Jars a la Carte

Consumers have long been familiar with canned lecso and other vegetable mixes, as well as jam in jars. Alexander Khasanov, a businessman from Yekaterinburg, has shown them that pilaf, soups, and meat stews can also be canned and bottled, and stored for as long as a year.

From furniture to food

Educated in engineering metals and alloys, Alexander Khasanov never got a degree: instead he got a job as an advertising manager and dropped out of university. In 1998, he started his first business, a furniture workshop. After eight years, he found we was no longer interested in furniture and wanted to do something else. As he had been fond of cooking since childhood, his friends suggested he could try to make money with his hobby. In 2007, Alexander began to cook office lunches. Initially, his wife sold the lunches in her office; in a short while, they began catering to third parties. The business grew into the Ural Lunch company, which employed 40 cooks and produced 1K lunches per day. But by 2013, he got bored with office catering as well.

“I wanted to do something that is not yet on the market,” the businessman says. “I wanted to find a niche in which there would be no or very few competitors.”

It was then that he remembered Uzbek Pilaf, a 1976 cookbook he often used and loved the recipes there.

Pilaf 1976: The beginning

The paragraph in the book that gave him the idea said that even in the 1930s, they made a pre-cooked mix for pilaf, zirvak, and added rice just before serving the meal. The book described how to store homemade zirvak for quite a long time. So Alexander decided to try and make ready-to-serve pilaf in a jar.

He bought an autoclave and began experimenting, trying to work out a recipe for cooking large quantities of food and a sterilization technology he could use without having to add preservatives.

The first six months were disappointing but eventually Alexander’s experiments brought him to heat processing at a high temperature and sterilization in the autoclave at over 100°C and at 2.5 atm. This technology preserved the freshness and taste of his pilaf for 12 months, with no preservatives.

Initially, the new pilaf was only a treat for Alexander’s friends but he was also attempting to cook other food using the same method. In late 2015, a new project was created, Restoran Iz Banki (“Jars a la Carte”). It started as a hobby but after a year, Alexander realized that canned food could bring profit. Through the grapevine, he was contacted by top management of a company that wanted him to develop a technology for semi-cooked rabbit meat products. Alexander successfully tackled the order and brought his customers a jar of his canned meatballs, just because. The customers liked the meatballs and Alexander started looking for investors to start his business.

Lucky birthday

In early 2017, Alexander posted an ad on Avito (a Russian website for classified ads) offering his pilaf, including on-site cooking. Literally the next day, he was invited to cook pilaf at a birthday party of Yevgeny Sharovarin, a prominent Yekaterinburg investor. The birthday boy and his guests enjoyed the pilaf. Alexander told the entrepreneur about his project and Sharovarin said that he would be interested in discussing it. In late summer, having lost hope to find investors, Alexander Khasanov asked for his help.

When he arrived to discuss the project with Yevgeny Sharovarin, Alexander saw Tochka Bank founder Boris Dyakonov who was also at the meeting. Both businessmen were seriously interested in the idea of selling pilaf in jars and posted on their Facebook pages about it.

Alexander had to register on the social network to post the link to his website there. Both Sharovarin and Dyakonov had many subscribers; people showed a keen interest in their project. In August 2017, Alexander Khasanov received his first orders.

Later on, he began offering his pilaf to journalists and restaurant critics; they wrote positive reviews, the number of clients grew, and Alexander received many recommendations. According to Khasanov, most of his clients got interested because his jar meals were recommended by other customers. To attract attention, Alexander initially put pilaf in the jars with an image of famous cook Ilya Lazerson (with his permission), and when the product became popular, he wrote his own name on it.

Not just pilaf

Initially Alexander made his pilaf at home, and when the business became profitable, he opened a kitchen and hired six cooks. In addition to pilaf, the same technology was used for dolma, soups and meat dishes.  The glass jar was chosen so that customers could see what was in there.

Soon he began to make RUR 100K ($1.6K) per month for his jar meals, and by 2019, his revenue reached RUR 1 mio ($16K). The most popular dishes are soups (solyanka, borsch and kharcho), pâté and jams. Pilaf, with which it all began, accounts for one quarter of the sales. There are some 100 dishes on the menu, which is updated when sales go down and Alexander and his cooks try to make something new. He also watches cooking shows and borrows recipes from them (this is how famous pâté was made).

The food is mainly sold on Facebook; in the past two years, the company has built a sustainable customer base, among them customers from Yekaterinburg and the region, as well as from many other cities, including Moscow and St Petersburg. Some 10-15 portions of food are sold every day.

Expanding the business

In late September 2019, Jars a la Carte moved to larger premises of 500 sq. m., with the opportunity to expand them to 1,000 sq. m. Over RUR 10 mio ($156K) was invested in construction and repairs; the owner expects investments to pay off within a year. New production facilities and recruiting new staff have allowed the enterprise to eventually increase the monthly production from 5,000 to 30,000 jars with food.

The company is taking active efforts to recruit staff members: Alexander plans to hire 40-45 people, who, along with cooks, will include production manager, food technologist, accountants, and advertising experts. Alexander Khasanov has set a goal of expanding his business to a fully functional shop, increase the assortment to 300 meals representing various cuisines and targeted at different groups of customers, such as meat and vegetarian meals, sports nutrition, and others.

With the business expanding, the brand promotion is advancing as well. Along with moderating a Facebook group and posting ads on this networking service, Alexander is also promoting the company’s YouTube channel and its Instagram account. As the company has always sold its products via social media, Alexander plans to continue doing so and boost advertising expenses, which now account for 3-4% of the revenues. Alexander Khasanov flatly refuses to sell the company products via federal chain stores and large shops.

“Nobody will promote our products there and they will simply end up on shelves; this is not what we want,” he emphasizes.

Alexander intends to develop his own trade network. Plans also include launching a fully functional restaurant selling food in jars similar to those he saw in Japan, which are very popular there. At the moment, Alexander is holding talks with an investor on opening a restaurant in Yekaterinburg – and of course, it is going to be called Jars a la Carte.  

By Christina Firsova

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