Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last month, Maxym Starushko sent his wife and children to Poland from their home in kyiv, then headed to his hometown west of the capital.
He got so tired of watching the news that he returned to kyiv and made a bold decision, given the city’s proximity to the fighting: he reopened the restaurant where he had been working as a waiter.
“I need a job and I don’t want to sit at home and listen to the news and be depressed,” he said during a short break at Saw Fish, a seafood restaurant, on Thursday. “And of course people want food.”
It opened the doors last week. His initial plan was to serve free meals to retirees, with the consent of the restaurant owners, who appreciated his initiative and kept in close contact. But soon regular customers began to arrive, too, and now Starushko, 39, is earning enough income to expand the free meal service.
The Saw Fish is among a handful of small businesses in kyiv that have dared to reopen or continue since the war began. Most shops, hotels and restaurants have been shuttered, and the city center is a virtual ghost town, with few cars and even fewer pedestrians. The main signs of life are the checkpoints manned by soldiers armed with machine guns, who stand behind cement barricades and piles of sandbags.
A recent study by kyiv-based Gradus Research found that of Ukraine’s nearly two million small business owners, 35 percent have suspended operations and 3 percent have no plans to reopen. “I think we can talk about half a million or even 600,000 small businesses forced to close,” said Olga Vaganova, a spokeswoman for Gradus.
But the study also found that 37 percent of Ukrainian companies have started to adapt to the new reality. “Entrepreneurs work hard to save their business and prosper during the war,” added Ms. Vaganova.
The war has forced many entrepreneurs to come up with novel ways to stay afloat.
In Saw Fish, Mr. Starushko has learned to be flexible. He makes the daily menu for him based on whatever food he can find. That means the restaurant’s seafood specialties have been partly replaced by chicken or beef dishes. There is no printed menu, just some handwritten notes that he writes on a piece of paper and reads to customers.
Another complication is the restaurant’s electronic equipment, which has been closed since the beginning of the war. Mr. Starushko has been unable to reboot the systems and, as a result, he has to do all of his receipts, billing and bookkeeping by hand. If someone wants to make a cashless payment, he has to electronically transfer the money to Mr. Starushko, who sends it to the restaurant.
He has been able to keep only about a third of the restaurant staff: just three cooks and three servers. But on Thursday afternoon the place was packed. A handful of hungry patrons were able to choose from 15 dishes, including seafood pasta, a variety of salads, herring, beef stroganoff and sushi. Starushko will get a boost on Friday when a government restriction on the sale of alcohol is partially lifted.
“The system is super complicated right now, but we’re trying to keep this place alive,” he said.
A few blocks away, a branch of the Tsyriulnyk barber shop chain was packed with customers Thursday. All six chairs were occupied. The store has been open since early March and offers free haircuts to soldiers and police officers. Regular customers have returned, which has generated enough income to cover the general expenses of the store, according to one of the hairdressers, Alexander Zhyravel. “This is a difficult time for our nation,” he said. “But it’s a bit more normal situation in kyiv these days, and we can cut.”
Many locals have had to change careers or take on different tasks at their employers since the start of the war.
Ievgen Ivanoy, 46, used to take internal photos and videos for Nova Poshta, Ukraine’s largest parcel delivery service. He is now packing boxes at a branch, working up to nine hours a day as a volunteer. The company has shifted much of its focus to helping deliver humanitarian aid and getting packages to people in the military. And Mr. Ivanoy wants to play his part. He will continue to volunteer as needed, he said.
Dmytro Sytnyk, who works at the branch counter, has had to rethink something even more basic: how he gets to work. A Russian missile slammed into a shopping mall in his neighborhood, cutting off access to some transit services. His solution was to get a bike and ride five miles to the office every day. Mr. Sytnyk, 22, said the workload at the branch has become so intense since the war began that he and some employees often stay late at night, sometimes sleeping on the office at night.
Nova Poshta’s chief operating officer, Yevhen Tafiychuk, said the company has had to rethink almost everything since the war began. The delivery service has had to cut around 30 percent of its staff. Nearly half of its 3,500 branches have been affected by the fighting.
Before the Russian invasion, Nova Poshta was expanding rapidly, with e-commerce accounting for the vast majority of its business. Now, most of the company’s services have been directed at helping companies move operations west and bring humanitarian supplies from Poland to war-torn cities like Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Donetsk, where Nova Poshta’s offices are located. they have turned into aid depots. “Before the war our focus was on small packages, now it’s big cargo and non-standard packages,” Mr. Tafiychuk said.
Some companies have adapted by changing their business models entirely. Wine Love Restaurant used to be a quaint hideaway serving good food and expensive wine. Now chef Katrin Tkachuk and a team of volunteers cook 900 meals a day and donate them to hospitals and soldiers.
The restaurant relied on regular food donations, but Ms Tkachuk recently struck a deal with the US-based charity World Central Kitchen, which is expected to offer some financial support.
“I can’t not do this. It’s very important,” Ms. Tkachuk, 36, said Thursday as she stood between boxes of donated supplies. “I must be here. If I can cook some food for someone, then I’ll do this.”
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