This is Alma Kochavy, entrepreneur, mostly know as a co-creator of Odprta kuhna, a unique food market in Slovenia that has put Slovenia on the map of the top world culinary markets and destinations. Two words that would describe her best are laser focus and calmness. She was reborn in Israel. All her business experiences and knowledge were shaken up when meeting new business practices in Israel. Her husband is to be “blamed” for that.
By unifying two different business worlds, mindsets and practices, Alma and Lior, her husband, have developed a recipe for a business success: a mash of Slovene and Israeli proven business strategies that “work”.
During our conversation, we touched several topics. What are the new projects they are creating, what experiences did she gain while living in Israel, how all partners of Odprta kuhna donate food for those in need, what are biggest business misconceptions in Slovenia and many more.
You had to cancel your first Odprta kuhna event as it started to rain at 11 o’clock in the morning. What was on your mind at that time?
I think it was 9 or 10 in the morning… our biggest question was, “will there be anyone?”(smile) When first 10 visitors came, and then another 50, 100 of them, we were extremely happy. “They came, “we thought. This was the first moment of excitement. And then it started to rain… we had to cancel the event. Biggest lesson we had from this is gaining an understanding that not everything depends on us. Regardless how much you tried, how much of your energy, time, money, yourself you invested…there are also other factors that play a significant role, especially at the events organized outdoors. This is very disappointing but at the end of the day this becomes a fact that you accept because it is an integral part of the business.
Everything has to connect at some point.
Yes exactly. Sometimes we are surprised as the opposite happens. Instead of a predicted rain, we experience a beautiful weather and this compensates for all those days, which have been lost.
You have changed Ljubljana and other cities by introducing a culinary market. Slovenia is now listed as one of the best culinary destinations in the world also because of this concept. What is the interest of partners to cooperate in this project?
Interest is very big. Event truly became a success and Odprta kuhna is considered as a place to be on Fridays. New partners have to meet our criteria of quality, innovation and creativity before we start any cooperation with them. Each of the criteria is equally important. We receive many offers… but as it is in life so it is in business… not everyone can do everything. Our goal with the culinary market is diversification. We want each individual to find something for himself. This is the reason why we keep on enlarging our offer. We keep on meeting new restaurants, chefs also by our own initiative. There are many trends nowadays in the world as well as various food restrictions. We want to cover all of those needs.
Who makes the final decision whether a new partner will be accepted or not, if anyone?
Our team as a whole makes this decision; our core team, who is present in the office every day. When we receive a new inquiry, we all sit together, make a market research, check if someone knows them personally, we have a degustation… and we all adopt a final decision. My personal opinion or opinion of any other team member is irrelevant in this process. It doesn’t matter what is our personal relation to the potential new partner. We adopt a decision by having the project in our minds and is based on the analysis what we are missing and what that means to us/our visitors/our project if we include a new restaurant/partner.
Is there a restaurant you have been trying to catch and they still haven‘t accepted your offer to join?
In regards to the top restaurants in Slovenia – we cooperated with the majority of them in the last six years. Restaurants are very busy and have hard times in joining us. In the last season, we were very lucky with Hiša Franko, which joined us several times. When Ana Roš was crowned as a World’s Best Female Chef of 2017, their restaurant became even busier. It is hard for them to manage their restaurant and be present in Ljubljana at Odprta kuhna at the same time. We understand this and we are honored to have them, when they have time. There are several chefs that have not had the time to join us at the culinary market as they have to be physically present in their own restaurants. Fridays are very good days for restaurants in general and it is quite hard for a person to drive for example from Maribor and be present at the market for 12-14 hours. We understand and accept this. This is the reason why we plan other events that enable those chefs to join us with less hassle.
What projects do you plan in the future?
We launched festival Brina in the middle of November 2018. This is a gin festival happening in Ljubljana and it is the first festival of this kind in Slovenia. Gin is now very trendy. This is an old spirit, which came to life again in a new form. We live in the region with the best juniper berries in the world, which is the main ingredient of the gin. We have, I believe, about 15 gin makers in Slovenia. Festival Brina will be a blend with a culinary world and we will be the first in region (and in the wider geographical area ) to introduce a festival of this kind. We will invite culinary chefs, who will be pairing gin with the food and will demonstrate that a gin can be a splendid combination to food in general.
Festival Brina will be happening next year?
