Let’s continue our conversation with Gleb Kovalyov, the co-founder of ‘Karma Crew’ brand. In the second part, we delved into future plans and business taboos.
You mentioned people are looking into franchises and other projects. What kind of projects are we talking about besides ‘Karma’?
There are several social projects around ‘Karma’. Our ventures often share co-owners, but these side projects can involve different co-owners (remember that ‘Karma’ bars have 30 co-owners overall). For instance, my close friends and co-owners currently relaunch their clothing brand called Street Viera, and I’m jumping in too. They were running this brand in Belarus, but now they officially move it to Poland. The ‘Street Viera’ production is their first gig.
The second project in the pipeline is hopefully all about stickers. Think sticker production, setting up small-scale operations.
I’m even thinking about branching out into different businesses that can’t compete with each other, maybe even private clinics or schools. But that’s a long-term journey. So, we’ve got plans for a streetwear brand, a print shop, and these small productions.
And hey, one of these might even be nail salons. At least ‘Karma Crew’ is thinking about it and maybe one day we’ll get to that point. We’re just taking it easy and rolling with time here. Time is on our side. We’re actually living life here and not just existing in survival mode in Belarus.
Is ‘Karma’ a franchise, a chain of bars, or each bar is a separate independent establishment?
We call it a family business, a family franchise if you will. We don’t sell this naming. We’re just rolling with our crew. And in the future, who knows, maybe we’ll launch a new bar chain or a project called… Name any word.
So, it could be a ‘Brick’ bar by ‘Karma Crew’. This would free us from this concept of Sasha Kachan and Gleb Kovalev as the main characters of the “Karma” brand. And this would give us more financial flexibility while we could still maintain social interactions. It will kinda show that we’re still this big ‘Karma Bar’ hub yet up for venturing into fresh and cool projects.
What we’re absolutely sure about is that we shouldn’t compete against each other.
Do you have any taboos in doing business?
We do not engage with cultural figures who traveled to Russia after the war began. We also don’t interact with those who work in the Belarusian cultural sphere.
We do not tolerate homophobic, transphobic, racist, or sexist manifestations within the community. Overall, we strongly condemn intolerance and violence as such.
When it comes to problem-solving, we take it person by person, situation by situation and try to avoid generalizations. To make a decision, we analyze the specific context of a given situation and refer to common ethics.
You used to invite media personalities to cook in your bar’s kitchen and donate part of the proceeds to charity. Do you practice this in Poland? What other charitable social projects do you have?
It was not for media people only, although they jumped in too from time to time. We mostly invited individuals from different cultural and subcultural circles. We had it in Warsaw, Kyiv too…
The war has thrown everything off the track in Kyiv. Before the war, our friends used to come over to cook on Sundays. (And when I say ‘friends,’ I mean everyone who comes to the bar, since we don’t have customers or guests.) And so, one of these friends often joined us as a cook to prepare a vegan lunch. We donated 4 zlotys (approx. a dollar or a bit less) from each serving to ‘Lions Vegan Kitchen’, a non-profit that feeds refugees and migrants. They are close friends of ours.
In Minsk, we also used to donate a percentage of our Sunday food sales to a dog shelter.
We do various charity events, but most of those are driven by voluntary donations. Yesterday, it was exactly a year of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. I witnessed the first bombings myself in Kyiv. We collected 1200 zlotys (around $270) from entry fees, all from people who joined us to hang out yesterday. We’ll donate it all to our friends who fight for Ukraine in the Bakhmut direction of the Ukraine-Russia front.
We practice such donations quite frequently.
Our community comes together on different occasions. We put a donation jar and constantly remind everyone that donations matter. Our standpoint is clear about buying less beer but investing that money into donations. It’s the right thing to do.
Some of your bars showcase artwork by tattoo artists. Are these like your tattoo galleries?
It’s more of a decoration and a reference to our connection with tattoos. In Minsk, we used to make tattoos for cocktails at parties and even had tattoo giveaways on Mondays.
And here in Warsaw, we have a mini tattoo studio right above the bar. There’s just a single workstation for one tattoo artist to work at. And we have a few resident artists who specialize in different styles and do tattoos there. They also do other things right at the bar – studying or working. So, it’s kind of a mixed work environment.
Share a bit more about your connection with tattooing?
It started back in Minsk when we partnered with the ‘Good Sign Tattoo’ studio. We’ve collaborated for several years. Those tattoo raffles and giveaways for drinks we had in Minsk were connected to that studio. We were all about boosting tattoo culture for over two years, every week.
Back then and so far, ‘Good Sign Tattoo’ is a first-class studio in Belarus known for its quality, diverse artists, and styles. But we’ve sort of moved on from collaborating with that brand. Those we used to partner with have already moved to EU countries.
You declare Karma is about ethical eating. Is that a fundamental principle for you? And if so, then why?
We have different visions of what food ethics is about within our team. But we all agree that it should be vegan. Vegan food has a lot of advantages. One of the obvious ones is that it’s generally healthier. Can’t really argue with that.
