1. Surfing the veganism trend
  2. A fresh start in devastated Kyiv
  3. The return of the Kherson soul
  4. Sugar-free business
  5. The dream of growth

On Hlybochytska Street not far from Kyiv's Podil district, amid business centers, there is a restaurant that has been displaced from Kherson. Here they serve fried watermelons in unagi sauce, Cossack corn porridge with goat cheese, borshch, and... vegan desserts. On one wall is the coat of arms of their hometown, and on the other is a mural of its sights. Kherson residents say that they feel at home here, while those from elsewhere are discovering the city from a distance.

LIGA.Life talked to its co-owner Alisa Pronina about the history of the Verde restaurant with a Kherson soul.

Surfing the veganism trend

The history of the Verde chain began in 2017. Verde Espresso Bar was Alisa's first independent business. Before that, she worked with her father. Initially, it was supposed to be a coffee shop where locals could meet each other, drink coffee, and eat desserts. But that wasn't enough.

Alisa was interested in the idea of selling vegan and raw desserts. She didn't follow this lifestyle, but she had a good sense of trends. At the time, there was a demand for such desserts, so there was definitely a niche in Kherson.

"Initially, I planned to order desserts in Kyiv and have them delivered to Kherson. I knew a pastry shop where it could be done. But in 2018, they organized a course where they shared their recipe. So after completing the training, I started making vegan desserts myself," says Alisa.

Fleeing war in Kherson, couple rebuilds dreams in Kyiv through cafe, homegrown candy brand
Alisa Pronina. Photo from personal archive

For nine months, the entrepreneur combined managing the cafe, making desserts, and working with her father in another business. She doesn't hide the fact that she had to earn extra money to support the establishment, which didn't bring in much income.

Her schedule was as follows: the main work until 8-9 p.m., then she would prepare desserts until 1-2 a.m. Gradually, Verde became popular among Kherson residents and brought in a good income, but Alisa still made desserts on her own, expanding the offerings.

After nine months, a pastry shop was opened, employing three specialists. Later, Verde turned into a chain: first, it opened in the Fabryka shopping center, and then it was transformed into a new project, Verde Salad Bar. Alisa opened it in partnership with her father-in-law, Oleksandr, who had other franchise establishments.

"I wanted a place that would serve more than just desserts. But I had to pay $70,000 for a 70-square-meter space. I didn't have that kind of money. At the same time, Oleksandr had a cafe that was not doing well. So I offered him to open a new Verde in partnership. We redesigned the premises and bought equipment. That's how our third establishment appeared."

Verde Salad Bar had a varied menu that satisfied the tastes of both vegans and those fond of animal products. It was a must, otherwise the business would not have survived, says Alisa. Healthy food products were also available for purchase.

Fleeing war in Kherson, couple rebuilds dreams in Kyiv through cafe, homegrown candy brand
Alisa and V'yacheslav Pronina. Photo from personal archive

In general, the chain was working well, but after the occupation of Kherson, everything was brought to a standstill. Alisa, her husband Vyacheslav, and their baby Orest left the city at the end of March. Verde Salad Bar co-owner Oleksandr still works in Kherson.

"He is a very strong and patriotic person. He continues to do his job. Even under occupation, he managed to do it. However, for the sake of his safety, I can't say anything else," Alisa adds.

A fresh start in devastated Kyiv

From Kherson, the Pronin family moved to Mykolaiv. Before the full-scale war, they had a restaurant there that operated under a franchise. There was a basement with a shower, a kitchen, and a place to rest. This became their shelter in the frontline city.

"There were no alerts in Mykolaiv. A shot was fired and hit something. If you're on the street, you don't have time to run to a shelter. So I begged my husband to go somewhere else. That's how we ended up first in Vinnytsia Oblast and then in Kyiv," Alisa recalls.

In May 2022, Kyiv did not look like a bustling capital. Empty streets, where you rarely see children, let alone mothers with a stroller, like Alisa. At that time, she did not think about work, business, or cafes. After all, she had a 5-month-old Orest in her arms, for whose life she was most concerned.

"I have been waiting for this child for a long time. And for me, a person who has always planned, it was difficult to accept the new realities. I even apologized to him for everything that happened. After all, I did not choose this life for him," the entrepreneur says with a tremor in her voice.

Fleeing war in Kherson, couple rebuilds dreams in Kyiv through cafe, homegrown candy brand
Alisa Pronina. Photo from personal archive

However, after the move, her husband suggested opening Verde in the capital. The decisive argument for Alisa was the final closure of her first establishment in Kherson, which was still trying to work at the beginning of the full-scale war.

"I was not ready for this. It was very painful. After all, Verde Espresso Bar was my first cafe. I met my husband there and had many memories. It's hard to realize that I even have to say goodbye from a distance."

The real challenge was to find a place with all the necessary equipment to open a coffee shop. The investment was limited. We decided on the location at 40 Hlybochytska Street, where another establishment had recently operated.

"There was everything we needed, even knives and forks. But we still invested UAH 350,000 ($9,467), which is a small amount to open a cafe. Later, we took two grants to cover the costs of the difficult start and the blackout," says the café owner.

On June 30, a new spot appeared on the gastronomic map of Kyiv – Cafe Verde.

But what kind of business can there be in a city where most of the population left because of the war and hasn't yet returned?

According to Alisa's recollections, in June 2022, hardly any people walked past the cafe. The streets were empty, with only a few cars passing by. The total earnings on weekends were UAH 3,000 ($81), and on weekdays – UAH 5,000-6,000 ($135-162), which was not enough to cover the rent of UAH 43,500 ($1,177), UAH 1,000 ($27) for the Internet, UAH 600 ($16) for security and other expenses. To continue developing, the cafe needed to make at least UAH 13,000-14,000 ($352-379) daily.

