Business

My Business: The American who makes cheese in a Russian village

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Media captionJay Close, cheese-maker: "You've got to have some inside connections"

What makes an entrepreneur? BBC Russian's Oleg Boldyrev and Heather Sharp hear from an American expat, who bought a cow and set up a cheese-making business near Moscow.

Meet Jay Close, an American living in a small village near Moscow

Up at 5am to milk his cows, battling bureaucracy by day and making late deliveries by night - becoming a cheese-maker in Russia has been "hard, hard work" for Jay Close.

The 48-year-old New York-born chef began his operation 18 months ago, as part of a move to establish a rural life with his new wife Valentina, 25, in Moshnitsy, a village an hour's drive from the capital, Moscow.

Jay was inspired to try making cheese after visiting a cheese-maker in Holland during their honeymoon.

But what began as an experiment has fast become a business, with an estimated turnover of 30,000 euros (US$40,300, £25,700) in 2011.

Jay started with one cow. Now he has five plus eight goats, buys extra milk from nearby farmers and employs a worker from Tajikistan.

He began making one to two kilogrammes of cheese a day, but can now make up to 30 - and 30 different varieties.

The operation has taken over the entire downstairs of the farmhouse he built himself. "I'm making cheese in my living room and my kitchen," he says.

'Cheese futures'

On top of covering the couple's living costs and debt repayments, the business is delivering about US$300 a month, which they are reinvesting in materials for a separate cheese-making building.

Jay also now sells to restaurants in the capital, using connections built during many years working in their kitchens.

In addition, a recommendation by a French tennis coach he met in one restaurant has delivered a market for about two-thirds of his output, via an organisation called Lavka Lavka, which delivers high-end farm produce directly to a network of individual customers.

Lavka Lavka also helped to find four keen potential buyers who between them stumped up 3,300 euros for equipment to enable Jay to scale up production.

"Cheese futures," he jokes, adding that most of the money has now been repaid - in cheese.

The rest of the business, and the house itself, was funded from Jay's savings, some inheritance, and the proceeds from selling a houseboat he owned on the Seine River in Paris.

Jay lived in countries as diverse as Mexico, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji as a child, and speaks English, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian.

His experience in catering began in California, when he ran away from home at the ago of 14 to avoid being sent back to boarding school in the UK.

He slept in the stairwell of an expensive apartment building, and washed dishes in a restaurant across the road, before eventually going with his father to Australia where he studied graphic arts.

But he later became a chef, although stints in construction and an abattoir have also brought experience which has come in useful in setting up the farm.

'I wanted to understand'

After visits to Moscow in 1993 and 1994, Jay moved in 1995 to work in post-Soviet Russia.

Image caption Jay says he has had difficulty leasing land to graze his animals on

"I didn't understand and I wanted to understand - how people lived, how they ate, how everybody seemed to have work but nobody had a salary. There were no shops, no advertising, no neon signs - people had very little, and no money, but they still had smiles."

Jay is constantly busy, breaking off to check batches of cheese, forgetting to eat breakfast, trying to recoup money from a truck driver and fielding calls from Lavka Lavka.

Although clearly stressed at times, he comes alive as he talks about his products, which he describes as "something that was made the way things were supposed to be made before progress stepped in and made things worse".

He believes most cheese in Moscow's supermarkets, which sells for as little as 220 roubles ($7; £4.50) a kilo, is mass produced and has vegetable fat added.

Jay uses 10 litres of milk - which he says costs 450 roubles - for each kilo of cheese.

The cheese sells for 500-600 roubles a kilo when bought directly from him, but Lavka Lavka customers pay almost twice as much.

'Psychological rewards'

Despite his growing success, Jay is divided as to whether he would recommend Russia as a suitable business environment.

The bureaucratic struggles are constant, and he describes lengthy difficulties in buying land and getting his cheese certified for sale.

"You've got to have some inside connections. For a foreigner thinking he's going to start something in Russia, it's too much - the culture, the people, the land... A lot of people just give up," he says. "I can't say you wouldn't regret it."

"I've had it all on my shoulders, I've worked on cruise ships with 20-30 chefs under me, making three meals a day for 250 passengers," he says.

But tired of Moscow's erratic wages, commuting, and working for others, Jay says he wanted to do something for himself.

"This is more rewarding psychologically," he says. "When you're working for yourself, you put more of yourself into it."

"It's never dull - there's always some new adventure."

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