''Tatars in USA lack initiative, they don’t need to be afraid''
How a native of Bashkiria with crepe bakery on wheels has been in the top 5 best fast food in Pittsburgh
A Tatar language and literature teacher from Bashkiria conquered America with crepes from the wheels. Today people make queues for his food trucks, the business grows as fast as yeast and very Ilmir Akhmetzyanov encourages his compatriots by his example, like don't be afraid of brave projects. Realnoe Vremya talked to the entrepreneur about the successful business idea, help to his compatriots from the homeland and support of the Tatar community in Pittsburgh.
How the Tatar language teacher went into American fast food
Ilmir, how did you turn out in America after you got a degree as Tatar language and literature teacher?
I studied in a pedagogical institute in Ufa but went to the States via Work and Travel programme in 2006 and remained here. I have already been living here for 11 years. But then I anyway was back and finished my studies. When I entered, it was a faculty that prepared Tatar and English language teachers for national schools, that's to say, it used to be a faculty of foreign languages. Then, upon arrival, I entered an extramural department, there was not English there. Although I am a Tatar and English teacher, in fact, only Tatar is mentioned in the diploma. I also speak English fluently.
How did you open your business in the States?
I did many things first. I tried different things, opened one business, closed another one. In a word, I tried myself in many areas. Then I acquainted with my wife, she worked right in public catering. I saw how they worked. I had a shock of the money they earned in a day. I liked this service very much and I also helped them. Then I launched my own business in 2011, gradually bought equipment, participated in festivals. I started to develop this area in 2013, I got a food truck, started to sell crepes, give advertisements, this is how it all began.
America has many different festivals – Italian, Greek, city days, etc. They invite us, we go there, set up and make our crepes. Now we have three cars. We have not launched the third one yet, we are finishing it. We also put up big tents at festivals and work.
People started to invite us to weddings, birthdays. We were immediately accepted at festivals as soon as we appeared. The most important thing is to make up the menu correctly, then you can sell whatever you want
''I have not eaten any crepe yet''
Why crepes? Is it your favourite dish?
No, actually I have not eaten any crepe since I opened four years ago. Everybody loves, but I have never eaten. It happened so somehow. But when I just started to run a business in America, I made everything: both burgers and French fries. But the market was already full so that you could not enter. I tried, wrote to festival organisers, but nobody took me.
Then my wife offered me to try to sell crepes. So two guys already started to sell crepes in front of our point. I saw they succeeded. I decided immediately, purchased equipment and opened — it was in March 2013. A middle-aged person approached me in about two weeks. We talked, it turned out he had the same food truck but he made tacos. He advised me: to become successful one needs to write about their own business on the Internet a lot, open accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. I did not take it seriously. He upped and wrote about me on his Twitter. I saw that people started to call, do an interview with me in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – it is our major newspaper in Pittsburgh. And queues for our truck stood for three months after publication, everybody came. So everything went well! People started to invite us to weddings, birthdays. We were immediately accepted at festivals as soon as we appeared. The most important thing is to make up the menu correctly, then you can sell whatever you want. Then we opened a point at the University of Pittsburgh. There also was a buzz first.
''Guys from Arsk came here to learn English but improved their Tatar a lot''
I gathered my acquaintances around myself in the business. They are all Tatars, from Ufa or Kazan, by the way. All my friends know how to make crepes – just in case. If somebody doesn't go to work, I will call and say: ''Look, Zukhra, can you go to work as a substitute?'' She will go and help.
For some reason, I want to work with our people. But it seems to me that Tatars lack initiative. I want to say to them they don't need to be afraid. They need to try – it will certainly be fine. Many things happen, of course. But this season only Tatars are around me for some reason. We even speak Tatar to each other, we don't speak Russian: only Tatar and English. Guys from Arsk District came to me for summer. They say: ''We came here to learn English but improved our Tatar a lot''.
For some reason, I want to work with our people. But it seems to me that Tatars lack initiative. I want to say to them they don't need to be afraid. They need to try – it will certainly be fine
Do you use the Tatar recipe to make crepes?
No, here, in America, they are known as French. You say it is wrong, that they are actually baked in Russia, but it is how they know.
Now I think that we will launch another car, maybe we will also make something national. The thing is that all our national dishes, how to say it… There won't be problems with sales. Not all people go to this work: it is difficult. But one can try, in general.
What would you start with? Ochpochmaks?
Oh, ochpochmaks! As soon as I see how my wife or mum make them… If one makes them, he needs to take it seriously. 100-250 people need to be fed there. Who will make 200 ochpochmaks? Moreover, there are few emigrants here, Americans are our major clients.
