ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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A Different Kind of Help

Charity-run bakery meets needs and tastes in Georgia

It is on the outskirts of town, up a steep hill and alongside a potholed road. But for Zurab Vachnadze, 24, the trip is well worth it.

Seated at a corner table in a cozy eatery on Nutsubidze Street in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Mr. Vachnadze takes a large bite of what he says is the tastiest pizza in the city. Across the table, his girlfriend Tamara Tskitishvili also praises her selection from the menu – an appetizing plate of lasagna.

A night out for an Italian meal might sound ordinary to many in the West. But in Georgia, where the cuisine of the Caucasus region dominates the restaurant scene, eating authentic Italian food is a special occasion.

“There are not many places in Tbilisi that serve food that is not Georgian, and also affordable,” Mr. Vachnadze says as he chomps on his pizza.

Panetteria, which is Italian for bakery, includes a pizzeria and pastry shop and is located in one of Tbilisi’s residential districts, a far distance from the center of the city’s nightlife with its crowded Georgian restaurants and Western-style bars.

Its remote location does not keep people from filing into the pizzeria almost every night looking for a taste of real Italian pizza, a bowl of pasta or a slice of Panetteria’s tiramisu.

The bakery and pastry shop next door also stay busy, with rows of colorful Italian pastries and baskets of breads atop the glass counter. In the back, shelves are crowded with a selection rare for Georgia: bags of pasta from Italy, bottles of olive oil and jars of capers and anchovies.

General Manager Liana Kandelaki says the secret of Panetteria’s success is simple: “We make everyone feel at home. We make the best food and it is very different from what many are used to. That’s what we are here for.”

This is an understatement for a business aiming for far more than the simple diversification of Georgia’s gastronomic landscape. While Panetteria is a real treat for Tbilisi gourmands, the bakery was created for the benefit of the least fortunate in the Georgian capital. Ever since its establishment in March 2000, Georgia’s first Italian bakery and pizzeria have been serving the needs of the poor, old, orphaned and unemployed.

To find out why and how, it is enough to follow one’s nose. The appetizing aroma of fresh breads and croissants rises into the air and flows into the office of Caritas Georgia. The director of Caritas Georgia, Father Witold Szulczynski, recalls how it all started.

“A few years ago some of our sponsors suggested we do something different, that we try to raise money ourselves from our activities here. ‘Open a business,’ they told us,” says Father Szulczynski, “but I thought ‘easier said than done.’”

For the past decade, Georgia, with its feeble investment climate, notorious security problems and endless corruption, has not been a favorable place for starting a business. The idea that a business would not only support itself but also generate enough income to support a charity seemed far-fetched. But the project has exceeded all expectations, and CNEWA is proud to provide financial assistance to the expanding bakery.

“Our main goal was to create jobs. So we came up with the idea of a bakery,” says Father Szulczynski. “We thought the bakery could provide bread for our soup kitchen and we’d also be able to employ people and give them the practical skills of making bread.”

Money from Caritas Germany helped the project get started. The space just below the Caritas office was renovated, equipment and supplies arrived from Italy and the bakery opened.

Within just a few months a pastry shop was added to the bakery. Then an eating area with just four tables was added. Soon this was too small to satisfy the growing number of customers.

“We quickly realized we were growing much faster than we had imagined in drawing up the project, so we decided to open a pizzeria and build on our early success,” says Tamaz Shakiashvili, who directs Panetteria.

The growth did not end there.

Panetteria’s sister bakery is already operating in the town of Kutaisi in western Georgia. In Tbilisi, there are plans to open another pastry shop downtown.

The business already employs some 50 people in Tbilisi, almost twice the number hoped for when the project began. “All of these people are also breadwinners for their families. Even students who come to learn how to make bread get our minimum salary of about $150 a month. While this might not sound like a lot of money, in Georgia where a teacher gets $20 a month, this is not bad money,” says Mr. Shakiashvili.

