Uzhhorod, 12 December 2022 – “Home away from home” is the concept behind this small café run by a Ukrainian couple in a basement in Uzhhorod, the heart of Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region.
One of the café’s bestsellers is the tasty plov – a rice and meat dish originally from Central Asia but well-known in Ukraine, thanks to the Tatar population in Crimea. Customers find it difficult to resist the smell of something so familiar, which immediately conjures an image of a family gathered around the dinner table.
Café Plov – aptly named after the dish – offers homemade varieties of plov. Yurii and Halyna, a displaced couple from Kyiv, opened the place only a few months back and it has since become a popular hangout place for local residents.
“We love to have guests,” Halyna explains. “Yurii gets to cook his special plov every time we invite someone over. This is our favourite family recipe. It’s good mood food.”
The family lived in Kyiv before the war, where Yurii owned an architecture firm and Halyna worked as a tailor. In the first days of war, they fled to Uzhhorod where Yurii was born and raised.
“The road was very challenging. We spent 12 hours on the way to Lviv and then 12 more to Uzhhorod. There were huge traffic jams; everyone around was scared and nervous, and we could hear military planes flying overhead. It felt like a surrealist film and I was on its set,” Halyna recalls.
In Uzhhorod, they found it difficult to settle in and money ran out quickly. Their previous jobs didn’t seem to be in demand anymore and they weren’t sure how else they could provide for themselves. Used to their success back in Kyiv, Yurii and Halyna knew they had it in them to start anew.
Halyna suggested a bold idea: to open a place which served homemade food, something that they had both dreamt of doing years ago.
“Running a business during wartime is stressful; starting a business during wartime is defiant, but we decided to follow our intuition,” Halyna explains. “It was frightening, but we couldn't back out because we had nowhere to go back to. All that remained was to explore the unknown. So we decided to take a chance.”
When Yurii and Halyna set their eyes on an abandoned basement that once served as a children’s toy store, they knew it right away: this place was going to be their future café.
Since they didn’t have much money, they had to make their dream come true at minimal cost, but they were lucky enough to have one friend who was inspired by their idea and helped them purchase the furniture. In under a month, after making all the necessary repairs and furbishing it, Yurii and Halyna were ready to open Café Plov.
“Internally displaced persons like ourselves were our first visitors. A lot of people from Kharkiv and eastern Ukraine came,” Halyna recalls. “We talked and talked and shared the difficulties we were going through. Grief brought us together.”
Plov quickly became the top spot for the large numbers of displaced people in the city, many of whom could not afford to rent a place with a private kitchen or even a microwave. Plov is one of the few places in the city where people can have homemade food ready to take away in just a few minutes.
“In the restaurant business, you rarely get to see the owners as you are being served by waiters. We do it differently: we invite you here so you can feel at home. Since we don’t have a home in Uzhhorod, this café has become our second home,” explains Halyna. “Our customers joke that is the only place where the owners work as cooks, shop assistants, and waiters.”
Halyna always tries to come up with new pie recipes for the café. With support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the owners were able to purchase a window display case for Halyna to show off her culinary masterpieces. Her desserts now often get the passerby’s attention enough to lure them into the café.
Looking back, the couple is surprised at how well things turned out for them. As Yurii and Halyna confess, the key to success is being able to rely on yourself, believing in your own strength and skills, and doing your job with love. They are not planning on stopping here and are now even considering opening other cafés, likely in Kyiv.
“We had nothing when we arrived, but being displaced is about finding new meaning. We don’t know whether this café will be here for a short while or maybe our entire lives. What we do know is that this experience has made us flexible enough to embrace change and not hold on to the past. One must be flexible. Do what you can and trust life will work out,” the couple advises.
Yurii and Halyna were able to make improvements to their café thanks to IOM’s support provided by the Government of Japan.