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The little Ukrainian restaurant that could

Serving food in a restaurant in Chernomorka © Anton Polyakov

You might think that the last business to grow in times of war would be hospitality. Yet one scorching Friday night, I find myself at the launch of a new franchise of Ukrainian seafood restaurant Chernomorka (“Black Sea”) in Chișinău, Moldova.

Located in a food hall, the place is bustling with people. The staff is mostly made up of Ukrainian refugees; customers are both local and Ukrainian. Umbrellas and lounge chairs herald the entrance, where a stream of people line up for free prosecco and mussels. Taking a seat in front of the open kitchen, I look at the menu, where I am surprised to see the indispensable Moldavian mămăliga (polenta) with sheep’s cheese served with mussels, squid or “roasted” sea snails and cold Ukrainian (or Russian) soup okroshka enriched with prawns.

I congratulate the founder of Chernomorka, Olga Kopylova, on the launch. The energetic 40-year-old has spent the past six months expanding her restaurant chain from Ukraine to Moldova, Romania and beyond. But she is already thinking about her next fanciful project, Kozy, “the city of goats”: a theme park where ruminants will live, equipped with their own post office, currency and town hall, in the Moldavian village of Pohrebea, 35 km away. from Chișinău. She invites me to visit the site the next day and introduces me to the person who will take me there: Ivan, the technical director of the chain.

A dark-haired woman stands in a shed where a net hangs from timbers
Chernomorka founder Olga Kopylova: “People support us because they want to help Ukraine”

A towering 35 year old, Ivan sits next to me as I wait for my food. I ask him where he comes from. He tells me that he was born in Lugansk but more recently lived in Hostomel, near Kyiv, “where the war started”.

The restaurant’s music is booming, alternating contemporary American pop and old Russian songs. I find the latter annoying and share the thought with Ivan. “My mother tongue is Russian and I have seen both sides of the war,” he tells me. “I have relatives in both countries. . . Well, I don’t have any more,” he corrects himself. “We have stopped communicating since the war.

This is the second time that Ivan has fled Russian aggression. He ran a print shop in Donetsk until 2014, when the first fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine. “I was terrified of the war and left with only a sports bag,” he says. His mother is still in Luhansk and has just closed her own furniture business. “She cries every day. . . The Russian state has offered her a pension but she says she wants nothing to do with them.

The next morning, Ivan shares the rest of his story as we head to Pohrebea. “My wife was eight months pregnant in February. She has heart disease, so we arranged for her to give birth with one of the best cardiologists in the country. Instead, we had to flee to western Ukraine after spending three weeks in a basement under shelling, and she gave birth in a small hospital, where some women gave birth in the hallways. Russian tanks were parked outside, using the hospital as a shield.

After the birth of their daughter, Ivan wanted to get his family out of the country through a green corridor coordinated between Russia, Ukraine and the Red Cross. But the bridge they planned to cross exploded in front of them. His wife would still like to come back but Ivan does not want his children to see the war. And if he returns there, he will no longer be allowed to leave Ukraine, as a man of fighting age; he was only able to flee because of the newborn baby and his wife’s disability.

A young couple rides a scooter in a park, with a Chermorka banner behind them
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chernomorka had 40 branches and plans to open 18 more © Anton Polyakov

As Ivan tells me his story, we pass Russian “blue helmets” on the Nistru (Dniester) River that separates Moldova from the separatist region of Transnistria, where 1,500 Russian soldiers have been stationed since the 1992 war between Chișinău and Moscow-backed separatists. (Although it’s on the left bank with Transnistria, Pohrebea is controlled by Moldova.) “They already know me,” says Ivan. “When I pass by them, I play the Ukrainian anthem.” The soldiers stop us to check our identity papers and our car. I get chills seeing their weapons and the Russian flag sewn onto their uniforms. “If something happens here, that’s the first area they’ll take,” says Ivan.

I tell Ivan that I will probably start the play with his story. “War and Business. . . they are two different stories,” he replies. But that’s exactly what prompted me to cover Chernomorka – rather than being crushed by war, a business is expanding internationally. I have more trouble with the connection between seafood and goats.

In Pohrebea, we are welcomed by Kopylova and her local partner, the Moldavian architect Serghei Mîrza, who shows me around the construction site, through small white huts built with traditional local hay and clay. “At first I thought it was a joke,” one of the builders tells me, “but I see it getting serious.” Kopylova points to the goat beauty salon, the sports stadium, the police station. Next to them there will be a Chernomorka restaurant and, up the hill, a glamping site where human visitors can spend the night. “It’s like a country within a country,” says Kopylova.