For instance, our head chef who develops Karma’s menu is a committed vegan himself. While cooking vegan dishes might be more challenging the results can be fantastic if you know how to do it right.
After all, if a restaurant says it’s vegan, there’s no need to constantly ask the waiters which positions are vegan and which are not. We’re all on the same page – we’re all into vegan food. This makes life way easier.
Honestly, I would personally transition to veganism if there were more vegan products and convenient pre-made foods. Lucky for us, it’s accessible in Poland.
What challenges do you face in your work?
Taxes! Hahaha. We pay a whole bunch of taxes
Paying taxes is just a part of the deal, and you have to do it fairly. If you feel like your rights are compromised by these taxes, you express your concerns about it. That’s how it works.
Taxes are really high. You’ve got to keep coming up with ways to increase turnover and keep the cash flowing, so people stay interested and involved. Incidentals are substantial in Poland. It’s not a problem, it’s just a reality.
In Belarus, I used to whine about taxes all the time. Here, I understand that taxes are essential. The next time there’s a protest for abortion rights, we’ll all join in. We’ll be there supporting it. It’s just what you do. It’s what we pay our taxes for.
How do you guys handle decisions within the team? You mentioned horizontal decision-making in one of your interviews. How does it work?
We follow more of a mix of horizontal and vertical approaches. I’d call that “15 by 45”, an ascending arrow model. Let me explain.
I can have decision-making power in a particular bar I’m currently in charge of. But I can’t say I fully control it because it’s a shared effort. So even though as a brand owner I may have the final call, I’ve never actually used that, to be honest. That’s a little bit too much authoritarian, just not our vibe. We make decisions by voting or sharing arguments that are hard to argue with.
For example, once we’ve been figuring out how many security cameras to install and where. I advocated for one but we’ve ended up with three. I’ve listened to everyone’s opinions and we’ve held a vote. And as a result, we’re having three cameras – no more questions.
Your Minsk bar targeted a younger audience, while your Kyiv spot seemed to attract slightly older people. What about Poland? Who’s your target audience here?
The average age of our audience in Minsk is around 23 to 24. In Kyiv, it’s closer to 29 to 30. Warsaw isn’t much different from Kyiv.
Our regular visitors age between 25-35 y.o. They are interested in politics, modern culture, psychology, and kinda stuff and want to stay socially engaged. Many of them work in creative industries, IT, and the service sector.
How do you decide on your pricing strategy? Do you worry that prices might exclude certain groups of people?
Prices will always be a factor. Too low prices can also push back certain groups. We’ve aimed for the average market prices. And don’t forget, there’s always free admission to ‘Karma Bar’ and all the events are free of charge.
Sure, there might be a few positions that are slightly pricier compared to neighboring bars. However, our cocktails are definitely more affordable.
We’ve also kept some small perks from our Minsk era. Like, we still offer unlimited free tonic for your gin and tonic and other little quirks that make our prices more affordable compared to luxury bars. It’s all about experience.
I totally get that hanging out at ‘Karma Warszawa’ might not be the cheapest for students. It was the same in ‘Karma Kyiv’. But those students who used to hang out with us have all gone. They’re all here, about 50 people. We know them all by names.
We have huge expenses and want to make sure our crew gets paid fairly. We don’t wanna give it all away and get nothing in return. Our motto is ‘for us and for the people.’ And it seems like most people do not complain. We’re neither expensive nor cheap – it’s just right where it should be.
Is ‘Karma’ an immigrant bar?
Yes, it is.
– You’ve been working in Poland for a few months now. Have you noticed any changes in your regular audience? Maybe locals or foreigners started showing up at your place more frequently?
Absolutely! And this gap grows month by month. We don’t advertise ourselves so it’s all through word of mouth. Obviously, the growth of the local audience and even tourists is minor, but that’s the coolest thing about it. We’re not targeting tourists. Nor do we want Belarusians with humanitarian visas spending weekends in Warsaw – that’s outrageous. We want people who understand our mission and value quality time. Not people saying, ‘I’ve got cash, do what I tell you.’
The proportion of locals will keep on growing. And one day, we’ll become a truly local bar.
What are your plans for the future?
The plan is quite simple. We’re currently launching a sort of private club right above ‘Karma’. Access to the club will be more exclusive – you’ll need to become friends with us downstairs first. So, it’s gonna be harder to get in. It’s gonna be a calm, chill spot – a mix of a contemporary art gallery and a cocktail bar.
We also plan to launch our very own clothing line and kickstart sticker printing.
On top of all that, we’re really looking forward to getting back to Ukraine with the whole team as soon as that becomes possible again. When people go like, ‘Nah, Belarusians, go f*ck yourselves,’ we’ll be like ‘Why talk like that? Our state is bad, but we’ve done everything we could to support you.’ Of course, I’m exaggerating.
And then, we’ll come back to Belarus. Though personally, I’m quite certain that this visit might happen no sooner than in 15 to 20 years.