Ukrainian entrepreneurs in Latvia share their stories

For more than a year, the Ukrainian Olga's restaurant “Green Pumpkin.UA” and Irina's Cafe “Smakoliki” have been open in Latvia. Olga and Irina did not use to work in the catering sector in Ukraine, but when the Russian invasion began they came here and decided to start their businesses and offer a small part of Ukraine to Latvia. Latvian Radio visited the restaurants on February 20.

In Riga's Northern District, the neighborhood of Pētersala-Andrejsala hosts a small but rather cozy contemporary Ukrainian kitchen restaurant “Green Pumpkin.UA”, which opened its doors in October 2022.

“It was not a conscious decision – I will now come and open a restaurant. It was a coincidence of events. I think it was a desire to show Ukraine through food, through our cuisine, and to somehow thank the people of Latvia by welcoming them nicely, feeding them deliciously,“ said Olga Shkurko, restaurant manager.

Olga fled the war for the second time. The first time was in 2014, moving from one Ukrainian territory to another, but the second time – two years ago, when she traveled to Latvia with her family to escape Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In Ukraine, Olga is not in the restaurant business. She sells construction materials in bulk. The rest of the restaurant's team, consisting of seven Ukrainian women, also traveled from Ukraine to Latvia. They haven't all worked in the catering industry before either, and much of the training started with the restaurant opening. For example, the restaurant's chef is a maths and IT teacher.

'We basically have Ukrainian dishes, but there are also different European dishes. The most popular ones, of course, are borscht, chicken Kyiv and Kyiv tart, and vareniki [..],” Olga said.

Previously there was a vegetarian restaurant of the same name at the site, only the rooms stood empty. So the owners of the restaurant at the time allowed Olga to open her restaurant. 

“It wasn't easy, but I had a lot of people around me who supported and helped,” Olga said about starting her own company in Latvia.  Right now, the restaurant is continuing to operate successfully. The biggest problem at present is advertising, as many residents still don't know about the restaurant.

“Green Pumpkin.UA” is not the only catering company set up by Ukrainian refugees in Latvia.

For only about 20 days, in the center of Rīga, near Riga's Old St. Gertrude Lutheran Church, stands a small cozy cafe “Smakoliki”. The employees of this cafe also did not work in the catering industry in Ukraine. For example, Irina Misharina, head of the Smakoliki cafe, was an accountant in Ukraine.

“Smakoliki is from the word “taste”, “enjoy”. It means feeling taste, experiencing that very delicious thing,” Irina told LR.

For the past two years, Irina worked as a chef in a restaurant with her sister in Latvia. They then spontaneously decided to try to open their own company. Irina said her sister had God-given culinary talent, so most of the time everything is cooked by her.

In less than a month, the cafe has already been noticed and is said to be in quite demand. It is visited by Ukrainians and Latvians alike.

“We do everything ourselves – make dumplings, vareniki, make desserts and filled crepes. We have a very interesting, purpose-built menu for different types of coffee. I want people to come to us not only to eat but to taste the delicious, so the cafe is called “Smakoliki”. We don't have Ukrainian cuisine, we have a cuisine with Ukrainian soul, with our soul that is large, vast, that wants to embrace everyone, please everyone, and, above all, feed them,” Irina said.

About half a year passed between the idea of a cafe and its opening.

Irina said that Latvia has a very complex system and many different formalities that need to be completed to open the company, and each institution also has its own rules, principles and criteria. It has been difficult to find information on how to do things properly, so Irina hired a firm that has helped with the necessary formalities.

“Opening up your company in Latvia is very difficult. It requires a lot of resilience, and a desire to do that. [..] It takes a lot of work, there will be no holidays or leave. But we're used to working. ”

What jobs Ukrainians take in Latvia

According to the data of the State Revenue Service, Ukrainians in Latvia work in sectors such as catering, retail trade, freight transport, hospitality, healthcare and hospital work, as well as construction. The most sought-after specialties are a worker, a chef or assistant, a salesperson, and a janitor. About 470 Ukrainians registered their economic activity in Latvia last year, mostly in the field of beauty, as well as in the field of postal and courier activities.

It is possible to start a business in Latvia for anyone, but it should be taken into account that there are obstacles and barriers for people who have come from other countries, noted Inta Mieriņa, associate professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Latvia and director of the Center for Diaspora and Migration studies.

“When it comes to Ukrainians, there are several factors that need to be taken into account; one is that most of those who do a business here are self-employed, who are also registered as self-employed, such as hairdressers, manicurists, masseurs, and so on. For these people, it's much easier and more convenient not to register a company, but simply to register as self-employed, which also facilitates the bureaucratic process, which is much easier and convenient for them,” Mieriņa said.

However, Ukrainians may also face challenges, for example coming up with what is needed in the market in Latvia. Similarly, because of the different languages, it is difficult to understand how to start a business at all and how to complete different formalities. Opening bank accounts is also a challenge. True, these are problems that other foreign citizens, not just Ukrainians, can also face.

“Overall, I would say that there is no reason to think that there is a very large Ukrainian business in Latvia, because, as I said, most of them are individual merchants, self-employed, [..] and most of them are women. However, entrepreneurship – according to statistics – is more often started by men. It is a small part of Ukrainian civilians in Latvia,” Mieriņa said.


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