Alexey Tyutin is a successful Russian businessman whose latest enterprise is supplying Thailand with the black caviar that’s so prized in his Siberian homeland and beloved by gourmets across the world.
By Maxmilian Wechsler
IN 2011, the 43-year-old from the city of Novosibirsk went into business with a Thai partner to raise the sturgeon that produce the fish eggs, or roe, known as black caviar on a farm near Hua Hin. Previously reserved only for the super-rich, thanks to Alexey black caviar is now affordable to the ordinary connoisseurs among the local Thai and expat population.
Alexey received his basic education in Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia, and furthered his studies in the United States, the Netherlands and Australia. Before coming to Thailand, Alexey held high-level positions in several companies in Novosibirsk. He moved here at the beginning of 2004 after making a sudden decision to stay on permanently while vacationing on Koh Samui. At the time, he was planning to relocate to Australia and had almost everything prepared for the move.
Black caviar is considered the finest caviar and is also the most expensive. Red caviar comes from salmon, Alexey explained. “Many people in Thailand have never tasted black caviar, but in Russia, it is popular with the middle class.
“During the Soviet era, there was a time when the country produced around 1,000 tonnes of black caviar a year. Now the whole world produces only 350 tonnes.
“Traditionally, the caviar was taken from wild sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea. Most of the fish there were killed. Now the fish is on the endangered species list and catching it for caviar is banned. So presently all caviar legally produced in the Russian Federation comes from fish farms. There are still sturgeon fish in the Caspian Sea, but the population is small. Unfortunately, people now fish illegally in the Caspian and smuggle the caviar they produce. They invest nothing and plunder the nation’s natural resources.
“Can you imagine 1,000 tonnes of caviar being produced every year in the USSR?,” says Alexey. “When I was young I used to go to a shop that was full of caviar with a glass container. They put the caviar on scales and poured in into the containers. Back then, black caviar was very cheap.”
Asked why he decided to go into the caviar trade in Thailand, Alexey replied, “It was quite a sudden decision actually. It is now difficult to find a new business in Thailand. Everything is here already and most people focus on construction and development of hotels, condominiums, holiday homes and so on. I thought there were good opportunities in the luxury market in Thailand and since I knew caviar I decided to go into this business and develop it here.
“Caviar is not really well known here, but a lot of Thais and foreigners like it and there are many rich people in Thailand who really like it. It blends well with vodka and with champagne. Our aim was to bring something affordable to the local market, which at the time we went into business only offered unbelievably pricey caviar.
“For example, in some shops here you can see a little tin of about 30 grammes of imported caviar that sells for 40,000 baht. This is incredible; it amounts to about 1.3 million baht per kilogramme. Before starting the business, we did a lot of research about the prices and so on. We saw that the market and supply here for caviar is not structured. People mostly just bring caviar into the country stuffed in their pockets. A tin of caviar is very small, so it is easy to smuggle.
“Some companies, for example, don’t keep any stocks of caviar. The customer must place an order and wait maybe two weeks for the caviar, which will be delivered from abroad.”
Alexey says he’s not concerned about the reaction of caviar importers to his much lower-priced local product. “We are not afraid. My point of view is that competition makes you better. But if something happens behind your back …,” Alexey said without finishing the thought.
“Our investment in Thailand is about US$3 million; this includes the development of the farm where we grow the sturgeon fish. Now we are selling our caviar almost exclusively in Thailand because expansion into the international market is very difficult. But we plan to expand at some point.”
Alexey’s company began selling black caviar in Thailand in the beginning of 2015. He is excited that it will soon be available at Central Chidlom. “We had a very big event there in September with 250 guests attending and the participation of Niche Cars Lamborghini Club. We sponsored the event and supplied more than eight kilogrammes of caviar, the most we have supplied so far. We purchased some big refrigerators in early October so we can expand.
“We now have a very nice website, launched in late September. A famous Russian designer created our tins and brochure. We have several different sizes of tins. I think 30-gram tins are very nice. They are gold plated. Now the tin cans are precision-made in France, but we have already imported the necessary machinery from France, so we will soon be doing it ourselves.”
The sturgeon is among the oldest creatures on the planet. The species has been around about 250 million years. The fish has a long life and, like crocodiles never stops growing. Most animals reach a certain size and stop growing, but this is not the case with the sturgeon. On the other hand, the salmon which produce red caviar do stop growing. The largest sturgeon ever caught was about 1.5 tonnes and nine and a half meters long. Another interesting fact: sturgeons have no bones.
“We brought our little sturgeons here from China,” said Alexey. “It was very difficult as there are a lot of restrictions and regulations put in place by the authorities. However, we have got a good support from the Department of Fisheries and its Director General Khun Adisorn. My Thai partner, Noppadon, was very helpful in this regard.
“Buying sturgeon is expensive and so is the cost of feeding them. We are importing feed from Denmark. It is much better than what is made locally. The quality of the caviar depends on what the fish eats.
“If the fish has the same feed every day like when it’s farmed, then it’s meat - and also caviar - has a smell of that feed. This is absolutely inappropriate for an expensive and delicious food. There is a technical solution for this problem: using a winter simulation facility where the temperature of the water can be dropped down to +5C. Keeping fish with caviar in this facility for two months will remove any kind of smell from their bodies and it also makes caviar less oily.
“We now have six employees working at our operation in Hua Hin. It isn’t easy to find workers for some reason. I had to ask the BOI for help with that, and they did help. Our company is a member of the Thai-Russian Chamber of Commerce and we also get a good help from the Russian Embassy Trade Representative Office.
“I stay most of the time in Bangkok, and two or three times a month I go to Hua Hin. The farm is located about 10 km from the centre of Hua Hin. We have two security guards who live close by with his family.
My 26-year-old son Alexander lives there and takes care of the farm. He is an engineer who came here to help with the construction with some other engineers from Russia. Now he operates the farm by himself.”
Alexey says his plans for the future are centred in Thailand. “Maintaining a sturgeon farm takes a lot of time and efforts. In order to succeed in any business, you must put your heart in it and dedicate yourself to its success for the long term. The Thai culture is unique and I would say, at some points, it’s almost the opposite of the Russian way of living. It took me a few years to adjust to the environment and traditions, but from the start, I liked Thailand and the Thai people very much. That’s why I am willing to stay here and make it my home.”