Panetteria has managed to offer more than just employment and job skills to people. Every day the bakery provides bread for the Caritas soup kitchen, which feeds more than 400 people a day, and pastries for an orphanage administered by Caritas. It also helps fund other projects supported by the Catholic agency, which provides social services to the poor across the globe.

The project marks a dramatic change in the work of Caritas Georgia. For nearly a decade, the agency has helped the poor by providing basic needs.

“Panetteria is certainly a different kind of help. Our traditional programs – helping the elderly, orphans and unemployed by feeding them and providing medical care – are extremely important. However, this gives people a chance to learn something new and be in a different environment,” says Father Szulczynski.

Back at Panetteria, Mr. Shakiashvili walks past the ovens and machines. Ask him the correct temperature for water in making the Italian bread ciabatta, and he is correct down to the last centigrade. Ask him the proportion of water to flour for Panetteria’s special wheat bread and he answers without a second thought. Though now an expert on every piece of Panetteria’s machines, he admits he is new to the profession.

Five years ago Mr. Shakiashvili completed his economics degree at Tbilisi State University. Shortly after, Georgia’s rampant unemployment forced him to settle for a job as a security guard at the Holy See’s Embassy, where he met Father Szulczynski.

“I told Father Szulczynski how much I wanted to find a better job and he told me about the bakery project that was just beginning,” says Mr. Shakiashvili.

A few months later, Mr. Shakiashvili found himself in Italy, learning the art of making bread. After returning to Tbilisi, he began teaching the skill to a team of Georgian bakers.

“We always try to hire people who do not have much baking experience. Among our staff are many professionals: There are teachers, medics, art critics,” Mr. Shakiashvili says. “It’s only now that we are getting on our feet financially. It took us almost two years, but we are now able to expand and contribute to Caritas programs, a big achievement.”

However, many problems persist, some of which are commonplace to all businesses in Georgia. Since achieving independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union over a decade ago, Georgia has suffered from one of the world’s worst energy crises. Blackouts can last up to 16 hours a day. Supplies of natural gas – plentiful during the Soviet era – are erratic. Yet despite the electricity and gas shortages, Panetteria’s 24-hour production line has never stopped.

Just as never-ending is the ringing of the mobile phone of Maya Khomasuridze, known as the “godmother” of Panetteria’s famous cakes. As she answers her mobile and jots down requests for cakes, Ms. Kandelaki explains that over the past two years Ms. Khomasuridze’s cakes have become an integral part of Tbilisi’s social scene, from embassy receptions to birthday and wedding parties.

“They are so popular that we now have 10 people working only on cakes and pastries. What’s interesting is that we never had to advertise. Word got around and our product became our best P.R.,” says Ms. Kandelaki.

Ms. Kandelaki has an honorary title of her own. She is not just a manager, she is also Panetteria’s “croissant queen.” And it is a title she has worked hard for, she says with a smile.

“I remember the first time we decided to make croissants. I realized I had no idea what a croissant looked or tasted like. We were lucky to have ingredients and machines from Italy, but none of us had a clue what to do with them. So we made use of cookbooks, fantasized a bit and came up with what we thought was a pretty good croissant,” she says.

Despite the lack of professional culinary experience, the female staff of Panetteria began work well aware of the challenges of cooking in Georgia. “Our women have learned how to come up with a good meal using the minimum of ingredients and equipment,” says Ms. Kandelaki. “It’s not easy to cook when you have no running water, gas or electricity.

“But we’ve managed to feed our families and cook some amazing dishes during very tough times. And when you suddenly have all sorts of ingredients and equipment to choose from, you start really enjoying the process of cooking and coming up with ideas.”

Ms. Kandelaki and her colleagues say they spend long hours creating tastier food for their customers and thinking of ways to generate more money for the business and the greater cause it serves.

So is there anything she does not like about her current job?

The question throws Panetteria’s croissant queen. But while she thinks, Sopho Nadirashvili, a young dark-haired cashier, ducks out from behind the counter. “I know what I don’t like,” she says. “There is too much tasty stuff around and I am gaining way too much weight.”

Natalia Antelava is the BBC Online correspondent in Tbilisi.

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