As mantras go, “Borscht, Not Warscht” is hard to beat — unless one has a real aversion to beets. Same, too, with “Don’t Forget to Eat Your Oligarchs.”
Appetizing as they may sound to some, these messages are not part of some loopy nutritional campaign. Rather, they relate to a local initiative to raise funds for a humanitarian effort in Ukraine and neighbouring countries that have taken in that country’s refugees. Funds are being directed to famed Spanish chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen which has been providing millions of meals — sometimes at great risk to its workers — to families in Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees now in Romania, Poland, Moldova and Hungary.
Dominique Ritter and Paul Shoebridge recently established their virtual Euro Deli, inspired by the much-loved and much-missed, non-virtual Euro Deli, a mainstay on the Main until it closed shop in 2013.
But in lieu of real munchies, this Euro Deli is selling a wide range of products featuring Ukrainian food and anti-war memes. Such as tote-bags emblazoned with “Don’t Forget to Eat Your Oligarchs,” coffee mugs and baseball caps with “Borscht, Not Warscht” and t-shirts with “Varenyky” or “Ya Tut. I Am Here.”
The latter t-shirt is inspired by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s defiant statement of nearly two months ago when he told the world: “Ya tut.” It means “I am here.”
Ritter and Shoebridge were particularly moved when Zelenskyy said he would never leave his country and added: “We will not lay down any weapons. We will defend our state because our weapons are our truth.”
Appropriately, this t-shirt comes in olive green, the military camo colour most favoured by Zelenskyy.
Prices range from $6 for stickers to $75 for hoodies, and all monies, after manufacturing costs, are going to World Central Kitchen.
“We use humour in our memes, but our mission is serious. Humour is a way to connect with people and a means of survival. Humour is hope,” Ritter says.
“What’s unfolding in Ukraine is criminal and barbaric and profoundly distressing. Over 7 million people have been forced from their homes. We felt we really had to do something. The world is struggling to support this crisis and World Central Kitchen is starting by providing the basics: a good meal. It’s our goal now to help them.”
It has also been a struggle at times for World Central Kitchen.
In April, World Central Kitchen restaurant partner Yaposhka in Kharkiv was struck by a missile and destroyed. There were several injuries to workers, but the ever-determined staff retrieved whatever available food and undamaged equipment there was to another kitchen location in Kharkiv and started cooking again.
To date, World Central Kitchen and its various partners have provided over 16 million meals to Ukrainians. Andrés, whose humanitarian cooking initiatives have brought teams to numerous hotspots around the globe, is the subject of the coming Ron Howard documentary We Feed People.
Ritter and Shoebridge first met over 20 years ago when they worked for a company called Adbusters, which took a highly satirical approach to such anti-advertising campaigns as Buy Nothing Day, Car-Free Day and TV-Turn-Off Day.
They later went on to separate careers in various media and publishing endeavours.
Prior to their World Central Kitchen cause, the two had raised over $1,000 for Humanitarian Coalition, another Ukrainian emergency assistance fund.
“Dom just called me out of the blue one day and said she had an idea for Ukrainian relief,” Shoebridge says. “We then kind of brainstormed on it, and then Dom set up the virtual store.”
“One of the advantages of being virtual is that I see in our store analytics we’re now getting people in Ireland and Finland and other countries now checking us out,” Ritter says.
“That was the whole idea that our messaging would resonate far afield, but we had never done anything remotely like this before. We’re both media people but we do understand the importance of a well-crafted message. Moreover, we think activism is essential.”
Crafting messages is one thing. Crafting merch is quite another. Particularly when it entails marketing, taking orders, outsourcing the manufacturing and shipping.
“We started off with very modest ambitions, thinking we might be able to sell a few t-shirts to our friends and family,” Ritter says. “That went well and it has just kept growing.”
If business continues to boom, they may have to set up a factory on their own.
“We can only hope,” Shoebridge says. “We look forward to problems like that.”
But what if consumers take their messaging too literally and ask about the proper way to eat an oligarch?
“We’re not offering any recipes at this point,” Ritter muses.
“But we wouldn’t advise it,” Shoebridge counters. “They would probably taste very bitter.”
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