The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has upended every face of life in this corner of the world—including coffee. Today in a Sprudge exclusive, Ukrainian coffee journalist Yaroslav Druziuk contributes a series of vignettes on coffee life inside Ukraine, and how the invasion has impacted the work of coffee businesses throughout the country.
Ever since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution and the start of Russian aggression, the Ukrainian coffee scene has been on a steady rise. Up to the coronavirus pandemic Ukraine was leading the charts in new coffee places openings, as evidenced by the Project Cafe 2020 Europe report by the Allegra Group. Ukraine’s talent was represented at the World Barista Championships with Slava Babych taking the Cezve-Ibrik title in 2018; and, more importantly, the local roasteries were growing in Kyiv and all over the country. Yellow Place is one of the flagship Kyiv coffee shops, it’s also one of the places still in operation in Ukraine’s capital, fighting off the Russian occupying forces’ attempts to besiege the city.
“We’re working every day because it’s important for our guests to adhere to their daily routines,” says Alyona Khmelyk, in charge of green coffee delivery and roasting operations of Yellow Place. The six members of the team staying in Kyiv continue to serve the guests while also volunteering for the restaurant of its parent company, the hip grocery store Goodwine. Khmelyk and a few other staff members are working remotely from the western part of Ukraine. “We’re managing the humanitarian help coming through and supporting local volunteers; for instance I’ve been helping the internally displaced people to set up temporary shelters at local schools,” she adds.
“Our number one priority is to help our country and fellow countrymen, the second priority is to save the company,” Khmelyk admits. Goodwine suffered a heavy hit when the store’s biggest warehouse was destroyed by the Russians; the losses amount to 15 million euros, the owners say. Goodwine continues to support the volunteering efforts but the company faces an uphill struggle, so the unity of all teams is paramount.
“Initially I was focused long-term, trying to set up plans and crisis management strategies. But now every day is a new challenge. It helps that the team sticks together and tries to help,” Khmelyk says. She remains optimistic though: the deliveries of green coffee from Kenya, Uganda and Colombia for the roastery are still on for this summer.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy could use a cup of joe. He’s been the unifying force his country needed the moment Russia launched a full-scale, multiple fronts invasion of Europe’s largest country. Zelenskyy’s case is the very definition of rising to the occasion, as illustrated by the 90+ percent approval rating he enjoys in Ukraine and the global media coverage. What drives his team in these unprecedented times? Ukrainian specialty coffee by the local Kyiv roastery Mad Heads Coffee Roasters.
There’s only so much you can do to help when your country is being invaded by a foreign adversary, says Mad Heads co-founder Artem Vradii. For the coffee community, it means delivering fresh brew to the armed forces, emergency services, and hospitals. Oh, and you can also provide coffee to keep the president of your country (and the current leader of free world) energized.
Vradii says that the Ukrainian’s Office of the President (think the White House of Ukraine) asked Mad Heads to provide coffee for Zelenskyy’s team. “There’s lots of people working through the sleepless nights there. That was clear enough after we sent them most of our coffee and 1,500-1,800 drip coffee bags,” he says. The next time they reached out Mad Heads also sent all the milk and branded metal cups they had at the roastery.
There’s no way of knowing if Zelenskyy specifically is the one to enjoy specialty coffee but Vradii certainly hopes so. “I just imagine him drinking Mad Heads coffee from our cup when I go to sleep. I never asked but that’s what makes me feel better,” he says. He had a chance to communicate with the president’s staff though: “I just asked if [Zelenskyy] feels the support he’s been getting from all over the country. And they said that he definitely does, in fact that’s what keeps him going in these trying times.”
What motivates Vradii’s team is trying to help the country in any way they can. “Admittedly for the first days of war we just froze. You just don’t know what to do when your country’s suddenly at war. But then we started to find some ways to help. These days I can go to sleep only if I feel I’ve done something helpful,” says Vradii, responsible for the coffee that helped Ukrainian Slava Babych win the 2018 World Cezve-Ibrik Championship in Dubai.
The logistics system Mad Heads has in place makes it possible to provide coffee to numerous Ukrainian army checkpoints, hospitals, and volunteer centers. And they continue to deliver coffee to the cafes still open in Kyiv that are providing free coffee to the citizens that decided to stay in the city. “We have 30 or so points of delivery in Kyiv now. It’s harder to reach out to our clients all over the country but we try to anyway,” Vradii adds.