Maybe they would like our national dishes…
I also want to know. I have been wanting to try to cook pilaf at festivals for several years already. I am looking for a person. But not everything is fine now, or person doesn't go to work or something else. But I think it will be fine, we just need to try.
Are there any specifics of running a business in America in comparison with Russia?
If I did it in Russia, we would be maybe closed in a week. What are the advantages of running a business in the States? If people from the sanitary and epidemiological inspection service or city administration come, they say: ''You have so-and-so mistakes. You may work today, but fix it, please.'' We fix it. They don't close immediately if you don't have a serious violation, of course.
If I did it in Russia, we would be maybe closed in a week. What are the advantages of running a business in the States? If people from the sanitary and epidemiological inspection service or city administration come, they say: ''You have so-and-so mistakes. You may work today, but fix it, please''
In general, this city has a very good attitude to small business. I had so many cases first. For instance, my neighbours complained that I went home with trailers. They gathered meetings and said that an emigrant came. Then they were explained that I tried to arrange a business this way. Then the neighbours started to react fine, not so negatively. In general, people in our city want such a small business to be independent and stay afloat, they don't want to defeat you. I had serious mistakes in taxes, I did not know that. They just forgave me it, turned a blind eye to it. In this respect, it is much easier to run your own business here. Here they show you your mistakes, but they don't destroy everything. America is probably the best country for small business.
''Not the number of Tatars but our unity matters!''
How did you acquaint with your wife? Do you teach your children the Tatar language?
My wife is Bashkir but she speaks Tatar. We acquainted in America, she wrote me on Vk.com. She lived 45 minutes far from Pittsburgh and was very surprised that Tatars were there. I wrote to her that, yes, there were Tatars, we held Sabantuys, invited her. I also helped guys who came to America from Bashkortostan or Tatarstan. I helped find accommodation, job. I still help. And I thought it was the next girl who needed a job. So we acquainted with her and had nikah soon. Now we already have two kids.
I try as much as possible to make our kids speak the Tatar language. My parents who came to us for summer also helped us with it. We want them to speak at best and at least understand the Tatar speech – it will already be good. But, actually, it is a very serious problem. They don't have Tatar-speaking friends, all the friends speak Russian or English. But we put effort anyway.
Is the Tatar community in Pittsburgh big?
Everybody asks us about it. But, actually, Tatar communities are not big in America. I would not say that there are many Tatars here – they are few, but they are more united, so to speak, they are more active. We are very close to each other, we closely communicate, stick together, help. This is why we understand how it is to be alone in another country. A person sometimes calls and says: ''I am so-and-so, for instance, from Arsk, I was given your number''. I say: ''Oh, if you are from Arsk, let's speak Tatar! Come to us, we will find you accommodation, give a job for a while. Then you will decide how everything works.'' Not in the number of Tatars but our unity matters! For instance, we will easily gather 20-30 Tatars here in Pittsburgh.
Our biggest gatherings are at Sabantuy. What do Tatars do, in general? They drink tea, of course. We come together, discuss news. Sometimes we sing songs
We have about 5-6 young families with kids. But there are other Tatars who seem to live here but don't show themselves, they don't aspire to talk to their compatriots, keep in touch. They live on their own, not in your backyard. At the same time, there are people who maybe are not pure Tatars, for instance, only their grandma was Tatar but they anyway show themselves, participate in our joint meetings.
''What do Tatars do, in general? They drink tea, of course''
What do you do when you come together?
Our biggest gatherings are at Sabantuy. What do Tatars do, in general? They drink tea, of course. We come together, discuss news. Sometimes we sing songs. We all are in a period when everyone has kids, parents come from the homeland. And they say to us: ''You have a Tatar family here, there is another one. Invite them!'' and we do. We hold iftars during fasting, visit each other.
I would like us to have more Tatar families, of course. In 2010, there were not any Tatars in Pittsburgh besides me and another friend Ilnar. Then we knew there was another family. Actually, any big city of America has Tatars, they just need to be invited for communication with Tatars. When we say there are not Tatars, we just don't know them.
And then communication, unity happen on their own, naturally. When you live in Kazan, you don't pay attention who is in front of you: whether it is Tatar or Azerbaijani. As soon as you leave Sheremetyevo, the further you leave your homeland, the more this craving for your people is. People themselves tell you: ''But I am Tatar, my mum or grandma is Tatar.'' And our Tatars from New York say that the older you become, the more you want to be with your tribesmen, you have closer links with them.