Startupper from Kazan aims to oust fast food with vending machines selling hot food
With the support of Skolkovo and the IVF of the Republic of Tatarstan, an entrepreneur from Kazan has created a vending machine for the sale of ready-made pelmeni
Like many startups, resident of Kazan Semyon Frolov has recently entered the vending business market in Russia. But in his vending machine, instead of coffee, offers customers to take a cup of hot pelmeni with them. Now the entrepreneur is preparing a serial sample, as he is sure that he will be able to turn his favourite dish into as popular as sushi, pizza, and burgers. At first, the invention was supported by the Investment Development Agency of the Republic of Tatarstan, Skolkovo, and Investment and Venture Fund of the Republic of Tatarstan. However, not all participants in the catering market are sure that “vending” pelmeni will take root in Russian cities.
Pelmeni without a cook
Entrepreneur from Kazan Semyon Frolov launched this week the serial production of vending machines for cooking pelmeni by his own design. The essence of the know-how is the ability to “cook” and release pelmeni hot in 2 minutes. Until now, it was possible to buy chips, chocolate, carbonated water in such vending machines, and among hot — only coffee or cocoa. Frolov set out with the aim to sell hot meals in the machines. His startup went all the way through the technological commercialisation of the invention in 4 years and was ready to work with a portfolio of pre-orders for 400 applications.
“In the current rhythm of life, young people often do not have enough time to cook complex hot dishes themselves. From personal experience, I will say that I have to run into cafes and have lunch in a hurry. What do men buy more often? That's right, pelmeni! One puts them in boiling water and it's ready," the businessman says.
But for him, pelmeni are not just a habit to eat quickly, but a favourite dish from childhood. “I adore them so much that I've always dreamed of opening my own pelmeni shop at home. So that the kitchen is at hand and you can earn at the same time," he admits. A few years ago, he was ready to fulfill his dream, but he wondered how to automate the cooking process? So that the quality of pelmeni is stable, and visitors do not depend on the mood of the cook on shift.
“By that time, he had implemented a lot of startup projects on automation of production at the Russian Post, in large shopping centres in Kazan. Here I wanted to get rid of turnover, human factor. I thought and came up with the idea — what if pelmeni are cooked in a vending machine? And a portion of ready-made pelmeni is sold just cooked? Not raw frozen, but immediately hot," he says.
Such devices will be in demand among businesses if they can feed consumers with hot food on the go, Frolov believes. “Now the owners of vending machines get a good profit from the sale of small-piece goods, if they guess the location. If we add our Pel-Meni device to them, then they will buy hot dishes," he is convinced.
“Something didn't work all the time”
But before launching the experiment, the Kazan entrepreneur was looking for a recipe for instant pelmeni for a long time. It is clear that vending machine is not a gas stove for cooking, which means you need to somehow do without water.
“At first I didn't understand at all how to combine vending and cooking pelmeni?" he recalls. “Ordinary pelmeni are cooked for about 10 minutes, and the vending is configured for high-speed delivery of products in a few minutes. Then I started testing a new recipe that allows me to cook pelmeni faster than in 10 minutes. We tried different cooking methods with friends, experimented in the kitchen. It lasted about 3 months. As a result, we developed a recipe that cooks quickly in a couple of minutes.”
The secret turned out to be quite simple — to partially prepare dishes in advance and then freeze them with the addition of oil and spices so that the machine has less work left," says Semyon Frolov.
Based on this recipe, the design of the vending machine was developed. It has a built-in freezer for storing pelmeni and a heating/cooking unit. The entrepreneur himself developed the software for the machine. According to him, the programme includes the possibility of cooking 72 hot dishes — pasta, mashed potatoes, cutlets from different types of meat and fish: “The food itself is completely isolated from external influences. Thermopackaged dishes are heated like in a microwave oven. Water is not used. It is easy to maintain — they warm up inside the device," he said.
The application for the serial production of vending “pelmeni” was evaluated as a project with a high potential for commercialisation. Initially, it was supported in the Investment Development Agency of the Republic of Tatarstan, and Skolkovo Foundation and the Investment and Venture Fund of the Republic of Tatarstan allocated grants in the amount of 5 million rubles. Prior to that, the project team received a cash prize in the amount of 300 thousand rubles and automatically reached the semi-finals of the Startup Village, the largest startup conference in Russia and the CIS.
“In 2021, we received a grant from the IVF in the amount of 2 million rubles. With this money, we were able to produce one of the three prototypes, but this money was not enough. To carry out a full test programme, it was necessary to collect three test samples.”
The entrepreneur from Kazan had to borrow another 5 million rubles “under a personal refund guarantee”. “The tests took several months. At this time, we got acquainted with the team of the Tatarstan Investment Development Agency. Taliya Minullina always supports innovative projects that can grow into something grandiose. She suggested to us Kazan production facilities that can realise the idea. We tried to work with different contractors, but some worked out, some did not. As a result, with the help of the IVF, they gathered their own team, with which they sat down and re-designed the device. And they themselves assembled a machine from scratch from components. Now it is fully ready and works reliably, without complaints. Now everything is fine, the first serial sample is ready, which will be shown for the first time at the exhibition at Kazan Expo," he said.
While the tests were being carried out, Frolov's team launched a website for selling the devices: “During this time, many people called us, left requests for purchase — about 400 requests. Aspiring entrepreneurs who want to try themselves in the vending business were interested. The producers of pelmeni actively reached us — Siberian Collection, Stanichnye, they are interested in loading pelmeni. There were also networks of filling stations of Gazpromneft, which also want to put these machines for visitors.”
Now the equipment is undergoing mandatory certification, after which serial devices will be produced with an expiration date certificate. The expected payback period of the machine is 1 year, the first three were sold to entrepreneurs of Izhevsk, Simferopol, and Kazan. “Many entrepreneurs, when buying equipment, want to get exclusive conditions, prohibiting their supply to competitors in their region. This is what the Crimean entrepreneur asks: if we sign, we will not give these devices to anyone else in Crimea. And there are many such requests," Frolov said.
“I have not seen an example of successful commercialisation of such projects”
In Russia, one of the leading suppliers of vending machines is the Yuvenko group of companies, but they did not comment on the launch of the new product for the retail industry. At the same time, the Union of Vending Machine Operators believes that the invention can find its buyer:
“Pelmeni machines can be an interesting option for entrepreneurs who want to start a business in the field of vending," the Union reported. “However, it should be borne in mind that cooking pelmeni is a rather complex process that requires certain skills and equipment. Besides, such a machine may require a large amount of space and frequent loading of ingredients.”
Tatarstan restaurateurs believe that the idea of selling pelmeni from a vending machine is not particularly viable, but in the future the service may become widespread.
Nevertheless, the expert believes that in the medium term, such devices have a future: “It directly depends on consumer habits and psychological perception. If 5 years ago they had said that the townspeople would massively order food delivery from home, they would hardly have believed it. Well, how to buy if you don't take the goods in your hands — that's what most people think. But now many people use this service. This service will be in demand if the major players Yandex, Sberbank, and Samokat see a return on investment and join this race.” However, as a restaurateur, he is more concerned about who produced the pelmeni and how safe these products are.