Fish, love, and war
Levan Kantaria manages seafood operations for the premium food retailer WineTime, headquartered in Kyiv. Mr Kantaria was born in Kyiv and studied law at the Humanitarian University of Tbilisi. He then worked in distribution at SAVSERVICE and four years ago, he switched to his current role managing the fish and seafood operations at Asnova’s WineTime subsidiary. In this article, he discusses the challenges the company has been facing in wartime.
This is the second in a series of articles in the Eurofish Magazine dedicated to seafood businesses in Ukraine and how they work and survive during the war.
The first WineTime retail shop opened thirteen years ago, and today the company owns 33 shops across 15 regions of Ukraine, cumulatively employing over four hundred people. The stores sell a wide range of premium food products, including seafood. The company also has a separate farm, named Trostynka, that raises cows, sheep, and goats, and grows organic vegetables. They also run a bakery. Some of their store location have their own food courts with chefs who can take anything from the shop’s shelves—from fish to sausages—and cook it for their clientele. Fourteen of their locations have what the company has named “sushi-points,” where there is a sushi kitchen in the shop. Eight of their stores have fresh fish counters and about twenty sell oysters. Eight years ago, WineTime opened a web-shop offering a wide range of products.
Alcohol represents about 60% of the company’s turnover, and the remaining 40% is comprised primarily of gastronomy. Most of the fish sold in their shops is imported from all over the world. The supply of local fish depends upon the areas open to fishing during the war. Currently, the main locally sourced species are Danube shad and, occasionally, carp.
Guests get culinary inspiration and expert advice
Many Ukrainian consumers consider buying fish to be an impulse purchase. WineTime’s attractive fresh fish counters with a colourful variety of fish and seafood play a major role in sales. Knowledgeable shop-assistants, who can inform customers about where the fish comes from, how to cook it, and which garnish accompanies it best, have encouraged fish sales.
Mr Kantaria claims his company is number one in Ukraine for several reasons. There are many similar chains that have more shops than we do, he says, but our level of expertise and service is second to none. One may say that eight shops with fresh fish counters is not a lot, but every shop assistant working at the counter is an educated expert. We have various types of fish on our counters from Label Rouge salmon, trout, tuna, fish loins, and fillets to a variety of exotic fish. Our shop assistants will tell you what is good about each fish, where it originates, whether it is wild or farmed, what the fat content is, or whether it is good for your children. They can advise you on the best cooking method and wine pairing. Not many chains can provide such a comprehensive service—at most you will hear if the fish is fresh or not. Our shop assistants get performance reviews on a regular basis, and not many other stores which sell fish can offer such a high level of expertise, he adds.
WineTime’s online store mainly offers canned fish, salted and smoked fish products, and caviar. The company’s team hopes that one day they will be able to sell fresh fish online, but demand is currently quite limited. The company hopes that this will change, and that increasing trust in the quality of WineTime’s products will help to effect this change.
The impact of war and the pandemic on imports and retail sales
Since the beginning of the war in February 2022, supply chains have been disrupted. Though even before the war transport of fish by air was limited, the war has now made it impossible. These days everything is carried by road in trucks, but even these deliveries were paused for some time in the beginning. There are not many seafood importers in Ukraine and some of these companies supply restaurants and had deliveries every week. The restaurant business was badly affected by the war, so the importers started delivering once every two weeks. The importers who supply mass markets, including big retail chains and smaller chains like WineTime, maintain weekly deliveries, and supply primarily farmed fish such as Norwegian salmon and trout, Turkish seabass, sea bream, and trout.
Before the pandemic, WineTime was ranked in the top three oyster retailers in Ukraine, but Covid was a “punch in the gut,” says Mr Kantaria. At the beginning of the war, sales dropped even more, as oysters are not an essential product according to government guidelines. Besides, most oyster-lovers either fled abroad or went off to war, he says.
During the first few months of the war, the costs for Ukrainian consumers rose dramatically due to high import prices. Many foreign suppliers were afraid to go even as far as to Poland, and there was an enormous food deficit. A partner in Latvia was one of the first to offer WineTime a helping hand. In March 2022, when the situation on the front was very uncertain and many were fearful of Kyiv’s invasion, the company provided a deferred payment system and supplied canned fish. At the time Kyivans were living in fear—some left the city, and those who did not flee were stockpiling. The shelves at the stores were left bare. Thankfully, the supply chain slowly began to recover and now it has almost returned to normal in terms of both availability of products and sales revenues.
Volunteering helps overcome war
When the war began, Mr Kantaria explains, we had to stop our normal work, but our shops remained open. From the very first days we reorganised our corporate café into a volunteer kitchen, and we started giving food to the defenders, rescue services, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine (commonly known as ZSU). Every day the kitchen prepared one thousand meals which were made from the company’s own products. Dennis Galushko, the café’s director, organised and lead the volunteer kitchen. When Russian troops were kicked out of Kyiv Region, Mr Galushko, a father of three, joined the Azov Brigade and lost his life in combat. In the company’s headquarters there is a memorial wall with photographs of him and his colleagues who lost their lives in the war.
All the profits made by one of the wine brands that WineTime distributes are directed exclusively towards car purchases for the army. To date, four cars have been purchased and donated to ZSU. Not only WineTime, but all companies of Asnova Holding are actively involved in volunteer activities. Mr Kantaria himself participates in volunteer projects in addition to WineTime’s efforts. He was personally awarded with a medal by Ukraine’s minister of defence for his activities.
The situation was exceedingly difficult in autumn 2022, when Russia started to destroy critical Ukrainian infrastructure, destroying the power supply in many cities all over Ukraine. WineTime purchased power generators and Starlinks and invited people to the stores, offering them a space to work, charge their phones, enjoy some tea, and spend time in a space with light and heat.
The WineTime store located in the city centre of Zaporizhzhia was completely destroyed by a Russian missile. Luckily, the attack took place during the night when there were no people inside. The shop’s employees were offered jobs in other stores of the chain, and those who agreed to re-locate to other cities are now working and WineTime pays for their housing.
Mixing business and social responsibility with a love for life to survive
In spite of these difficulties, the company continues to expand: recently a new store in Uzhgorod opened, and soon there will be another opening in Rivne. There are also plans to open stores elsewhere in Europe. These are very difficult times, says Mr Kantaria, but we are saving workplaces for our people. We are developing and, as of today, we are one of the most stable companies, paying wages on time and providing workplaces. Our business and volunteer jobs are equally important to us. Mr Kantaria told Eurofish much more about fish, business, volunteering, and the war. Throughout the interaction, his love for his job, family, his fellow citizens, and for Ukraine was abundantly clear.
Aleksandra Petersen, email@example.com