Victory is on the menu: How Ukrainian restaurateurs survive, volunteer and scale their business

Victory is on the menu: How Ukrainian restaurateurs survive, volunteer and scale their business

What know-how they invent and how they prepare for the hash winter

Victory is on the menu: How Ukrainian restaurateurs survive, volunteer and scale their business
Chornomorka Restaurant
Photo: tipmymenu.com

"On October 14, on the Day of Defenders of Ukraine, a new Chornomorka was opened in Rusanivka neighbourhood in Kyiv – it’s beautiful!" dreamily says Olga Kopylova, founder and CEO of this famous Ukrainian restaurant chain where the caught fish was brought from their own berth near Odesa to feed visitors on the same day. This was the case until February 24, 2022. On that day, Olga and part of her team were on a business trip and did not have time to fly back to Kyiv. She says that on the very first night of the full-scale invasion, the team decided to continue developing the business in Ukraine, but organize a new catching of fish in order to save it. And already in the spring, the first Chornomorka opened in Constanța, Romania, which has access to the Black Sea.

After February 24, almost all Ukrainian restaurateurs had to make such complex and extraordinary business decisions. Most owners of large chains were simultaneously  launching volunteer work, changing schedules and staff (some employees went to the front, and some took their families abroad in those days), reviewing logistics, and searching for and inventing know-how to optimize work. By late autumn, not all of them remained afloat, but networks that continued to work switched to survival mode and even managed to prepare for the difficult winter. Now they are doing everything to ensure that visitor flow does not stop.

Mind figured out what know-how Ukrainian restaurateurs invented during these difficult nine months; how they managed to preserve or restore logistics chains, staff, and visitors. We have also tried to look into what helps them to stay afloat and how they contribute to Ukraine's victory on the home front.

Residents of Bucha: "We want to have a vibrant life too"

In the first days after the invasion, HR managers of all Chornomorka restaurants were snowed under with work, says Olga Kopylova. They only managed to record who was going to the Armed Forces and who was leaving Ukraine. Delivery of products by Mini Coopers "Chornomorka online" stopped working due to the unstable operation of bridges, fuel shortage, and high prices for it.

Soon after, Seledkova opened in Podil, it could be used as a bomb shelter due to its location in the basement. Before the full-scale invasion, the company’s CEO planned to open 26 restaurants across the country this year. It is like opening a new restaurant almost twice a month. This plan was not implemented, but by November ten new Chornomorka restaurants opened in Ukraine: in Kamianets-Podilsky, Chernivtsi, Rusanivka and Nyvky in Kyiv, and in Bucha, where there were no chain restaurants before. Initially, the planned opening there was scheduled for early March. In July, Chornomorka in Bucha did start its work.

"At first, people wrote to us in the comments: ‘How dare you open a restaurant where so much has happened?’” says Olga Kopylova, "My position is that we should not give up on those people who live and will live there. Many residents of Bucha wrote: ‘Do not bury us, we want our life to be in full swing’."

Now all chain restaurants in Kyiv work. There are 32 of them in the country, despite the fact that catching and delivery of fresh fish – the basis of Olga Kopylova's business – collapsed in the spring. "Even buying Black Sea fish in Ukraine is impossible because the sea is mined,” says the CEO of Chornomorka. “There is no regular catch of mussels. The supplies are irregular. Therefore, of course, we cannot work as before – booking, fresh catch every day, six hours to bring it to the restaurant."

In response to these challenges, the restaurants of the chain have changed the assortment, introducing more dishes with fish delivered by partners – salmon, sea bass, and dorado. "We try to bring fresh fish, to feed deliciously, to invent something new, as before: boxes, salmon and smelt dinners. As before, we hold oyster weekends. When there is an opportunity to bring mussels, our guests immediately know about it", Olga Kopylova says.