Yes. Just recently, we organized a culinary dinner with Jorge Zupan and Luka Košir, who are future culinary stars in Slovenia. They prepared a dinner and paired their food with gin. We introduced also 3 gin makers and we also presented 1st gin cocktail called Brina, which was prepared by a great sommelier and a gin expert Gašper Čarman from eVino. This was only a small presentation of the festival that will take place in May (11th May) in Ljubljana.
Can you share with us your plans for next year for Odprta kuhna, Pivo & Burger Fest?
We upgrade our project every year with the customer experience in our minds. This is all what counts at the end of the day. We would like to host foreign chefs at the event. Massimo Bottura visited us a part of another project last year, came to Odprta kuhna and was thrilled. This gave us even greater power and energy. Massimo is the best chef in the world. If we would manage to host foreign chefs, this would be a terrific upgrade of the event. But we would need a additional support for that. Until now we managed everything on our own. We have a great support of a Ljubljana Town Hall, but in regards to financials, we did everything on our own. We would need an additional partner to carry out this plan. This would be a terrific culinary promotion of Ljubljana and Slovenia. The Guardian and National Geographic have listed Odprta kuhna as one of the best food markets in the world and one of the best Ljubljana tourist sites. Odprta kuhna is not only Alma and Lior, this is Ljubljana, this is Slovenia and this is the reason why we want to connect at some other level as well.
Nowadays ecology is entering into the front line of many debates. What do you do with all food leftovers?
Since the beginning of the project, our focus was to reduce the amount of waste. Recycling and sorting were our basic orientations right from the beginning. We also asked all our partners not to use plastic cutlery and plates during the event. However, already after the 2nd event we noticed that some amount of food stayed after the end of the event. We contacted Botrstvo. Families came and picked up the food on their own during the first two years. What we did was we put all the food in one place. As project grew, the amount of food grew too. Due to that, we started cooperating with Zavod pod strehco. They are an institution, which prepares food for social endangered families. They picked up food at the end of the event and distributed it afterwards. Slovene philanthropy is an organization we work with now. They collect leftovers and distribute them. I would like to use this opportunity and thank all our partners. At the end of each event besides giving the remaining dishes, they intentionally prepare extra portions; some of them even give them ingredients, which they could use at the next event.
They all help people in need. Their act is a reflection of an enormous solidarity.
Absolutely. Unfortunately, we live in times where people can not afford to buy food. Enormous amounts of food stay unused at our events and this makes it a perfect place to organize a distribution of food. Many individuals come on their own, as they are familiar with the event. Our restaurants even know some of the people who come and as they pass by, they just hand them a bag with food to take home. We have not talked much about this but this has been our integral part since the beginning. This is the only correct way to work. This is our obligation. And this is something what restaurants do. No one talks or writes about this reality but as our conversation is touching these types of topics it is right to thank for their endeavours. Everyone has a heart and would want the same thing to happen to them, should they be in their place.
When looking back at the beginning of the project … Is there a change in the way you manage business now compared to your beginnings?
When we started, there were just the two of us. Lior and I. We literally built the event, worked whole day and cleaned the place afterwards. Today we have a team of people. As a consequence of that you learn to work in a team. You learn to delegate and trust your team. Today I am at the point I no longer follow all the details nor am updated what is happening in a particular working process but I am confident that everything is in a perfect order. I trust our managers.
Is there anything you miss in our Slovenian business environment? Israel is in fact your 2nd home and business culture in there is quite different… what could have been different in Slovenia and would benefit every entrepreneur?
In regards to entrepreneurs, the biggest deficit I see is the lack of courage. There is almost no determination in a sense, “I want this and I will make it happen!” There is no trust in our abilities. Without experiences, references, the easiest thing is to say something is hard and that you can not do it. When I compare this thinking with Israel… people in there might even have a bad idea, but they will stand behind it, execute it and succeed. This is a recipe for success. When you are 100% sure you will make it. When you fight for your idea, when you overcome obstacles and do not take a position that something is impossible. If we would have followed this classic mindset, this project would not have been alive.
Has living in Israel changed you in any way?
It definitely changed me. My business career started in my 20s. During my student years, I gained various experiences while working in different organizations (in a student club, at youth center) where I covered everything from administration and logistics to organization of different events. When I moved together with Lior to Israel, we started managing a resort with 30 houses where we hosted various events every day. When we moved to Israel people simply trusted us. When you say, that you will do something in Israel, people trust you.
How long did you manage this resort?
Almost two years. You live in there and are available 24/7 regardless of time. Everything has been a life experience for me. I learned anything is possible and if something has to be done, it has to be done. And that is it. This is the goal and nothing else. Leave all the problems, difficulties, tiredness aside. Your focus is a fact that this has to be done. Lior comes from a family with business background. He taught me, counseled me and contributed to my personal and business development.
