Samovar, a 25-year-old Eastern European grocery store in Mountain View, serves deli products, hot food, and fresh baked goods. The packaged foods neatly lining row after row of shelves are imported from countries across Europe. Behind the food products is a pleasant surprise: books and novels that are a reminder of the store’s beginnings as a bookstore.
Upon entering Samovar, shoppers navigate narrow aisles created by carefully-placed silver metal shelves. On the very top shelves sit variations of samovars, decorative metal containers used to boil water and make tea. The samovar originated in Russia but is also used all over Eastern Europe and Asia. Samovar’s owner, Alex Alshvang, decided to name his grocery store Samovar because of samovars’ diverse forms, which aptly represent the cultural range of shoppers he hopes to welcome.
The store, however, was not always a grocery store. It actually started as a small bookstore opened by mechanical engineer Alex Alshvang.
Alshvang emigrated from Azerbaijan, formerly a part of the Soviet Union. When asked why he immigrated to the United States, Alshvang said, “My sister already lived here, and the Soviet Union was on the edge of crashing down, so I decided it’s going to be safe for my kids and myself to emigrate. I also think by emigrating here, I have more chances to explore myself and to see the world.”
Opening a business, much less a grocery store, was far from what Alshvang planned when he arrived in America. Now, as he walked down the aisles carefully rearranging jars of honey, he said, “I thought that I was gonna be doing similar things in America, so I worked as a software engineer here in the Silicon Valley.”
While a software engineer, he decided to open a bookstore to earn money on the side. “I started the bookstore as a side business, not to work by myself, but kind of like an investment.” His investment would become a thriving grocery store within 25 years.
After the company that employed him closed down, Alshvang decided to continue running his bookstore. Today, hidden behind shelves of tea, bread, chocolate, and dried spices, are bookcases filled with novels, children’s books, and biographies written in Russian. “It was a bookstore at first, but then people started asking us why we don’t have these, these, and these,” Alshvang said, as he pointed towards the freshly-baked goods and other foods. “So we slowly started adding food products, and we decided to have just a grocery store with a small book department.”
While adapting to his customers’ requests and needs, Alshvang wanted to keep his bookstore section running. Now, along with books, the literary section offers Russian gift cards, calendars, toys, and board games.
Walking past each aisle, Alshvang pointed to each product and its origins. Alshvang shared that his products are from “Poland, Kyrgyzstan, Republic of Georgia, Russia, Armenia, Romania, Lithuania, Russia, Belgium, Latvia, Czech Republic, Belarus, Germany, Thailand, and India.” The store offers what are often described as the heart of Russian cuisine: hand-made, in-house pelmenis, dumplings filled with beef, chicken, lamb, and vegetables.
Also very popular are the smoked fish and the more than 130 types of sausages, imported from around the globe. The store also boasts cakes from Ukraine, Germany, Russia, and Poland, and more than 40 varieties of honey. Alshvang said, “If a person comes in and everytime just tries one variety, that’s not good for us; not good for him because only by trying different things do you realize what else is available. The right approach is to try different things at least once in a while.”
Unsurprisingly, the diverse products attract customers who hail from all over the world. “Customers come from the former Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria,” he said. “There are also a lot of Chinese customers, especially from north China.” During our interview, a gentleman left the store clutching his purchases and Alshvang hugged him goodbye.
Running the business for more than 25 years, Alshvang have created a generation of customers and close relationships with each one, building a strong sense of community. Alshvang said, “We have known all these customers for over 20 years. They’re kind of part of the family. We know what’s happening with them, when they get married, divorced, kids, grandkids. When their parents are getting old and sick. We have known each customer for a long long time.”