The FINANCIAL — Khatuna Bagaturia, 39, a Georgian woman living in New York, is just one of a number of Georgians who are running a restaurant business while being abroad. She asserts that Georgian national cuisine is in big demand in America, as she has received offers to expand her Tbilisi branch in Chicago and California.
The Tbilisi restaurant can easily be found when browsing Google Map. Besides the few words written about Tbilisi there, very few people know the story of the restaurant.
Bagaturia left Georgia on September 21, 1999, as soon as she received her Green Card for permanent residence in the US.
“Like many other Georgians, I was looking for a better life,” she says. Now she is living with her large family in upstate NY, in small town Nyack, an hour’s drive from Brooklyn. She has not received US citizenship yet, but still has a green card permanent resident license.
“I opened the café-bakery Tbilisi 10 month ago in Brooklyn. I also got several offers from Chicago and California, but it would be too much for me alone to run such a chain of restaurants at this stage,” Bagaturia told The FINANCIAL.
Restaurant Tbilisi was founded in 1996 in NY by Armenian Lady Malvina Chmelova, who was born and lived in the capital of Georgia Tbilisi. Restaurant Tbilisi was the first Georgian Cuisine opened not only in NY, but in the whole of the United States. Today there are a couple more Georgian restaurants, but Tbilisi remains the best out of them, with its delicious food, traditional style interior, superior service and beautiful paintings of ancient Tbilisi on the walls.
From the start, the restaurant was the only place where Georgian immigrants could feel at home because of its lovely environment.
Since Georgia has become more well-known abroad and Georgian Cuisine more popular among other nations, Restaurant Tbilisi has turned out to be a favourite visit for many people living in NY. The new management led by Khatuna Bagaturia, has from February 7 kept the restaurant in perfect condition. It has even become associated recently with folk events.
Bagaturia says that guests are visiting them all the way from NJ, CT, PA, Washington DC and many other states. About 60% are Georgians, about 30% Russians and the other 10% all nationalities.
“There were several reasons for me starting a Georgian cuisine business in NY, first of all restaurant Tbilisi was by far the favourite place for Georgian emigrants, secondly I wanted to make Georgian food and Georgian culture more familiar to other nations which I feel I have achieved,” Bagaturia says.
Bagaturia says that eggplant with walnut, Khachapuri and Khinkali are the most popular dishes at the restaurant Tbilisi in NY. “The average price for Georgian dishes varies around 10 USD,” she says.
“Actually some of the ingredients used in Georgian dishes are rare in the USA. But I don’t substitute them with anything other than the real thing; all necessary spices and seasonings I get from Georgia,” Bagaturia told The FINANCIAL.
Bagaturia says that the first years of adaptation to a foreign country were very difficult. “The most difficult part was being a foreigner. The sense that you are alien, a refugee, lodger in this country and that nothing there belongs to you.”
“There is only time for a running start. As soon as you arrive you have to get on with things Otherwise this country can be very strict,” Bagaturia says.
“Living in a foreign country is difficult, very hard at times in fact. However Americans are not negative towards foreigners. On the contrary, they like to help other people when they see they are in need.”
Bagaturia says that she is in close relations with other Georgians living in NY. “Because of my business I know many Georgians. The most common professions for emigrant women is to take care of elderly people, and for men – to work as contractors. The main reason for this is the language barrier and illegality.
Bagaturia keeps the annual turnover of the restaurant confidential, but she says that it is a profitable business. She never had any experience of running private business in Georgia. When in the USA, before working for the restaurant, she used to work in other businesses, in all very successfully.
Her Green Card permits Bagaturia to visit her home country only two times during her period of permanent residence. “My first visit was in January, 2004 and the next, October, 2008. What I first noticed was the new, beautiful buildings, a lot more banks and gas stations, generally improved infrastructure. But from the bad side, people were more anxious,” she reveals.
“Georgia is too far from the US, it needs much more time to develop,” Bagaturia notes.
Bagaturia graduated from the Institute of foreign Languages in 1995, later took courses of finances and banking business as a secondary education, but could not get a diploma because she left the country.
“Earlier in my life I kept my self preoccupied, but differently. I started my first job when I was almost 17. I had my first child when I was 19 and was actually a student at the time. I had my second baby at the age of 25 and started my second education then. Now I have three children and a restaurant business, all of which requires a lot of time and energy,” Bagaturia says.
She says that she was lucky to have a knowledge of the English language as this is the first thing that foreigners need to have when leaving their homeland.
According to official statistics, more than a million Georgians are currently in emigration.