9:40 pm Apr. 25, 20121
It was windy and cloudy on the weekend of the big Russian-bath opening back in February, with small flurries coming down over Central New Jersey.
"This is perfect banya weather," said Peter Kizenko, as he prepared to receive the first guests at his new Russian-style facility.
The story of Kizenko, 45, is a bit of a novelty, which explains some of the national and international attention that has attended his new venture. He worked in finance, mostly in Russia, and eventually became Goldman Sachs’ chief equity trader in their Moscow offices.
Then he left to open Bear and Birch, a traditional Russian spa in Freehold, New Jersey, with some of the money he made, and invited the media to cover it.
Kizenko's explanation for his unusual career decision boils down to: It wasn't fun anymore.
"The trading has just changed so much over the last six months, with electronic trading and robots," he said. "The business has changed."
Among the changes, as he mentioned in an interview before the opening, were new technologies that inhibited human discretion and more restrictive compensation rules.
“Sometimes years in Moscow can be like dog years,” he said. “It’s a pretty fast-paced environment, especially since 1993.”
Kizenko isn't exactly an angry rebel. In a recent follow-up conversation, when the banya had been up and running for a couple of months, and shortly after a the sensational publication of a resignation letter in the New York Times from ex-Goldmanite Greg Smith, Kizenko told me he didn't actually have anything against the company, or the industry.
Referring to Smith, he said, "He went through the same situation everyone went through. No one got paid, and he got upset and he turned and wrote a letter about it. It's as simple as that. Nothing has changed, you know. He was disappointed. Nobody got paid in this industry in the last couple of years ... I loved working at Goldman Sachs. It's a great group of people."
And notwithstanding his own, much-publicized transition from Goldman Sachs into the bathhouse business, Kizenko has become a new partner in a high-frequency trading venture in Miami, which will entail shuttling from Florida to New Jersey.
Kizenko, who lives in Jackson Township, said that once the banya gets off the ground, he’ll hand off a lot of control to other partners, giving him time for other work, and maybe for expansion of the banya business into other cities.
He said that many of the customers for the location come from Monmouth County’s growing Russian population, who are frequently transplants from Brooklyn and Staten Island and now live in towns like Marlboro and Manalapan, where Russian supermarkets and restaurants have sprung up.
Over the last month-and-a-half, Kizenko told me, about 60 to 80 people had been showing up daily, each paying $30 during the day or $50 at night.
"We're trying to get some more locals, Yankees, so to speak, into the place," he said.
The location isn't quite central to anything; the facility sits among warehouses and old factories, a branch office of the Internal Revenue Service and a substance-abuse treatment center. Through some of the banya’s large windows, customers can see a water tower above a printing plant for Gannett-owned newspapers like the Asbury Park Press.
It was simply a lot cheaper to open there than it would been in New York, Kizenko explained.
Still, there's nothing gritty about the facility itself. In a traditional banya, things are delibrately kept primitive: People sweat in a sauna, often while getting massaged or hit with branches to increase circulation. They then jump in snow or cold water.
Bear and Birch is closer to one of those exurban Jersey mansions.
There are fireplaces and TVs, and there's been talk of opening an on-site microbrewery, if Kizenko gets a liquor license. (Local liquor licenses start at $1.3 million.)
In the meantime, guests bring their own alcohol, which they put into glass decanters with Bear and Birch-branded labels.
Nadia Kizenko, Peter’s sister and an associate professory of history at SUNY Albany, said she initially couldn’t understand why he would open a banya in New Jersey.
“And now I’m thinking, this is actually what New Jersey needs, because it’s slick, it’s new, its nice enough with Russians with money to go,” she said.
“Because a lot of the time when people think of Russia, they think of the east, but I think when we think of Russia, we need to think of the north, like Scandinvians. Because that’s basically who settled Russia, vikings looking for trade routes to Byzantium. So this is getting back in touch with the north.”
Referring to the considerably older facilities still operating in the East Village, where she lives with her husband, she said, "It sure ain't the 10th Street baths."
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