Customers make hours-long pilgrimages from as far away as Atlanta to find the pierogi, khachapuri, Romanian mititei and Ukrainian borshch they miss from their childhood.
“Many times I hear, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember my mom cooking this,’ ” says co-owner Maka Aptsiauri. “You cannot get a better compliment than that.”
Aptsiauri, who is from Georgia, and her husband, Aleksandr Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian immigrant, are proud to offer this solace for their community. But as the war continues in Ukraine, they are not sure if they will be able to keep providing imported goods for the immigrants who drive hours for a little piece of home. They don’t know if they will see all of their family again.
“It’s going to be very sad if we won’t be able to continue to bring all this stuff in our store from Ukraine,” Aptsiauri says.
Pavlichenko, 49, wakes every day at 6 am and calls family members in Ukraine to see if they are still alive. For the time being, his cousins, aunts and uncles are safe. He and Aptsiauri, 47, then go out for coffee before heading to the store, where they hope things will get busy enough to keep their minds off the war ravaging Pavlichenko’s homeland.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, “it’s the busiest week in the history of the cafeteria,” says Aptsiauri. “It’s so sad that our business grows because of this terrible situation.”
Across the street in the vast parking lot of what used to be a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, several wooden pallets await the arrival of tons of goods and medical supplies that will be shipped to Ukraine.
Shortly after the invasion, the store posted a message on Facebook calling for donations. The response was overwhelming. Boxes of Goldfish, tuna, wool socks, Nutella and oats are scattered throughout the cafe. Local churches, pharmacies and grocery stores have chipped in.
They have collected 18,000 pounds of supplies, enough to fill two-and-a-half 18-wheeler trucks.
Barry Baker, 77, says the invasion stirs memories of his childhood when the Hungarians revolted against Soviet rule in 1956. He heard about the supply drive from his granddaughter’s nanny and decided to help.
“My God, I mean, you look at the horrible things that are happening there in that nation,” says Baker, a lifelong Charleston resident. “There’s so much that we can do for them. And so I want to be helpful, because they’re being very brave.”
Other Americans such as Paul Tinkler, 68, show their support by shopping. “I have bought wine, candy and a couple of other things so far, but I only began shopping here basically when the war began, so I haven’t had a lot of opportunities,” he says.
Pavlichenko and Aptsiauri are grateful for the new business, but the added traffic isn’t enough to keep thoughts of the war from creeping in. They scroll social media. They try to stay calm and “take a little break from that because it just drives you crazy,” she says. But on the news they watch “all these people dying and children dying and [Russia] destroying those beautiful cities.”
The couple met in 2007 after Pavlichenko opened his first store in Charleston. They married in 2009. “I just found a way to get stuff for free,” Aptsiauri says. In between, Russia invaded Georgia. “I was here and my daughter was over there, so I know exactly how it feels to have loved ones in a war zone and you cannot really do anything about it.”
In 2019, they bought a bigger store and added a small cafe. Aptsiauri loves to cook. (She says she was once a contestant on cooking competition show in Georgia) He manages the store while she runs the kitchen. All of their employees are Russians, “great people,” says Aptsiauri.
Pavlichenko’s 74-year-old mother was on one of her annual Charleston visits when the invasion began and has been staying with the couple. But for now, they wait to hear the news from Chernigov and Kyiv, where Pavlichenko has uncles and younger cousins who have stayed behind to protect the city. “We always ask them please, please just don’t lose contact with us, because …” Aptsiauri trails off.
The kitchen shuts down every day at 3 pm The store stays open until 8. They go home and turn on more news. “Always bad news,” says Aptsiauri. “They bombed this city. They bombed that city.”