It’s not only the president’s team that prefers Mad Heads coffee. Vradii smiles when he tells the story of one of the Territorial Defenses units that defend Kyiv now. “They said, ‘Guys we have lots of coffee here but it’s all Lavazza. That’s fine, we’re not complaining. But if you have some of your good stuff please send it to us.’” Of course Mad Heads did. There’s no way Russian occupying forces have specialty coffee delivered to them in trenches, adds Vradii cheerfully.
Volodymyr Shevchenko launched Veterano Coffee soon after coming back from the military service. The Veterano name signals that it’s a business that mostly employs the Ukrainian army veterans. The chain operates a number of takeout coffee places in Kyiv and has established a couple of brick-and-mortar places in towns near the embattled Ukrainian capital.
When I spoke to Shevchenko in late January he was adamant that his civilian life was not going to last. “I’ve started this business knowing that sooner of later I would have to go back in the army,” he told me matter-of-factly. “Russia is not going anywhere, they will always try to attack us. So I tried to prepare my wife to take over whenever needed.”
“Turns out I was right,” he says when I contact him two weeks into the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war. Shevchenko’s in trenches on the frontline now yet he’s confident and optimistic. “What they don’t tell you about war is that it’s military action for like 10% of the time and the remaining 90% is hard work,” laughs the Ukrainian army veteran-slash-coffee-entrepreneur. He also tells me it’s a shame we haven’t had a chance to cover the new coffee place he opened mere days before the war reignited. “It turned out to be such a beauty!” he adds.
“I believe we’ve already won,” Shevchenko says. “We’ve won the war in the first three days when we took the biggest blow, and persevered. We just need to hold our defenses until their feet of clay will go. Sadly this Russia giant will take even more lives of our guys. Lots of casualties to brace for. A lot of sad news still to come. But we can’t give up. Just have to make sure all the sacrifices won’t go in vain.”
Vlad Demonenko graduated medical university but decided not to take internship and became barista instead. A pretty good one at that: he’s the brand chef barista of the prominent Ukrainian roastery Funt Kavy and the Coffee in Good Spirits national champion. But when the war came he decided to both deliver coffee to the ones in need and volunteer at the local hospital.
Demonenko’s city of Dnipro spreads on the banks of the eponymous Dnipro River in central Ukraine. Since the Russia-waged war in Ukraine started in 2014 the city became a centre of Ukrainian resistance. Specifically it’s one of the country’s biggest medical centers that admits wounded soldiers from the frontlines. Thousands of Ukrainian defenders came through Dnipro’s hospitals since February 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and invaded easternmost regions; and it keeps saving lives after the full-scale invasion launched by Vladimir Putin on February 24, 2022.
Soon after the war started Demonenko reached out to his friend who works at the burn intensive care unit and offered help. He’s now having up to three-day shifts a week, taking care of burn victims. “It’s mostly bandaging and medical droppers work, but it keeps me busy,” he says.
The days he’s not volunteering at the hospital he joins the Funt Kavy (translating to “Pound of Coffee”) team to deliver coffee to the military and first-responders. The delivery was organized with local restaurants, says the roastery’s co-founder Felix Bezruk. After a week or so of keeping all the coffee shops closed the team decided to open three of them. “We’re operating at basically 40% or 50% of normal revenue, but I guess it’s okay for times like this. It also helps to support the team and all our guests who are trying to restore some normalcy in their lives, one cup of coffee at a time,” Bezruk explains.
The Funt Kavy co-owner says that one of his baristas was drafted by the National Guard the other day, two girls from the team also had to leave the city recently. But it’s not a problem to operate three coffee shops now. What makes him nervous is the uncertainty the war brings, especially after the first shelling of Dnipro by Russians last week and the rocket attack on the international airport on March 15.
“We have no way of knowing what tomorrow will bring. Our business can be destroyed by a rocket basically any time. And that’s all exacerbated by the pandemic disruption we had for the last two years; we’ve never fully recovered after the lockdowns. And then there’s war,” it pains him to admit. “For now all we can do is find ways to be helpful,” Demonenko adds. “That’d keep us busy for now.”
Yaroslav Druziuk is the Editor In Chief of Blackfield Coffee, a Ukrainian coffee culture website. This is Yaroslav Druziuk’s first feature for Sprudge.