Home to the Russian Pacific Naval fleet, Vladivostok is about as far away as you can get from Russian civilisation without actually leaving the country. More Asian than European, it is a city that is arguably one of the most cosmopolitan in Russia with a heavy influence from China and North Korea. Which is probably why From Granny founder, Vladivostok native, and Women in Industry Awards finalist in the Excellence in Manufacturing, Tatiana Kuzovova, has a penchant for her mother’s dumplings, which were inspired by the eclectic cuisine that inhabits the city.
And how does a Russian immigrant with a double degree in economics and tourism, and former Japanese interpreter, end up starting a food business in Australia with her semi-retired mother? Completely by accident, that’s how.
“We did not plan to start a business at all in the beginning,” she said. “I moved to Australia in 2002 to study English. Then six years ago my mother, Nina, came to Australia from Russia. One night we had a dinner, my mother said, ‘What are the kids going to eat?’ I told her not to worry about the kids and that they would be fine. She said, ‘No, the kids need some proper food. They need dumplings’. A friend had bought some other dumplings from the supermarket to the dinner for the kids. My mother thought they were not fit for the kids to eat.”
While Kuzovova chastised her mother for telling people what they should feed their children, her mother was unrepentant. Kuzovova senior believed that if you fed children unhealthy food, then it could become a generational thing, so she decided to recreate her own dumplings using a recipe she had from the old county. And that is where the seeds were sown and the germination of a business started to grow.
“My mother cooked some dumplings and friends tried them and loved them,” said Kuzovova. “She cooked more and put them in the freezer. Friends asked if they could take some of the frozen ones home. Then they called her and asked if she could make some more for them if they provided the ingredients. She started making them for that friend. Then another friend. And then another friend.
“Then, one of the friend’s friends owned a restaurant and called me and said, ‘can your mum work for us?’
I wasn’t that keen as she was 65 years old. She didn’t move here to work. They said, ‘can she at least make some for us for the restaurant.’ That is how she started making them for the restaurant. Then, their friends had a grocery shop. We had a phone call asking if she could make 30kg every week for the grocery store. Then another grocery shop. After a couple of grocery shops, I said, ‘Mum we can’t sell it like this. We need to find out the rules because if something happens [with regard to food regulations], we could be in trouble’. I called the Glen Eira council, and they sent us to a kitchen incubator run by Jane Del Rosso.”
Thanks to Del Rosso’s guidance, within six months From Granny was in a factory and filling orders. Kuzovova doesn’t see herself as a natural salesperson, but that hasn’t stopped the business growing and selling into overseas markets like New Zealand. It is also setting its sights on Asia, especially Indonesia, China, Vietnam and even the Middle East.
“I was only originally keeping up with customers who learned of our product by word of mouth. I was happy with that. We were doing well. Whatever came through the door, we were picking it up because we knew we needed time to be established, we needed time to do other things,” said Kuzovova. “We didn’t really need quick growth. That was good. But when everything was established we needed new customers because the factory takes a lot of money to run – electricity, rates, mortgage – everything is money. We needed more customers, so I had to go after customers, but I didn’t have much experience with sales. It was hard, but we soon found ourselves at a stage where customers start coming to us. I don’t really do much, but with word of mouth, people know about our dumplings so we started selling more.
“I hope it grows. We now have a license to sell overseas. Hopefully we’ll start advertising more overseas. We went to Singapore this year to find out whether there was going to be interest in other parts of Asia. We had a good reaction to our products.”
With both her mother and two other staff onboard, Kuzovova is looking to expand from the 140 sqm premises they currently inhabit. She knows expansion is a matter of not if, but when, due to the orders coming in. Having more or less started by accident, Kuzovova is optimistic not only about the future, but also gives some sound advice to those starting up a business, especially in the food processing industry. She was advised that there would be a lot of obstacles put in front of her, but found the opposite to be the case.
“When we started people told us not to go to the council because they could cause you trouble. Same with the licensing agencies and we were told that we would have big headaches,” she said. “That is not true. We met so many good people. From Jane at My Other Kitchen, through to the Greater Dandenong City council, there were many great people who were very helpful. We received a grant that helped start the business. I would advise people to go to the council, ask for help and people will help you rather than make any trouble.”
And what about the bane of a many food factory’s existence, the health department? Not a problem, said Kuzovova. She believes that being proactive not only makes it easier, but also leads to less issues further down the line.
“I’m lucky because we had so many good people. All the team from the economic development unit were very helpful from the beginning of our business,” she said. “Even the health department – where everybody was telling us that they were full of trouble – we didn’t have a single issue with them. We only had helpful and thoughtful people. I called the health department before we opened and asked them what else needed to be done so we didn’t have any trouble later on. A lady came and inspected our premises and issued a report stating that this is right, this is right, and this is right. She approved the premises before we started operating and then we never had any issues.”
A last piece of advice may seem a bit philosophical for those starting out in business, but Kuzovova is serious when she says that there is one important aspect that needs to be taken into consideration.
“I think if people know what they are doing, and they love what they are doing, then that is half the battle,” she said. “Originally, all I was thinking was that it was a little thing for mum to do so she would have a little money. She wouldn’t be sitting home all day getting older. So, I thought if she could do something, and do it with me, then it would be good. I’m not doing the business just for business, I’m doing it for the full enjoyment.”