The Independence monument and Ukrainian flag in Kyiv

Life on the Front Line

14 October, 2022

Kyiv’s bartenders are fighting back against the Russian invasion, as Hamish Smith discovers.

In late February, less than a week into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Drinks International spoke to bartenders in Kyiv. We heard of hospitality workers joining the war effort, signing up to the territorial army and making Molotov Cocktails to defend against what seemed an imminent assault on the capital. There were stories of sheltering in speakeasies from attacks from the air and turning restaurants into kitchens to feed those in need.  

Now, the war is concentrated in the east and south of Ukraine. Kyiv, though spared the worst of the attacks, is far from living in peace.  As Nadir Kuchkarov, a partner at Hendrick’s Bar says, the city feels “conditionally safe”. He says: “No one city in Ukraine can feel completely safe now unfortunately. There is constant military activity on the borders of the Kyiv region from the side of Belarus. Air raid alerts sound from time to time – a few weeks ago Russian rockets flew above my head.”

It’s hard to imagine tougher conditions for a hospitality industry to operate under – and let’s not forget that before the war was the pandemic. Adam Howell, originally from Nashville, moved to Ukraine some 19 years ago and never left. His bar Lost & Found closed because of the pandemic but his restaurant-bar Podil East India Company has made it through so far. He says “the joke here in Ukraine is that the pandemic ended on Feb 24, 2022” – the date the invasion began. And while the sirens are less frequent this autumn and Howell echoes the feeling of increasing safety, it’s relative. “There’s always a chance of getting hit by a cruise missile,” he says.  

Slow business

Hospitality businesses are fewer in number now in Kyiv, but those that have found a way, are open. “Bars and restaurants are open, but business is very slow,” says Kuchkarov. “They work on a limited basis with a curfew introduced from 11pm-5am.” The curfew means drinks aren’t served after 10pm and that, coupled with customer numbers, has meant reopening Hendrick’s Bar hasn’t been viable. This spring and summer the bar has supplied the cocktails to the burger bar upstairs, keeping the staff in work.  

Howell estimates that restaurants in Kyiv are achieving up to 80% of their pre-war turnover, but bars are making around 40-50%. “It’s surreal, but we are also determined and defiant,” says Howell.“I remember reading books about people going about their business in occupied Paris or other cities during World War II and thinking, how is that possible? I now know how it is possible. If we get hit, we get hit. Until then, we’ve gotta live.”  

Kuchkarov believes hospitality has to find a way to carry on. “Small businesses play an important role for the country – it is important to keep jobs and pay salaries for our employees.” He continues to look for opportunities and is now running a pop-up of the bar called Hendrick’s Greenhouse. But Kuchkarov hasn’t given up on his city centre bar:  “Kyiv is alive now – many people have returned. We want to try to reopen the bar and see how it goes.” At time of writing, Hendrick’s Bar was planning to reopen this autumn.

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