Fierce competition, lack of experience in business development in Kyiv, and blackouts led to a loss of motivation and interest in the business. Until an adventure appeared on the horizon.

The return of the Kherson soul

"A friend sent me a casting call for a new TV show for restaurateurs. The conditions are as follows: a chef comes in, prepares a new menu, and a separate team makes repairs at the expense of the TV channel. We realized that the Kherson format of Verde doesn't work in Kyiv. It's not exclusive, it doesn't attract people. So we decided to give it a go," says Alisa.

Thus, Verde became the Ukrainian Verde with the Kherson coat of arms and its landmarks on the wall. Restaurateur and chef Alex Yakutov explored Kherson's authentic cuisine, adding the following dishes to the restaurant's menu:

  • "Soul of Kherson Oblast" is a grilled watermelon with ricotta and pumpkin seeds;
  • "Bald Tomatoes" are fermented peelless tomatoes, Kherson anchovy, and bread;
  • "Oleshky varenyky" with pike and mousse of porcini mushrooms and butter;
  • "Kozatska Kasha" is a corn porridge with goat cheese mousse and fried corn;
  • "Aharyanska Krupa" is rice with calf cheeks and Kherson herbs;
  • "Beauty of Kherson Oblast" is an apple tart tatin in caramel with Kherson honey.

"Before that, we had been advised a cookbook from Odesa, which allegedly contained Kherson recipes too. But after reading it, it seemed that Kherson had no cuisine of its own, only dishes imposed by the Russian Federation. Instead, Alex researched the Cossack era in Kherson region: he took the basis of these dishes and modernized them a bit. That's how we found our identity," the entrepreneur adds.

Fleeing war in Kherson, couple rebuilds dreams in Kyiv through cafe, homegrown candy brand
Team Verde. Photo from personal archive

Thanks to the project, the owners of the establishment saw their mistakes. So they had to transform their approach and team. Now there are seven people on staff instead of 12. These are baristas, cooks, a manager, a cleaner, and an SMM manager. Alisa admits that the biggest failures are related to the team, so she and her husband still have room to grow as managers.

"In Kherson, I was a more closed and strict boss. It doesn't work like that in Kyiv. Here you have to be yourself, communicate, and organize team building. You need attention and involvement in the team," she explains.

Verde also closed its own pastry shop. Currently, only main dishes are prepared in the kitchen, and desserts are outsourced.

But the composition of visitors remains unchanged:

  • employees of business centers who drop in for a quick lunch;
  • Kherson residents who are homesick and come for the "authentic Kherson soul of the place";
  • people 25+ who learned about the cafe from social media.

"We also have visitors who were with us in Kherson and now in Kyiv. For example, a girl named Vlada used to visit our establishments during every trip to her hometown. Last year, she celebrated her birthday in Kyiv's Verde at the height of the blackouts. She explained that she just wanted to feel at home."

Sugar-free business

Verde is not the only project of the Pronin couple. Back in Kherson, Alisa produced craft candies made from natural ingredients and without sugar. This idea moved with them to Kyiv. Moreover, it received a new realization, turning into a whole confectionery shop with machine equipment. The change in the product format has enabled the candies to be sold not only in Ukraine but all over the world.

"We have a business partner who invested in the development of Verde candy production. We didn't have that much money for equipment. The tempering machine alone costs UAH 1 million ($27,050)," says Alisa.

Fleeing war in Kherson, couple rebuilds dreams in Kyiv through cafe, homegrown candy brand
Verde candies. Photo from personal archive

Currently, three people work in the production. This is enough, because almost the entire process is automated, except for candy molding. At this stage, it is still manual work. However, the project involves a large number of SMM managers and targeting specialists who work to popularize the product.

"I came up with the whole recipe myself. There was an expert I consulted about production technologies, but I am responsible for the taste. Everything in our candies is natural. That is, we do not use flavor enhancers, refined sugar, gluten, or palm oil. Instead, we have already gone beyond the idea of veganism, because the product contains honey," the entrepreneur shares her experience.

At the same time, she admits that producing "healthy sweets" is a costly affair.

Simple math: coconut sugar costs UAH 260 ($7)/kg, dates cost UAH 130 ($4)/kg, while refined sugar costs about UAH 35 ($1)/kg. Nuts are also used in sweets: UAH 400 ($11)/kg for hazelnuts, UAH 300 ($8)/kg for cashews, and UAH 525 ($14)/kg for Belgian chocolate.

A box of 24 candies costs UAH 694 ($19). This is a significantly higher price than regular store-bought candy. But Alisa assures us that people are willing to pay that kind of money. After all, quality sensations and emotions are important to modern people, so chocolate must meet these requirements.

"Our audience is athletes and fitness enthusiasts who buy candy in gyms. Moms also choose them for their children because everyone is tired of marshmallows. And let's not forget about people with lactose and gluten intolerance. Our candies will not harm them."

Fleeing war in Kherson, couple rebuilds dreams in Kyiv through cafe, homegrown candy brand
Verde candies. Photo: Verde

The dream of growth

The last 1.5 years for the Pronin family have been full of constant changes and upheavals. Leaving the occupation, closing down establishments, opening new ones in the capital with a baby in their arms, and developing their own confectionery production.

Their candies are currently sold in gyms and health food stores. Active negotiations are also underway with the Kolo, Ekolavka, WineTime, and goodwine chains. The company plans to conquer other countries and fully automate the candy production process.

However, it is too early to talk about expanding the Verde chain. After all, the next cold season is looming, which in the realities of Ukraine is a real challenge for businesses. But even now, Alisa is happy that their family business has grown significantly and changed a lot over the past 1.5 years. And these changes are definitely for the better.