Clientele's new flavor brings taste of Russia A deli changes : As Russian immigrants have become its main customers, Randallstown deli has tailored its offerings to their tastes.

January 22, 1996|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

Gary Hein grabs a slightly beat-up can off the shelf, the top showing a few rust spots and the cheaply printed, off-register label advising -- to anyone who can read Russian -- that the contents consist of stewed, mashed eggplant.

"I waited three years for this," he says, practically purring in satisfaction.

It's another small triumph (at $2.49 a can) for the Old World Bakery and Delicatessen, which sits on Liberty Road in Randallstown and for the last decade or so has been pushed by circumstances into embracing the strange and sometimes unfathomable world of Russian culinary delights.

What his customers want, Mr. Hein tries to get -- and nowadays the customers coming in are likely as not to be looking for tvorog, kefir, instant kasha, rossiskaya kolbasa or maybe some nice brinza.

(That is, some very soft cheese, cultured milk, buckwheat oatmeal, cold sausage or a crumbly, salty cheese.)

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When Annie Hein, who grew up near Frankfurt, Germany, started the business 25 years ago, she specialized in lederhosen, dirndls, beer steins and cuckoo clocks. Gradually, she and her son Gary added chocolates, beer, wursts and head cheese, and they built a sizable clientele of German immigrants and U.S. servicemen who had gotten a taste for things Teutonic after being stationed along the Rhine.

But the immigrants eventually went their Americanized way, and defense cuts drastically reduced the number of military families stationed in -- and returning from -- Germany. Yet, as if by plan, a different batch of immigrants began settling in Randallstown and its environs, and the Heins grabbed at an opportunity.

"I never used to like caviar," says Mr. Hein. But liking or not liking is no longer the point. "I know when it's good," he says. "I know when it's fresh. When I taste it, I'm looking for 2.5, 3 percent salinity. If I sell anything over that, my customers won't come back."

Probably half of the deli's customers are Russians now, Mr. Hein says. The challenge is to understand what foods they crave and then find them.

What it boils down to is a weekly trip to Brooklyn, N.Y. -- home to the nation's largest Russian immigrant community. For years, Mr. Hein, 35, has been putting in the legwork to find suppliers he can count on. Because he knows only about 100 words of Russian, that has meant asking for a lot of advice and knocking on a lot of doors.

"You can't do it by phone," he says. "They pick it up. 'No speak English.' Bam! You're gone."

Some of his suppliers are importers. You have to be there to do business, he says. Maybe a container full of cans of mashed eggplant has just come off a ship. In 15 minutes, they're gone. Or maybe a supplier is trying to move some inventory and wants to bargain. You can't send a driver to Brooklyn to handle that, Mr. Hein says. You have to be there.

Other suppliers are producers. Russia these days is exporting less and less food because it is becoming increasingly profitable to sell it domestically. Moreover, in a system where the full reach of the law is breaking down, quality control is getting more difficult to assert. The war in Chechnya has cut into fruit and vegetable production.

So Russian emigres, primarily in Brooklyn and Chicago, are taking up the slack, churning out sausages, baking bread, culturing dairy products and smoking fish. They sell their products in the United States and even export some to the old country.

Mr. Hein visits 20 vendors on his trips to Brooklyn and hauls 10,000 pounds of food back to Randallstown every week. He leaves at 3 a.m. so that he won't miss any deals.

The vendors treat him better than they do their Russian customers, he says. That's because he's a "foreigner" in their world, and you don't argue and throw insults at a foreigner the way you would with your own kind.

Also, he has built some longstanding relationships with his suppliers. "Russians are very personal," he says. "When you're in, you're in."

His customers know to come in on Thursdays and Fridays, when the selection is best, but that doesn't give him an exemption from their commentary.

"When we came, for one year we cannot eat this American bread," says Avram Baronovski, who, like many Soviet emigres in Baltimore, is not actually Russian but a Russian-speaking Jew from Ukraine (in his case, Odessa). "So we come here to this shop. I tell you. In Russia, every city has its own bread. This bread -- well, the flour is different. I talked to them. They explained me. They cannot make exactly Russian bread. The meat? Is very expensive."

"You don't have that fish," says Sofia Alexander accusingly to Mr. Hein, referring to golden-skinned, smoked whole whiting.

"No, I didn't get any," he replies.

"You didn't go?" she stabs back, it being understood she's talking about Brooklyn.

"I went," he says. "I just didn't get any."

Actually, the customers love this place. There's just a feeling that they have to keep it in line.

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