Maja, where you are from and how you ended up in Hungary?
I am of Polish origin, I spent my whole childhood in Poland. My mother is Polish, and my father is Italian. My husband is half-Hungarian, half-Russian. I did my studies in Poland, Russian philology. I have always liked the Russian language, Russian culture, and literature. It all fascinated me very much. I completed my Russian philology studies, and I obtained a teaching certificate. While in my fourth year, I went to Moscow for a scholarship and there, at some point, a group of students from Hungary came, and there was one Hungarian guy who stole my heart. After I graduated, I realized that I wanted to leave Poland and try my luck somewhere else. This was how I moved to Budapest.
Did you set up your own business right away?
No. I moved to Hungary, but the problem was that I could not speak Hungarian. I got a job at an English-language kindergarten. Because I had a teaching certificate, I became assistant to the preschool teaching staff. This all happened before Poland joined the EU, so those first steps were not easy: I had to stand in a queue for my working visa and in order to obtain a work permit. The worst thing was the language, because all the documents were in Hungarian. I worked at the kindergarten for ten years. I even thought about opening my own kindergarten, but I was terrified by the amount of formalities that had to be done. I have three kids, and at some point, while still working at the kindergarten, I realized that I did not even have patience any more for my own children, and so I wanted to change things. I considered opening a club café. I baked something at home all the time, usually homemade cakes that I made according to my grandma’s recipes: cheesecakes, apple pies, various croissants. I like to do that, it is relaxing.
What did you begin with?
It all started naturally, from the couple whom I worked for, I was their children’s preschool teacher. He is Dutch, and she is Hungarian. The café was not in the city center, it is located in one of Budapest’s residential districts. It is interesting that a lot of mothers with children live there, and there is a fitness club, for example, run by a Russian woman, there is a lady from Mongolia that does massage, there is a lady who gave up her corporate job and set up a chocolate factory, there is a lady who gave up a corporation and now makes honey, and this is how we live there. In Hungary a woman’s role comes down to being a mother who has three years of maternity leave, but from the example of my district you can see that women still do something, they cope somehow.
You founded another startup, didn’t you?
Yes, I opened a catering business, a takeaway kitchen located in a loft in the same district as the café. I placed my bet on catering because it required fewer formalities. It turned out that the owner of the loft is a foreigner too, a German. The place that he created is called Art Quarter Budapest, which is a place where artists from all over the world come to. He liked my idea of the kitchen very much. He suggested that I set up my kitchen on the last floor, in the attic.
It opened under my logo from the start, under my new name: Majeczko. A female friend from Poland made the logo for me. And later, when the kitchen started working, it turned out that the place where we had once opened our first café was available again, and the owners of that space offered me the chance to return there, this time without partners. I walked into this empty room and I thought, “I invested everything in my new kitchen, but, on the other hand, that café was a place where I had felt the happiest person in the world.” The kitchen was only about catering, there was no contact with customers, which I missed terribly.
So I started writing to my friends, asking who had an old chair or a cupboard from their grandmother, so that they might bring it here. This was how, for the second time, my retro café was created. Many people ask me why I don’t have a location in the city center. I just don’t want to be in the center, because the area where we’re located deserves something cool, too. This place deserves a nice café, a nice club for youngsters. People from many countries live in my district: there is a woman from the USA, one from Portugal, and they come to me, to my café. It is so great. But it all revolves a lot around my personality. The fact that I am a foreigner, that I speak with an accent, and that I try to get to know my customers.
In the beginning, where did you get your basic knowledge about how to run a business from?
Basic health and safety regulations, organizational tools, I took all that from the kindergarten. I owe the rest to my husband and to my friends. One evening we all sat down and did some brainstorming: what mistakes I had made, what strategy to choose, what I want to take with me, and what to forget about. And this is how it began to take shape. They asked me back then how much time I was giving myself for development. I said that there was no limit, and that I knew it would just work.
What I had at my disposal, was 20 square meters. Now, that was a kitchen. I turned to the internet in order to check what requirements I had to meet. I had to put everything in there. I had to find the person to give me a HACCP certificate and grant me my first permissions. At the moment I have one female employee who bakes bread and bars. She has much more experience than I do, as she has worked for McDonald’s and for Mariott, on a much larger scale. Back then, when me and my friends were thinking about our strategy, I already decided that I had to have two products that I would make on a large scale. Right now it is a muesli bar, and oatmeal cookies that I sell to the fitness club and the school.
How do you rate Hungary as a country for running a business?
The main barrier is the language. Unfortunately, there are very strict sanitary requirements in my industry. They are terrible. I do not know if this is how things are in Poland, too, but I have an impression that it is easier in Poland. The Sanitary Authority and the Tax Office are the two institutions that strike fear into my heart. When a man from the Sanitary Authority called me one day and said he was coming in to do an inspection, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. He was very kind, but he was very strict, too. He checked everything, including my freezer.
I did not take advantage of any support programs, training programs, or workshops for entrepreneurs. The only thing I did was a first-degree confectionery course.
I am registered as a sole proprietorship. From a formal perspective, when it comes to registering a business in Hungary, this process is very simple. You set up your Internet account, and it takes five minutes to set up your business activity. It does not matter if you are Hungarian or not. They give you some time if you do not have all the papers right away.
How do you combine these two startups?
I simply like it very much. I know that it is time-consuming. You ask yourself how you can combine it all, how you can be a mother, a wife, and a businesswoman. It is not easy, you are constantly walking a tightrope and trying to keep your balance. Hungary is still a very patriarchal country where women are still in second place. People often ask me, “If you open your café at 7 o’clock in the morning, what happens to your children? Who takes them to school?” I always answer that my kids have a father as well, and it is he who drives them to school. They are surprised that the man has taken this responsibility. I get a lot of support from my husband. It gives me inner peace and energy. He has always motivated me. Otherwise, maybe I would hesitate more. It is as if you infect people with this certain something. You can see when someone does it because he or she likes it. I have friends who will always help me, it is very kind of them, and it gives me motivation.
What are your plans for the future?
My goal is to open a club café. The owner of that kitchen-studio came to me recently. He said that a young man came to him who is a baker, and he needs a place where he can bake. So, he came up with an idea to provide more space for my kitchen, combine it with him, and open a bakery which would sell my cookies and his bread. I said I wanted in. While building our strategy during brainstorming as I mentioned, there was an idea to go from this floor down to the ground floor. It has more potential and we could set up outdoor seating.
How do you think your startup differs from the others?
My product, what I offer, is a combination of cultures: Italian panna cotta and Polish cheesecake. I focus on good Italian coffee, and I have Hungarian sweets. The municipality, which recently made a large order, did it exactly because I combine two cultures. It is deeply embedded in my local culture. Customers say that they are going to Majka Polka. What can I say to those who want to start their own business? Don’t give up, believe in your dreams, and move forward. Everyone likes people with a passion. If your story is a true one, it will survive, and it will inspire others.