How do you now grow business-wise?
When he came here (to Slovenia), the opposite happened.
And you became his mentor?
Not a mentor. I believe none of the extremes are good. They follow one extreme, we live in the other. I would say we complement each other – Israel gave me a lot and changed my business approach. The same happened to him here in Slovenia. What we did is we drew a line and took the best characteristics from both cultures. We combined worlds that are opposite and connected qualities of both sides. He also acknowledged that their business methods are not always the best and most suitable ones; that other methods of doing business exist as well. People need their space in Slovenia, they need their time. Everything is happening very intensively and directly in Israel. There is a lot of touching and kissing. They do not take your personal space into a consideration. When you behave like that in Slovenia you scare people away. They take such behavior as too aggressive, direct. But when you combine this approach with a bit of gentleness and sophistication you can get quite nice results and a that was our recipe for success.
We live in a high tempo world. How do you handle pressure and find peace?
Running only for the sake of running is useless. It is harmful to keep adding tasks to your list and have a feeling you are behind your schedule. We did not become bigger, more successful, more important because of the long list of tasks or because we are rushing from one task to another. No, this is not good. You have to take your time for anything that you are doing. There is no need for everything to be accomplished immediately. When you are in the middle of something, appreciate that moment, work diligently. This will be easier for you. Sometimes I am stressed and behind my schedule, but I make a sincere effort to stay calm. My children taught me that. There is a lot of work with kids and if you are not present, if you are running from one thing to another everything falls apart. And nobody is happy. No one gets what they need. And the work is not completed as it should be. The same principle applies in business. Be present and enjoy in a given moment of work. Take time to contemplate and breathe. Nothing good is born out of high tempo. We all are unhappy at the end and they work is not well done.
What do you do for your own well-being besides spending time with your family and kids? How do you recharge?
When being active it may happen, you may forget about yourself. This can happen to all of us, especially to women when we start our own families and have a lot of obligations. There comes a moment when you realize, where am I? What did I do for myself in the last week, month, year? Such moment comes… and what I learned is once battery is empty – it is empty. You have to use a charger in order to be able to function and be a better person. I take time for my physical activities. I also like to treat myself. It feels good when someone is taking care of me. I also like to visit my psychotherapist. I believe this helps you to unload your burdens and helps you to clarify some things. We take care of everything: we clean couches, polish chairs, take our cars to the mechanic… for objects we do everything. We visit doctor when in pain but this does not mean you are taking care of yourself. I believe that caring for your own brain, mind and soul is crucial. This is what I consider as a personal growth and I will have a person for the rest of my life that will help me professionally. This may even be just a regular conversation for you to relax and talk about topics you do not want to or can not share with any other person.
What is your life moto?
Although this may sound so cliché but I think love is the most important thing. Love is what gives a meaning to your existence, what nurtures you. It is not necessary love comes only from your partner. This is family, friends, and business partners. This is a relationship, a feeling towards another human being. We have this connection with the world and with ourselves. At the end this is the most important thing. What if today was the last day of my life… what will I remember? Will I remember the brand of a car I drove, what house I had, where I went on my vacation? No. I will rather remember who was in the car with me, with whom I spent my time at home, who was with me on my vacation. Those moments stay. Relationships, feelings, love.
What is the biggest business nonsense you hear all the time and you think, “oh please do not believe this”?
Do not believe something is impossible because Slovenia has a small market. Also, all those things like live your dreams… this is OK. Dreams are dreams but you have to put them in the right context, the right environment and position, which is aligned with your financial abilities and skills. Young people have their head full of those sayings, especially teenagers… if you wish for something it will happen. This is true, but it does not work that way. Business is not Instagram when you post one picture and you immediately gain 1 million followers and your business is flourishing. This is not how business runs. Nothing good comes quickly and from little effort invested. This message is very important for young people who are certain they will achieve their dreams instantly.
What would be your advice to all future entrepreneurs besides to be braver?
Slovenia is a very promising market. It is very limiting to believe we are too small, we have no market. We have many obstacles in our minds. I believe our size is our advantage. We are small, we have small number of entrepreneurs, and there is a lack of new principles, ideas, products, events. Possibilities are limitless if you have a good idea. We are lacking ¾ of things that are available in the rest of the world. Think, find your niche and then work diligently towards your goals. In addition, whatever you do, make sure you execute it in details. This is a recipe for success. It may not happen overnight but rest assured it would happen eventually.