In the spring of 2013 broker Ilkhom Ismailov took an unusual decision – he opened an online restaurant offering delivery to offices and homes. However, the usual sushi and pizza standards were off the menu – Ismailov’s company specializes in the delivery of Central Asian pilaff, or plov, a dish prepared with rice and meat or fish.
Ismailov’s business partner is his brother Zafar, who, after a long time mulling whether to leave his construction job for the sake of an internet restaurant, finally took the plunge. In September 2013 the brothers registered their new company “Plov No. 1” and began looking for partners among plov producers in Moscow, something that was not easy.
“In the East there is a tradition: Men get together, usually on Thursdays, to eat plov and share their wise thoughts,” explains Ilkhom. “Having been to many restaurants, we realized that it was better to prepare the plov at home by ourselves.
“But then we found a little café where a very talented chef was making the real Uzbek plov. I would come to eat his plov during many business lunches, even if there was traffic and I was coming from the other side of Moscow. When we launched our business, we came to the chef and ‘secured’ him to make plov for our customers.”
With a little help from their friends
The Plov No. 1 restaurant began operating in November last year. In the beginning it was just a site with a telephone number that people would call to order plov to their homes or offices.
There was only one combination on the menu: a 300-gram portion of plov and samosa for 450 rubles ($9.5). Ilkhom persuaded his colleagues to order the plov for holidays and special occasions, telling them to be original. It was only thanks to his friends that the brothers began receiving two-three orders a day, but the business’s sales margins were almost zero.
Sales went up significantly only in the spring of 2014. There were now three types of plov on the menu: the classical Uzbek plov; the “festive” plov with raisins and pieces of cumin; and the vegetarian plov – all accompanied by a selection of fresh vegetables and Uzbek flatbreads. There was also a minimum order of 1,500 rubles ($35). The site was now receiving five or six orders a day, and sales reached the figure of 500,000 rubles ($10,600) monthly.
Musical inspiration
In May, Sergei Brilin, founder of a Russian logistics company, became the brothers’ partner after giving them 12 million rubles ($255,000) for a 30-percent share in the company. “Many people are tired of sushi and pizza today,” says Brilin. “So when I learned of the Plov No. 1 project, I decided to participate in the business. I think it’s a good project and I love plov as a dish. I cook it myself.”
The Ismailov brothers spent their new partner’s investment on fitting out the kitchen – a necessary step by then as the volume of orders had reached 20-25 a day.
Another important move for promoting Plov No. 1 was Ilkhom and Zafar’s creative decision to change the packaging in which the food was delivered. They created cartons with the label “Plov must go on.” They also launched phrases on the social networks alluding to popular songs such as “What a wonderful plov” or “I wanna be ploved by you.” Ilkhom says that they did not use the services of branding agencies.
However, now the Ismailov brothers are preparing to invest in classical marketing. In 2015 they plan on spending several million rubles on internet advertisements. The entrepreneurs also regularly participate in the city’s food markets in order to increase Muscovites’ love for plov.
The company estimates that during the winter season plov sales could increase substantially. “In November and December it will be quite cold and going out to eat won’t be so thrilling,” says Zafar. Moreover, Plov No. 1 now has corporate clients and sometimes even caters for major events.
“Company directors who organize ‘plov days’ ask us to deliver our plov once week for their teambuilding sessions,” explains Ilkhom. “Plov is a dish that unites, that is eaten with others, with your family, with a group.”
Potential partners line up for plov
Plov No. 1 now receives about 50 orders a day with an average bill of 1,700 rubles ($36) and a sales margin of about 50 percent. The company’s founders calculate that by the end of the year orders will reach 100 a day, with the same average bill, which will help the project start making profits in 2015. The brothers believe that they will be able to recoup the 8 million rubles ($170,000) they have spent so far on the business after a year.
Since it was founded, Plov No. 1 has received 10 potential franchising offers from Russian cities with a population of over 1 million residents, as well as from several European capitals and China. But for now the Ismailov brothers are still not ready to give the brand away to strangers. They are expecting more partners in the next six months from Moscow. Only after this will the startup develop the necessary franchising conditions.
The brothers estimate the market volume of cooked food delivery in Russia to be $1.5-1.7 billion a year and expect it to grow annually by 15-17 percent. However, it is difficult to estimate the plov segment. Before the end of the year they hope to open at least another kitchen, in the southwest of Moscow, and in 2015 to launch mobile apps to facilitate clients’ orders.