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Latvia's Pizza Man

Canadian-Latvian Elmars Tannis arrived in Latvia in 1992 with 10,000 Canadian Dollars, a business partner, and a dream to start a pizza restaurant. Now, 14 years later, that dream has grown into the popular 11-venue strong Pizza Lulu chain and much, much more. Not too long ago, ÄŒarlstons was one of the only few places you could go in Riga to get a good Cesar salad. Today things have certainly changed, and the restaurant scene is much more diverse and international. Still, to this day, ÄŒarlstons is adored by locals and expats alike.

Iguana and El Čarlito were among the first Tex-Mex restaurants in town, and today they still remain your best bet when you're craving some South of the Border spice. And for good pizza, Pizza Lulu is the place to go. What all of these varying restaurants have in common is the one man behind them, Canadian-born chef and restaurant guru Elmārs Tannis.

These days business is booming for Tannis, but it didn't happen overnight. Starting a business is never easy anywhere, but starting one in Latvia in the early 1990s had its own set of challenges. Back in the early days, it was a given that you had to pay off the mafia to stay in business. There was even a term for it, having a jumts, or roof, to protect your business and keep other mafia guys from muscling in. Tannis remembers the fist meeting with the protection guy they were hiring, he showed up with a photograph of himself holding a machine gun, presenting it as his business card. Even so, Tannis said that during that time, he was probably one of the best businessmen he had dealings with. "He was honest and he wasn't trying to take too much money from us." Back then there were other obstacles, what with even the basic necessities being hard to come by. The pizza shop had to be put on hold for a while because there were no places with adequate electricity or gas for the pizza ovens. So in the meantime, Tannis and his business partner opened a sandwich shop.

Eventually, Pizza Lulu was up and running, and from there Tannis' business projects grew exponentially. He's had his hand in setting up a number of successful restaurants in town, such as Put Vejini (Blow, Little Wind), Lidojošā Varde (The Flying Frog), and Andalūsijas Suns (A. Suns, or, The Andalusian Dog).

From there he went on to open his own restaurants, ÄŒarlstons, El ÄŒarlito and Iguana. With all of them, Tannis says that he tries to attract and maintain a balance of expats, tourists and locals, which creates an international feeling. "I come from Toronto, Canada, which is very multi-cultural. All of these cultural differences make the restaurant interesting, from your servers to your customers." He thinks that local Latvians appreciate that aspect of his places.

Despite the difficulties he has had, Tannis feels it's more difficult to start a business today. "Start-up costs are crazy, expectations are higher, and it's harder to find someone to work for you because there are so many restaurants, bars and hotels as well as a shortage of workers."

Elmārs Tannis is also one of Latvia's TV celebrity chefs. In the early 1990s he had a few television series', which he used to introduce Western foods and different ways of eating, to the locals. "We had to teach Latvians how to eat sandwiches, how to not eat pizza with a fork, etc." Today this may seem ridiculous, but these are things most Westerners take for granted, and can make all the difference when marketing a new food to a local audience. "Just because you go into a country and open up, for example, an Italian restaurant, doesn't mean that all those people will want an Italian restaurant.

They may not know what Italian food is. The product has to be marketed. When we first came over here not everyone knew what pizza was, they may have just heard of it. Nobody was eating salads, like Cesar, Greek or green tossed salads. All those things had to be introduced, and you had to work on it." Tannis credits his early TV shows as helping to make his restaurants appealing to a local market by familiarizing them with other styles of cooking and eating.

Additionally, he says that it helps if a restaurant is owned by a restauranteur, as opposed to a businessperson. But basically, he says, it mainly comes down to integrity and a lot of hard work. Tannis remembers putting in many long hours week after week, year after year, to get where he is today. "Unless you're really into it, the restaurant business is a tough business anywhere in the world. It's a lot of hours."

His current cooking show, Garšu Laboratorija (The Taste Lab), which airs every Sunday at 9:30 on TV3, continues in the vein of his early shows, but certainly ups the ante, as his audience is no longer naive and has learned a lot over the years. The show aims to teach audiences to make tasty simple food in an understandable way, from strawberry cake and pancakes, to paella and tortillas. Additionally, groups can hire out the Lab for interactive cooking classes and cooking seminars.

Visit one of Elmārs' Restaurants:

38/40 Blaumaņa iela, Rīga

El ÄŒarlito
38/40 Blaumaņa iela, Rīga (entrance from Pērses iela)

85a Elizabetes iela (Berga Bazars), RÄ«ga
Also in Joker Klubs, 12 Katrinas iela

Pizza Lulu
Various locations throughout Riga, including a new shop at Riga International Airport

Garšu Laboratorija
113 Dzirnavu iela, RÄ«ga. info@g-lab.lv (bookings only)


By Amy Bryzgel