The locations of the famous Odesa restaurateur Savva Libkin, Tavernetta, Dacha and Kompot, also faced the same challenges. On February 24, they all closed, but the next day opened a volunteer line. The team cooked and nourished Odesa police officers, servicemen of particular military brigades and air defence brigades.126,000 meals in total. When neighbouring Mykolaiv found itself without drinking and technical water, the team delivered water there, purchased cables, cars and drones for the front, says Kateryna Gorbokon, CEO of Savva Libkin Restaurants.

By mid-March, two Kompot restaurants reopened in Odesa. On April 20, Dacha started working, and on May 1, Tavernetta as well. The staff was kept at 80%, with pre-war wages. They have to work until 9 p.m. and then – to transport employees because there is a curfew in the city. The main challenge for the chain are disrupted logistics chains, as Savva Libkin's restaurants have not shortened their menu.

We have reduced imports for Tavernetta. It applies to products that have significantly increased in price: shrimps, fresh fish, says Kateryna Gorbokon. We purchase flour, olive oil, Parmesan in Odesa now. It is easier for us than for others because we have many local producers, and we promote Odesa cuisine and thus support local farms. What you cannot find anywhere else is Black Sea fish: no flounder, no gobies, no mullet."

Furthermore, the logistics of disposable packaging was disrupted at the beginning of the invasion, as the enterprises of the region that specialized in raw materials production and disposable tableware experienced regular attacks. Now the company makes stocks at its own production warehouse and produces semifinished goods there to run work constantly. Of course, the chain restaurants have significantly reduced the number of visitors because Odesa is a tourist city. This summer there were practically no tourists from Ukraine or European countries. "It is a fact that only Odessans are supporting us now," sums up Gorbokon.

Survival strategy instead of development strategy

Savva Libkin, the chain’s founder, is sure that now it is only about the survival of the restaurant business in Ukraine. "Everyone is doing equally badly, profits make from 10 to 20% of 2021 indicators," says the restaurateur, "And the survival strategy does not intersect with the development strategy. The growth point will be our complete, one hundred percent victory when the problems with power outages, drones and missiles are over."

As Olga Nasonova, a restaurant business expert and business consultant, says, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the entire restaurant business, as well as the market in general, has been divided into three indicative parts. The first one is located in the western areas of Ukraine, where it was relatively safe for a long time and where the flow of internally displaced persons poured in the spring.

Many businesses have relocated there, to Ternopil, Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv; Lviv and Zakarpattia oblasts. Therefore, there were often queues at restaurants and catering establishments in early summer. The second part is located in the territories that have been or remain occupied and in cities like Kharkiv that are subject to massive rocket attacks.

"Many locations are still closed there. Someone has closed [them] forever, someone is trying to make repairs and thinks about the opening. Nobody knows for sure what is happening on the occupied territories," the expert says, "Another third of the restaurant business are locations that operate in the cities that have not been occupied and have not experienced massive bombardments: Kyiv, Dnipro, Cherkasy, central Ukraine. The situation there following the spring somewhat normalized, and by October 10 there were shifts in terms of development."

The most illustrative city was, of course, Kyiv, where approximately 60% of restaurants and coffee shops had been closed until June. Then about 700 locations opened from June to October 10. More than half of them are new catering establishments. These were mainly small, non-capital-intensive coffee shops, bakeries, shawarma kiosks, and summer areas without a restaurant, with small bars and light snacks.

"Shawarma became the number one product in Kyiv this summer season. By July there was no equipment for shawarma left in the warehouses, everything was sold out", says Olga Nasonova, "the same applies to coffee machines. Kyivans switched from full meals to snacks."

According to Olga, delivery also felt good because during the pandemic people got used to it. Many locations did not open their dining halls, but continued to work only on delivery basis. It allowed them to work even during air raids, when they must close. "Some locations cooked food for delivery even after the curfew began. This format allowed us to bypass wartime restrictions," Nasonova said.

The establishments that had been operating in shopping centres before the war began to move out en masse because they had to close during the air raid. At the same time, many tested the know-how – they opened in basements or on the ground floors and registered them as bomb shelters..

