Russia's Capitalists Learn New Ritual: The Power Breakfast

WHEN Communism collapsed, Russian entrepreneurs quickly gained a reputation for adopting the worst capitalist habits. Now a puzzling Western trend is creeping into sophisticated Moscow business circles: the shockingly early ``power breakfast.''

Having years ago discarded their Soviet-style polyester suits and plastic briefcases for double-breasted Italian designer duds and leather attache cases, many Russian businessmen today are learning they must participate in even the most bizarre and inhumane practices to keep pace with their Western business partners.

That often means showing up for trade negotiations in the most unlikely places - at the most dreadful hours.

``It used to be that if I was making an appointment with Russians I'd never make it before 10 o'clock in the morning. They would just say no, I can't make it,'' says Peter Charow, head of the United States Chamber of Commerce here. ``But this is all changing. Now I find people are getting serious about their business habits.''

President Boris Yeltsin this week wraps up a visit to the United States, where he sought to convince investors that the climate is right for business in Russia. But he probably neglected to mention one of the most revolutionary market changes here: the early morning wake-up call.

Waking up to business

Whether clinching a contract over coffee in the chic Metropol Hotel or haggling over ham, eggs, and tostadas at the nearby Azteca Mexican restaurant, Russian professionals are now common customers in the handful of Moscow eateries catering to the breakfast crowd.

``The more Russians are involved in big business that has a certain affluence, the more often they will start meeting early,'' says Seva Seliansky, a Russian who works for the US Concord Resources holding company, which often requires its employees to participate in early morning conference calls.

Traditionally, ``wake-up time in Russia is later than all over the world,'' says Joachim Fresche, manager of Cafe Kranzler in the Baltschug Kempinksi Hotel, which serves breakfast from 7:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. ``But to understand why, you have to understand the whole history of Russia.''

For decades, the only Russian early-risers were factory workers and collective farmers, who went to bed early to compensate for time spent bringing in the morning harvest. Early birds getting the worm were anathema to the Soviet work ethic, which followed the ``We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us'' motto.

Even now, most Russians still find it hard to start work before mid-morning. David McGrane, the Australian creative director of DMB & B advertising, says his Russian employees demand a day off for every three breakfast meetings he makes them attend. And his Russian clients are almost always ``surprised'' when asked to show up for an early conference, he says.

``I think there are some Russians who regularly meet this early. The only difference is, they do it on their way out of the casino,'' says Bruce Macdonald, the general director of BBDO Marketing here. ``They are the only Russians I know who are up and around that hour.''

An expanding appetite

Nonetheless, these days the Russian breakfast presence has become so widespread that some lunch-and-dinner restaurants, hungry to capitalize on the largely untapped breakfast market, are considering expanding their usual repertoires to include early morning meals.

``We are trying to offer a power breakfast because there are lots of businesspeople in Moscow who need a place where they can negotiate,'' says Arkady Tsimbler, a manager at the popular Russian-Venezuelan owned Santa Fe restaurant. ``If you go in big hotels in Moscow at breakfast time, they are packed. And at least 25 percent of those people are Russians.''

This new trend may be difficult for some Russians to digest, as breakfast has never been touted as the most important meal of the day here.

While foreign tourists may remember with revulsion the leathery slabs of gray beef that government-run hotels served up for breakfast to impress them during the cold war, the modern-day Russian breakfast often consists of a simple cheese sandwich washed down by a cup of strong tea.

Breakfast delicacies include syrniki, delicious lemon-cheese patties drenched in smetana, or sour cream, and tvorog, a rich farmer's cheese. Most Moscow breakfast bars serve only Western fare, however, with even the traditional ``kasha,'' or porridge, absent from the menu.

``It would make the place look like a canteen,'' says Mr. Tsimbler of Santa Fe.

But the lack of traditional favorite dishes is not the only trouble some Russian early-risers face. Old habits die hard.

``I wouldn't show up for a seven o' clock meeting. That's way too early,'' says Konstantin Kostyna, vice president of DCC, a Moscow-based depository clearing company. ``When you wake up in the morning your mind doesn't always work because your head is still asleep, so those meetings have no real results,'' he says.

``The only thing you can get out of a seven o'clock meeting is a cup of coffee.''

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