In 2018, Ellen Doren and Bulat Nasybulin named their new Russian food truck Kolobok after a Russian folklore character. In the classic tale, Kolobok, a cherubic ball of dough (pictured on the couple’s bright red and yellow truck), escapes the oven, then cleverly keeps rolling on, enjoying adventures in the forest. “He has many stories of endurance and perseverance,” the Kolobok owners explain on their website.
Little did the couple know how eerily apt that image of a plucky survivor would be two years later.
Kolobok’s first year was wonderful, as the owners built a thriving business selling lunches in front of Salesforce Tower and other busy spots in San Francisco. They also sated appetites with their variety of filled blini at hugely popular venues through Off the Grid, such as Fort Mason and the Presidio Picnic. And they were named one of the 20 best food trucks by the San Francisco Chronicle for dishes such as their braised cabbage rolls stuffed with turkey and rice in tomato sauce. In the evenings and on weekends, they kept busy serving their pelmeni and piroshki at local breweries and music events.
Then one year ago, when the pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders took effect, the thriving business they had carefully built fell as flat as if someone had stomped on a house of cards.
“Our life completely changed,” recalled Doren. “Overnight, our work was gone. No more office lunches and the breweries all closed. We lost 100% of our business. We were just in shock for a couple of weeks.”
The couple, who hails from Moscow, transitioned to delivering their meals of Russian specialties.
“We were lucky that when we had work, we created quite a following,” said Doren. “So we reached out to our followers on Instagram and Facebook and said that since everything is closed, we will offer home delivery.”
Their former customers were delighted to order their favorite dishes by text. The couple set up a weekly delivery schedule: one day for inner East Bay cities like Oakland and Berkeley; another for Fremont, Hayward, Castro Valley; another for San Francisco and the Peninsula. “At least we had more time to develop new recipes,” said Doren. “We were very fortunate. We just kept going and that’s how we survived.”
When outdoor dining reopened in July, they added back the breweries. Another venue that helps Kolobok survive is apartment complexes. Many of these are in Walnut Creek, Dublin and Pleasanton, in parts of town located away from retail areas with restaurants. Each has about 300-500 residents and they are managed by one company, Essex Property Trust. Kolobok also works with Taste of the World Market, a company that arranges a variety of food trucks to visit apartment complexes weekly.
“Regarding the apartments and condo complexes, in the old days we might not have considered doing that work,” admitted Doren, “because the profit is very low. But now with half of our revenue gone due to the offices being closed, beggars cannot be choosers.”
Doren trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City and worked fine dining establishments such as Gramercy Tavern. When she moved to California, she wanted to transition to still work in food, but part-time, and not necessarily at a restaurant, so 15 years ago, she became a personal chef for individuals with special diets, and later this included members of the Warriors and the Raiders. As for her partner Nasybulin, he grew up in Moscow in a family of great cooks.
“Working 24/7 with a spouse is hard for other people but not for us,” said Doren. ”My husband inspires me every day with his humor. He is an incredible partner and a great cook. He does a lot of the prep work and that’s the hardest work. Plus, he has great taste buds.”
The couple lives in Oakland, their commissary kitchen is in Alameda, and now they are driving their food all over the Bay Area, facing challenges such as flat tires, rainy weather and even the theft of the generator out of their truck.
“Working on the food truck, we are like a two-man band,” said Doren. “We have become dishwasher, janitor, food shopper, prep cook, chef, accountant, car mechanic, cashier, server and sometimes a therapist, all in a team of two people. And our customers have become our friends.”
Doren’s training and experience shine in their four-course holiday meals. They deliver the meals — which they have done for Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day and Super Bowl Sunday — throughout the East Bay and San Francisco. For Valentine’s Day, the menu included: deviled eggs with smoked salmon and salmon caviar; a radicchio and endive salad with grapefruit, walnuts and gouda; a choice of lamb shank braised with Georgian wine with potato parsnip puree or Russian coulibiac, an impressive puff pastry, stuffed with salmon, spinach, rice and mushrooms; and for dessert, chocolate and Napoleon cake bites. They are now considering offering special meals for Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day and perhaps Passover and Easter.
“When our customers tell us ‘this is restaurant-quality food!’ We tell them that’s because it’s made with our heart and soul,” said Doren. On the Kolobok truck and website, they use the descriptor “Russian Soul Food,” which admittedly gets them a lot of comments. People say, “there’s no ‘soul food’ in Russia.” “What do you mean? Soul Food is American.” Doren clarifies: “This phrase comes from a Russian saying. When you give someone an abundant plate of food, that is delicious, their response is often, ‘Wow, this is full of soul’ or ‘This is made from your soul.’”
“Eventually we would like to have a restaurant,” said Doren. “But for now, we hope that when the offices open up, we can provide meals for the employees in the city again. But the future is very uncertain, for example, Salesforce already announced that they are going to allow their employees to work from home indefinitely. So, there is very little hope for that.”
Doren and Nasybulin hope that as more people get vaccinated and it’s safe to do so, the Off the Grid gatherings will return. They’re also looking forward to feeding the crowds at concerts. “We were very fortunate to be selected for the 2020 Outside Lands Concert in San Francisco and BottleRock in Napa, but of course they were canceled,” Doren said.
Business for Kolobok Food Truck is now back to about 50%.
“American children love the character of Kolobok and draw us pictures of him,” said Doren. “Kolobok is a cheerful name. And just like him, our food truck keeps rolling along.”