"Before the war, no one liked basements, except for pubs that worked there. Now it is a bonus. There is food, drink, restrooms, and heat. Cafés, coworking spaces and gyms are appearing in basements now," Nasonova says.

However, after October 10, when Kyiv was under massive attack with missiles and drones, the mood of restaurateurs changed dramatically, the expert notes. Attendance of restaurants in the city decreases by half, sometimes by 70% after each such bombardment. Now it is only about how to survive emergency and planned power outages and the winter in general, which will be difficult for sure.

McDonald's effect, firewood stocks and candlelight evenings

Many restaurateurs cut their menus, some by half, to reduce the stock of necessary products, and reduced staff as well to minimize costs and switched to more modern equipment, such as induction cookers which consume less electricity. Most catering establishments were forced to change suppliers, looking for small farms and local producers.

Thus, in May, GoodWine reported that as a result of hostilities, its warehouse in the village of Stoyanka, Bucha Rayon, Kyiv Oblast, was completely destroyed. 10,000 square metres of area, 1.6 million bottles of wine, including 15,000 collectible bottles, were wiped out. The total amount of damage was estimated at 15 million euros. The company said it reorganized warehouse logistics in partnership with operators outside Kyiv.

The McDonald's chain stopped its operations in Ukraine on February 24. However, according to the company's press service, it immediately organized humanitarian aid programs for families affected by the war and the purchase of vital equipment for hospitals. We are talking about 130,000 food packages and 200 vacuum aspirators for the treatment of large mine-blast wounds.

The decision of McDonald's to reopen to the public was highly expected in Ukraine and rightly regarded as symbolic.

"After extensive consultations and discussions with Ukrainian officials, suppliers and security experts, and recognizing the need for our employees to return to work, we have decided to implement a phased plan to reopen several restaurants in Kyiv and western Ukraine," McDonald's spokesperson said. "We have proceeded from the fact that it will give a sense of ‘normality’ to people – both our employees and visitors."

Before the opening, the company was setting up the supply of products to its restaurants, as its credo is to work only with trusted suppliers who consistently provide high-quality ingredients. They were also adjusting equipment, training teams and implementing new security protocols. Automatic audio systems were installed in the halls of the restaurants to notify of air alarms.

During an alarm, as well as a centralized power outage, restaurants would close, but the team promptly issues already-paid orders and then disconnects the equipment. The work would resume within an hour after the alarm goes off, or the power supply is restored. On September 20, three McDonald's restaurants in Kyiv, all on the left bank of the Dnipro River on Gagarina, Gryshka and Bazhana streets, reopened in delivery mode. Now there are 58 restaurants in the country, while until February 24 there have been 109 in 24 cities.

"People have got used to a lot of things during this time and are trying to make do," Olga Nasonova said. The owner of the Giannivino restaurant in Dnipro said: "If the power goes out for a long time, we have a diesel generator that will run a coffee machine and a small stove, plus a wood-burning pizza oven. We will be cutting salads and serving coffee, he says. Now there is a huge increase in demand for firewood, grills, even charcoal shawarma is already available. Coffee can be brewed on the sand, and the bar can work by candlelight."

All Savva Libkin restaurants are equipped with 100 kW generators, diesel fuel, candles, and a supply of water in barrels for two days. "We will do everything to continue working, and to please our guests so that they can stay with us on cold evenings," Kateryna Gorbokon says. "Now we are thinking about the ‘night gatherings’ format to keep the city residents in warmth, with water and food. We have already been using candles at maximum. There are potbelly stoves Dacha. We heat them with wood, create a warm atmosphere and save electricity."

The work of restaurateurs goes on, neither marketing decisions nor promotions have disappeared," Olga Kopylova says. "The more actively we work, the sooner the victory will be ours. I like that I can open a business in another country and thus help Ukraine. However, I really want to come to my native Crimea as home, go to catch my favourite fish, and open Chornomorka there.”

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