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VALLEY BUSINESS | COOKING UP PROFITS WITH ETHNIC CUISINE

Deli Provides a Taste of the Old Country

Entrepreneurs: Russian couple's venture a link to home for many in Valley's immigrant community while broadening horizons of other customers.

November 07, 2000|CARRI KARUHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SHERMAN OAKS — Russian immigrant Mark Gekht was tired of driving from the Valley to West Hollywood to find the kind of blintzes and stuffed peppers he enjoyed in his homeland.

So he and his wife, Nadia, decided to open their own deli.

Their venture, Tsarina Russian Gourmet Delicatessen, may have eliminated a long commute for some discerning taste buds. But it has become more than that.

The deli, located in a small shopping center at 14445 Ventura Blvd., is a microcosm of the East European community. Customers come to read Russian magazines, chat with neighbors in their native language and eat the kind of food their mothers or grandmothers made in the former Soviet Union.

Even neighboring merchants have noticed a change since the deli opened a year ago.

Nick Mikhail, who owns a pager and cellular phone company next door, said diners frequently stop in his business to buy phones for friends and family overseas, and to discuss how technology is so much more advanced in the United States than in Eastern Europe.

"They're more in tune with their own culture. You feel it when they come in," said Mikhail, owner of Exclusive Paging and Cellular. "They talk to you about Russia, where they come from. Most customers who come in--they're friendly, but not as conversational."

The Gekhts also own a Russian book and music store next door, and they sell electronic equipment over the Internet.

Before the Gekhts immigrated 18 months ago, Mark Gekht was a movie producer, having produced a film that was featured at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.

The Gekhts made contacts in Hollywood and eventually got into the food export business, shipping frozen meat and other products from the U.S. to their homeland. Then the ruble fell.

The couple left Moscow and settled in Sherman Oaks to be closer to their two children, Garry and Julia, ages 21 and 28, respectively, who were going to school in California.

That's when Mark Gekht got the deli idea. He and Nadia decided there was a market because of the number of fellow Eastern Europeans who had settled in Sherman Oaks and surrounding communities.

The Gekhts opened the deli a year ago this month, working 15 hours a day to get their business off the ground. They chopped the vegetables, waited on customers, bused the tables and imported whatever they couldn't make fresh themselves.

Business was slow at first, but it picked up through word of mouth and advertisements in local Russian newspapers and other publications. Then customers started to ask for helpings to take home for their families.

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Thus began the Gekhts' catering enterprise, which now makes up about 35% of the deli's business. They cater everything from weddings to corporate dinners.

The Gekhts have hired three employees and are working on plans to knock down a wall to the adjacent book and music store to offer formal dining.

Mark Gekht said the biggest surprise was discovering just how many people have roots in Eastern Europe. He learned this as customers shared their stories over the deli counter.

"We hear a lot of history, how they came [to the United States], how their grandparents came from all over Europe, all over Russia," said Gekht, 53. "We have made a lot of new friends, a lot of new relationships."

Much of the deli's menu caters to the East European Jewish community. Some of the dishes have familiar names like beef stroganoff and chicken noodle soup, while others are of the harder-to-pronounce variety, like golubtsy--cabbage rolls stuffed with turkey and rice.

And there is an eclectic selection: soups made with sausages and pickles, salads tossed with beets and chopped chicken liver, and a deli counter stocked with enough sausages and cheeses to feed a small army.

On a recent afternoon, Nadia Gekht, 51, stood behind the counter dishing stuffed bell peppers, buckwheat kasha and mushroom garlic ikra onto plates. Across the room, customers perused a wall of shelves stocked with Russian teas, bottled juices from Belgium and pickled tomatoes from Bulgaria.

"Different people have different tastes from the past, when they were little kids," she said. "It's some kind of nostalgia."

No one understands that better than Lina Reizman, a Sherman Oaks resident who emigrated from Russia 18 years ago. She leaves the French pastry shop she owns down the street at least twice a week to eat at Tsarina.

On this particular day, she ordered a sour pickle and a plate of red cabbage.

"The food is something you can't find in another place," said Reizman, 49, as she polished off her lunch. "It's real important. We're used to this food. It's a part of our life."

Not all of Tsarina's customers are from Eastern Europe.

Michael Simmons is an Englishman who now lives in Mar Vista. He asked the Gekhts to cater his house-warming party so his guests could try something unique.

Rich Ronzello, 50, of Sherman Oaks, stopped in after reading a favorable restaurant review on the deli's front door.

As he sat at a table waiting for his food to arrive, Ronzello admitted he was not sure what he had just ordered. But he said he has long been curious about Russian cuisine.

Now was his chance to find out.

"Voila," exclaimed Ronzello, as the server placed a plate of potato salad and stuffed peppers in front of him. "There you have it. I would like to try everything in here. It all looks good."

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