Which of the businesses in your neighbourhood actually help people to meet and form lasting friendships? Libraries, coffee shops, gyms, and nightclubs are the most obvious community hubs. But what about your local supermarket? For those of us who pick up groceries several times a week, imagine if you could use that time to get to know your neighbours, or learn about what’s happening in your area. This is the ethos behind Almaty’s Salem, sosed, which aims to be more than just a grocery store.
According to its two young founders, Sima and Nafisa Rozikova, 70 per cent of Kazakh people still do their daily food shop at convenience stores. Almaty has plenty of the kind of beautiful traditional markets found across Central Asia. The city’s Kok Bazaar is a popular destination for tourists seeking an authentic market experience and local delicacies. As with anywhere in the world, though, locals prefer the convenience of big supermarkets for their weekly shop and smaller stores for everyday basics. At the same time, there has been a rise in customers interested in healthy lifestyles and eco-conscious choices.
Salem, sosed is specially curated to prioritise local producers, while taking care of the finer details that hold startups back, such as packaging and marketing. “We found that the entry requirements for big chain stores are too challenging for startup brands and small local producers who wish to stock there,” the Rozikovas say.
The duo say that convenience stores, in particular, have a bad reputation for “expired products, poor selection, rude service, and uninspiring interiors”. So the sisters set out to reinvent Kazakhstan’s typical “shop next door”. The first store opened last year, a stone’s throw away from the Terrenkur river. The word terrenkur is Kazakh for “treatment of earth” — the river presented itself as the perfect location for a grocery shop with an ecological mission.
One of the obvious challenges was choosing what went on the shelves: products stocked at Salem, sosed must contain no artificial flavours, sweeteners, or colours, and must be free of GMOs and antibiotics. “It is crucial that we did not label our store as vegan or vegetarian, farmer or organic. Instead, we focus on choosing excellent quality food.” As retail entrepreneurs, the Rozikovas feel responsible for educating suppliers on how to reduce their ecological footprint. The Rozikovas consider the fact that producers have been willing to switch to sustainable packaging in order to get their products into the store an accomplishment. “Our Instagram page functions like a magazine covering topics such as food waste and ecological issues, involving followers into the conversation,” they add.
What has been of greater importance for the two entrepreneurs is to revolutionise not just the products but the social interactions that happen within the store. This is not limited to customer service alone. One of the first questions they asked was: “How can we create a place where people would want to hang out and get to know each other?”
If this sounds like Kazakhstan’s answer to Wholefoods, the Rozikovas explain that the core values behind Salem, sosed are inherently Kazakh; in English, “Salem, sosed” means “Peace, neighbour”. “Hospitality is one of the most important values in Kazakhstan,” they explain. “There are plenty of stories of locals giving shelter and food to travellers on the steppe. The tradition of hospitality has transformed over the years and influenced our behaviour. Locals appreciate good relationships with neighbours and often exchange food on holidays. We show those same values through our business.” They also reveal that the actual inspiration behind the store was their grandmother Rasima, “who was always kind to her neighbours and knew each of them by name.”
The sisters’ ideas about engaging the neighbourhood are a 21st-century update on those of Rasima, and go beyond in-store meet-ups and events, embracing social media and podcasts. With over 10 years of combined experience working with brands, they envisioned Salem, sosed not only as a retail space but as a media platform, and more. Before Salem, sosed, Nafisa launched an American-style cupcake bakery in Almaty in 2014, after six years of moving up in the world of hospitality. “I was a waiter, bartender, barista, administrator, manager, operations director, and partner. Basically, I know every aspect of working in a restaurant.”
Sima’s background, on the other hand, is at the other end of the retail industry: she’d spent 10 years working in fashion, both in Paris and Almaty. Five years ago, she opened Sprezzatura, the first concept store in Kazakhstan, featuring a curated selection of emerging designers from around the globe. “We brought many cool names to the market, like Marques Almeida, Etre Cecile, Awake, and more. We had been doing very well online, but just before the [Kazakh currency] tenge devaluation in 2015, we decided to relocate Sprezzatura to Paris.”
When it came to opening Salem, sosed, the sisters decided to save costs on marketing, branding, and social media by opening their own branding boutique, Simple Services. “Even though Simple Services is a standalone company, we can still call it Salem, sosed’s in-house marketing department. Besides our immediate physical community, we rely on Instagram as our main tool for communication, and it has played a great role in growing Salem, sosed and promoting our environmental causes. It drives up to 30 per cent of customers.” While Sima’s Sprezzatura supports new fashion brands in the field of e-commerce, Simple Services helps new Kazakh brands stand out in the market.
“We are super excited,” the sisters say, looking forward. “We see that most of our clients are ready to change their food habits and crave more information about the environment. At first, it was challenging to explain what is wrong with plastic and why we charge for disposable bags, or why we have unpasteurised rather than processed milk. But it took less than three months to get our customers to switch to tote bags or bring their own cup for coffee. We think that’s a big change.”
The entrepreneurs are transparent about the fact their target audience earn more than the average Kazakh, and try to cut costs depending on the product. “Indeed, prices may vary because of the natural ingredients. Moreover, small businesses cannot afford bulk prices because of the cost involved in paying a farm or greenhouse. This does influence prices, but the difference in taste and healthiness seems rather reasonable.”
Having already opened their second location in the city, they plan expand further as well as offer online delivery; they hope this expansion will help reduce costs further. “We are working on making products as affordable as possible and believe our expansion will help. We are proud to serve the best Americano available on the market for only €1.5 — 40 per cent cheaper than you’ll find in the average coffee shop.”