Americans have the Easter Bunny. Vadim Vaneev wants to introduce Russia to the Easter turkey.
To get Russians to eat a distinctly North American food many were previously unfamiliar with, the entrepreneur has trademarked the term "Easter Turkey" as a marketing gimmick. This year, he expects to sell 2.8 million birds, helping to secure a steady supply of meat for Russia.
"In the west, they have Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey, we have the Easter one," Vaneev said. To make the connection clear to consumers, his company, Eurodon, sells bagged turkey stamped with "Christ has Risen" and a picture of a roast bird flanked by Easter eggs and apples.
That's just one way a Russian Eastern turkey differs from those artist Norman Rockwell might recognise as a holiday centerpiece. For Orthodox Easter, which falls on the same date as the western one this weekend, Eurodon suggests boiling a turkey fillet and drizzling it with a citrus cheese sauce. The company also sells meat rolls for roasting since many Russian ovens are too small to fit the entire bird.
This year, the question of where Russia's more than 140 million citizens get their food is growing more important. As President Vladimir Putin finds himself increasingly isolated from the United States and European Union amid tension over Ukraine, Vaneev and his Easter turkeys are emblematic of a national effort to boost food security.
Russia imports 42 billion dollars in comestibles annually, including about a quarter of its meat supply; the government has set a target of domestic production of at least for 85 per cent of the meat consumed in Russia.
"Regardless of how relationships are going with other countries, Russia must develop its own agriculture, which deteriorated in the 1990s, to become a significant player in the global food market," said Sergey Yushin, the head of the country's national meat association.
Turkey wasn't an obvious way to help close the gap. Vaneev, who owns a restaurant and wholesale business in the Rostov region, stumbled upon turkey meat on a trip to Hungary and decided in 2003 to produce his own in Russia.
While some banks were reluctant to fund a turkey business in a country where virtually no one ate it, Vaneev eventually got the backing of state-run VEB because the bank was eager to increase domestic agricultural production, lending him 7.7 billion rubles. In 2006, Vaneev started commercial production.
Later, VEB gave Vaneev an additional loan of about 500 million dollars to help him reach a goal of tripling the company's capacity by 2016. As the ruble has declined 9.1 per cent against the euro and 8.3 per cent versus the dollar this year, raising the cost of imported feed and equipment, Vaneev has had to recalculate his business plan to account for higher costs.
To convince Russians to try the fowl, whether at Easter or during the rest of the year, Vaneev on 31 May will hold his annual "Turkey Day." In six cities, consumers will be able to sample the meat, take classes in cooking it, and meet live birds at Ikea-owned shopping centers. The company now raises turkeys at 12 commercial farms, producing about 120 tons of meat per day, or enough for about 700,000 servings.
The pressure to feed Russians is growing as the country has followed the global trend of consuming more animal protein as it grows wealthier. Easter, traditionally celebrated with a cottage-cheese cake iced with sprinkles to celebrate the end of the 40-day deprivation of Lent, is a perfect time to convince Russians to splurge on a new kind of meat, according to Vaneev. And pitching turkey as a healthier alternative to pork fits with Putin's push to get Russians to eat better and cut back on smoking and drinking.
"The marketing proposition as a pork replacement gives the Russian turkey sector an opportunity to drive per-capita consumption to 6-7 kilograms per capita, which would place Russia as a turkey powerhouse," said Ian Hamilton, a former managing director of Aviagen Turkeys, the world's biggest breeding company and a supplier to Eurodon.
While still far behind Americans, who eat 8 kilograms of turkey per capita annually, Russians are chowing more of the meat. Last year, Russian consumption reached about 900 grams per capita, up from less than 200 grams a decade ago, Vaneev estimates.
"Russia's demand for turkey is growing as people want to eat healthy food regardless of politics," Vaneev said.
That came as surprising news to some Americans at a meeting last year of the US National Turkey Federation, where Eurodon was the only Russian producer represented.
"They regarded us with curiosity, asking 'Russia? Producing turkey?'" Vaneev said. "For Americans, it was as weird as if a US company were to start producing Matryoshka nesting dolls."
Ilya Khrennikov – Bloomberg News