Guests feel like they are in a Russian home, one replete with an accordion player and a copious choice of vodkas. Source: Scott Henrichsen
It’s no secret that the only semi-secure denizens of D.C. are attracted to closed clubs and echelons of the elite. To that end, Mari Vanna’s new business strategy to offer keys to VIPs and regular patrons is already a success story here. The gold keys, attached to mini matryoshka dolls of different colors, could prove a gold mine over time.
Regular diners who stroll up to the restaurant on Connecticut Avenue at Dupont Circle after 6 p.m. take their Mari Vanna keys with them. The idea is to make guests feel like they are in a Russian home, one replete with an accordion player and an unusually copious choice of vodkas.
“The concept [of Mari Vanna] is definitely interesting—Americans will appreciate the cute décor, the cozy setup and the key 'loyalty program,'" said Lauren Hallow, a foodservice analyst for Technomic, a market researcher. "But because Americans aren't too familiar with Russian cuisine, growth of the concept will likely be limited to urban areas or cities with a large Russian population."
The three-level restaurant with what the owners call “a tea party meets grandma’s house” atmosphere, is the largest in the Mari Vanna chain. The name is short for the common Russian name, Maria Ivanovna, which is even more often the name for “babushkas,” or grandmothers.
The same business strategy has worked well to keep Manhattan’s Mari Vanna thriving in the heart of the posh Gramercy neighborhood. Unlike most Russian hotspots in the United States, this restaurant has regular patrons who are not of Russian descent.
“Our main task was to attract not Russian speakers, but the rest,” said Sasha Polin, one of the partners at Mari Vanna. “We knew that Russian speakers would come along.”
The first Mari Vanna restaurant in the U.S. opened in 2009 in New York. In January 2013, Mari Vanna opened in Washington, D.C. just in time for the inaugural festivities. Another opened a few months ago in Los Angeles. More than 70 percent of the customers are non-Russian speakers, Polin said. The restaurant relies on word of mouth rather than advertising to attract customers, he added.
Mari Vanna started as an award-winning concept in Russia. In the past four years, the founding company has embarked on a bold expansion plan. Polin said that the St. Petersburg-based company, Ginza Project, has a plan to open restaurants in several more major cities in the U.S., starting with Philadelphia and Chicago, in the next few years. There is also a Mari Vanna in London.
The restaurant loyalty program centers on the keys, which can open doors (at least when the dining spot is open) at any Mari Vanna location. Those who don’t have a key can still get in, but they have to ring the bell, wait until the hostess opens the door, and hope for an open table.
The first Mari Vanna restaurant in the U.S. opened in 2009 in New York. Source: Press Photo
On a recent Friday night, New York’s Mari Vanna was packed with a mixed crowed eating and drinking the night away. And the place had a lot to offer, from traditional beetroot soup borscht to the iconic Chicken Kiev. Other dishes less familiar to Americans included the fish soup “Uha” and an assortment of salted cured pork fatbacks, “Salo Plate.” Vodka is plentiful here in different flavors. The horseradish and cranberry vodkas are the most popular, Polin said.
The décor reminds Russians of the “dacha,” or seasonal home outside the city, where families keep all the things they can’t fit in their city apartment—old photos, books, a gigantic samovar and a lot of lamps and chandeliers. In certain place the wallpaper is peeling off, giving the intentional appearance of disrepair. An accordionist named Yuri walked between the tables and played Soviet classics, prompting the émigré crowd to hum along with the music.
Polin said that the Russian version for the “Happy Birthday” song is especially popular. The song is originally from a Soviet cartoon and the chorus goes like this: “Unfortunately, unfortunately birthdays come but once a year.” Waiters at the restaurant wear bright sundresses , and all personnel on the dining room floor speak Russian, Polin said.
Zhenya Kovalyov, 30, works for an international company in New York. He frequents Mari Vanna by himself and with friends.
Other Russian restaurants in Manhattan or on Brighton Beach have a different feel to them, he said. They seem to be run by people who have not been to Russia for decades, he added. Kovalyov moved to New York from Moscow a few years ago.
“I go there [Mari Vanna] so I have someone to speak to Russian with,” Kovalyov said. “Mari Vanna is a good Russian restaurant with tasty food.”
He brought his colleagues from work a few times to get them acquainted with Russian cuisine. All of them got keys to the restaurant, he added.
More than Russian cuisine
Not all contemporary Russian dishes are really Russian, said Anya von Bremzen, an expert on Russian food and a co-author of “Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook.” She said that borscht and stuffed cabbage were originally Ukrainian dishes. Kebab is a dish from Georgia and a rice dish, plov, is Uzbek.
“It was a Soviet Union phenomenon—the incorporation of food from all the republics,” she said. And Mari Vanna can boast about its baking—Russian style crepes, blini, and savory mini-pies with eggs, cabbage or meat. Blinis come with a variety of fillings as well, including the signature red caviar.
For its clientele Mari Vanna has also made some adaptations to the traditional Russian cuisine. “We tried to make Russian cuisine healthier,” Polin said, but without altering the taste.
Several thousand diners eat at Mari Vanna’s New York location per month, Polin said. The locations capacity it about 80 people. Mari Vanna in D.C. is even larger with two floors for the restaurant and a third for its increasingly popular KGB Karaoke nights.
The combination of good food, atmosphere and music helps customers touch the “Russian soul,” Polin said. “It is a great way to get closer to Russian culture through its food.”
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