I ask her how she got the idea. “We have a similar place in Mykolaivka. During an opening of Chernomorka there, I saw a beautiful goat on a hill and thought it would be nice to have a goat in the restaurant, to walk around. Then we found her a friend. Now they have 140 goats there. With the restaurant closed due to shelling, Kopylova will bring 40 of these goats to Pohrebea and send the rest to a new location in Bukovel, Ukraine. Kozy should open in September. Four more seafood establishments will follow in Poland and Germany. “I think I’m in my element when I start new things,” says Kopylova.

Computer generated image of a traditional village scene, with a cottage, windmill, woman, children and a goat
Architects’ plans for the Kozy theme park

Born in the small town of Balaklava in Crimea, Kopylova started out as a waitress. In 2004, she decided to try her luck in the Ukrainian capital. “I arrived in Kyiv with two hryvnia [50p] and a baby,” she says. As she rose through the ranks to managerial positions in restaurants, she also sold boxes of seafood to a former classmate back home. “I never imagined someone would pay for mussels,” Kopylova says. “In Crimea, people prefer meat to fish, so I only caught mussels in my teens, when we ran out of all our other food.” In 2013 she opened the first Chernomorka tavern in Kyiv. But the following year, while reaping the fruits of her first successes as a businesswoman, Russia annexed Crimea. Kopylova was undeterred. She changed her seafood source to Odessa and hasn’t been back to Crimea since.

Kopylova seems to thrive in adversity. His channel grew during Covid-19, shifting to a flamboyant delivery program involving video chats and Mini Coopers. In February of this year, Chernomorka had 40 branches, and it was planned to open 18 more. Then Russia invaded Ukraine. “My first concern was to get my daughter out of my country,” admits Kopylova. “Then I asked my staff who wanted to stay in Ukraine and who wanted to flee, so we could help them leave.”

Those who remained began providing food for people hiding in the Kyiv metro, as well as the self-defense league and the elderly – which continues to this day. In April, as the fighting moved east, restaurants began to reopen, operating at 70% capacity.

Kopylova, meanwhile, traveled thousands of miles across Europe in order to expand her channel. “We are ready to fry fish for the whole world so that Ukraine wins” is one of Chernomorka’s slogans. The team relies on investments from other Europeans, as well as Ukrainian expatriates. “People support us because they want to help Ukraine,” says Kopylova.

For its part, Chernomorka tries to help Ukrainian asylum seekers who cannot continue their work abroad. Former teachers, government bureaucrats and engineers now work as waiters, cooks and cleaners at the chain’s restaurants in Moldova and Romania.

Three goats stand in a pen filled with straw
Kozy – the “city of goats” – is a new idea for a theme park from the restaurateur behind the seafood chain Chernomorka

In the case of Anastasia Surai, a former manager of a Kherson IT company, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Before the war, the 24-year-old traveled to Chernomorka as a client. “It was one of my favorite places,” she tells me over the phone. In April, when her workload and salary were reduced, she left Ukraine with her best friend and their two children. They went to Constanța, wanting to stay near the sea, and settled in a hotel, then in an apartment made available to them free of charge. “I saw that Chernomorka was opening in Romania on Instagram. I was shocked. I went to the launch and came across their job offers,” she recalls. With some experience in the kitchen of a restaurant as a teenager, Surai became a sous-chef.“My career is now more interesting,” she says.

In July, Surai also managed to bring her mother and grandmother to Romania. She considers herself “lucky” to have been able to get them out of Kherson. “I have no intention of returning to Ukraine, as my hometown is almost completely occupied – everyone who was able to flee has left,” she says. “I found work and ended up here.”

Not everyone shares Surai’s enthusiasm for her new life. His colleague Konstantin Alexeev worked as a construction engineer for 16 years. For five years he ran his own business in Odessa. “But who will build something new when he knows it can be destroyed immediately?” he asks.

Suffering from a medical condition that makes him unfit for military service, the 39-year-old left Ukraine with his wife and children for Constanța. He now works as a bartender and his wife, born in the Romanian-speaking town of Reni in Ukraine, uses her Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian and English skills as a hostess and manager. “The war turned my partner into a linguist,” jokes Alexeev, “and it turned me into a beverage engineer.” Changing his tone, he adds: “Morally, it’s hard, because we’re here as guests, it’s another culture and another city. When Ukraine becomes safe, I want to return to my home country and help rebuild it.

On the other hand, Kopylova admits: “I didn’t have much time to think about the war.” But then she quickly adds: “We don’t know when the war will end but we know that each of us is making an effort to win and live freely at home.”

Paula Erizanu is a journalist and author

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