’s where he gets his money from.

His brother is known to be a U.S. Senator, so whether it’s the CIA or not, there are definitely some «men in black» at work. There’s a good reason that the same compelling idea is conveyed in Sonnenfeld’s film — the most clandestine identities are very simple on the surface, as if they didn’t have a hidden agenda at all. No one knows what really lies behind all these discussions about simple human values. Nevertheless, it seems that Eric is holding something back, although his actions speak for themselves. His venture into dairy farming, for example.

Perhaps Eric tried to build a dairy farm in the Novosibirsk Region specifically for the purposes of secrecy, and nearly went bankrupt doing it. He borrowed money and got into a sector that seasoned farmers in our latitudes are hesitant to get involved in. In the end, he was everything but robbed — forfeited his investment and suffered losses running into, rumour has it, millions of dollars.

Indeed, a failed farmer — the perfect cover story for a superspy.

To convince everyone once and for all that Eric is just a run-of-the-mill representative of the «small and medium-sized enterprises» sector, Shogren lost a substantial part of his empire.

«It was a hostile takeover. It’s well known who did it, how and why. It’s just that journalists don’t want to talk about that. What’s the use in talking, anyway. We have to move on,» Eric begins to almost quote the Bible again, «Just do our own thing, regardless of the external circumstances. Make this city better. What have those people achieved? They have some ’Pizza’ place. Who eats there? While I opened some new locations and things are gradually sorting themselves out again.»

Arabs supplied confectionery to Europe until the 4th century

As for Kuzina, Shogren says that’s where all his efforts are focused now. They’ve completely rethought the format of the «old Kuzina» and got rid of the excess. Now, it’s a chain of modern confectioneries promoting «to go» culture, selling take-away coffee and sweets, working with a large flow of customers.

«The chain is performing well at the moment and we’re going to develop it in the near future. Now I have a precise understanding of what I need to do to succeed. I want to bring the culture of small home-made sweets back into people’s homes. Look,» Eric triumphantly shakes a box with little cakes in front of me, «This is real Russian gingerbread! No one else makes it. Pensioners buy a lot — it’s good quality and inexpensive. I developed the recipe myself and it sells very well. We sell rolls in boxes. People say that I copied Cinnabon. I didn’t copy anything! When these Cinnabons arrived, I immediately said that nothing good will come of it. They’re too sweet and fatty, people don’t eat that sort of thing here, especially not every day. So I made my own version and one thing led to another. We’re even going to sell them in Auchan now. We try out a lot of things and if people start buying, we put them into production. If they don’t, we get rid of it. We flexibly respond to demand and that’s what makes the new Kuzina successful.»

There were a lot of ironic remarks on the tip of my tongue. For example, this Russian gingerbread tastes exactly like the «Scout» cookies I was given as a present from the States. Then again, practically speaking, what difference does it make? If people like them, why shouldn’t there be Russian scout cakes. Just look at us and look at girl scouts.

Kuzina is, of course, a cool format. I’m spoilt, so there’s nothing for me there, except perhaps the coffee, brownies and fresh juices.

But I experienced a lot of aesthetic pleasure over the two hours I spoke to Eric. Flocks of girls, one after the other.

Youthful, tender schoolgirls, drawn into the culture of civilised roll consumption, students convinced of their irresistibility snack on pastries, indifferent office ladies drop in for cakes — I’m sure that some time we’ll do a photoshoot here «from the other side of the counter» and it’ll be really good. I share my observations with the owner. He philosophically observes that, well, this is just the tip of the iceberg and the real pandemonium starts when there are discounts in the evening. That is to say, Eric has yet again managed to do something new in Novosibirsk to «make the city better».

I’ve long wondered how it turned out that Eric Shogren of all people, with his arbitrary Russian, loads of rumours, gossip and one and a half days in a holding cell, became my symbol of «business with a human face» in Novosibirsk. There are, in fact, people who are more open and better known in various fields, including the food industry. But Novosibirsk kids have grown up on Eric’s establishments for nearly two decades. He tried his hand in many various projects that bear an imprint of the time, worked with different criminal gangs, maybe the CIA too — who knows? But, in his own words, «he’s just doing his job to the best of his ability because he is a part of this city.

6 branches of Kuzina operate in Novosibirsk

I particularly agree with this last statement. After all, here’s the thing. The face of the city has changed many times over the years. Fast money, fast cars, people who were nothing became everything, but Eric is one of a few, if not the only one, who has remained the same as I remember him from our meeting 17 years ago. By the way, he’s lost weight again, so maybe there’s a little less hair, a little more grey, but otherwise a bare minimum of changes.

I said that the female part of the editorial office wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t ask Eric the secret of his refound slenderness. He replied:

You always have to make the best choice out of two possibilities. If there’s a choice between beer and vodka, pick vodka. If you can choose between an apple and a roll, take the apple. Choose going for a walk instead of the TV. Then you gradually reach a result.»

Now I understand what the problem is in our country, I thought. We probably did the right thing by electing Putin when we had the choice between Putin and Zyuganov. The problem is that this was the limit of our desire to choose the best out of two possibilities, whereas this technique only makes sense if you use it all the time. What’s more, we Russians know the system under a slightly different name: «the lesser of two evils».

Well, it probably really is time for us to change this tactic and follow Shogren in starting to choose the best of two «goods».

Then I realised why the World Trade Center towers remain in the New York Pizza logo. It’s probably because one day Eric, choosing between a world in which the towers are no more and one where they are still standing, once and for all picked the one where, despite everything, the planes that took off on September 11, 2001 landed safely at their destinations.

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