In the middle of the bustling East Village in Manhattan, Veselka has been a connection to the Ukrainian community that settled there since it opened in 1954. In 2023, it earned a James Beard Outstanding Restaurant nomination, based on its “food, atmosphere and hospitality while contributing positively to its broader community.” Winners will be announced on June 5.
Owner Jason Birchard, who is 56-years-old, is the third-generation Veselka’s owner, which was started by his grandfather on Second Avenue 69 years ago. Like many children of restaurateurs, he has been working in the eatery since he was a teenager and took over ownership in January of 2020.
Birchard has been tireless in his efforts to raise funds for a variety of Ukranian charities that includes St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, Ukrainian Habitat Fund, World Central Kitchen, and many smaller donations to people shipping tactical gears to the Ukrainian soldier’s front lines.
His efforts have contributed to raising $300,000 for Ukrainian charities. At one point, from the beginning of the war until September 2022, all proceeds from borscht sales were donated to Ukrainian relief efforts.
A coffee shop in the East Village is known for its authentic Ukrainian food, and also, for raising a substantial amount of money for relief efforts, earning it a James Beard Award nomination.
Why is it so important for Birchard to give back to his Ukrainian heritage? He said his grandfather who started the business “was a true patriot who escaped Russian oppression in the late 1940’s. Had he been alive, he would go and fight. His spirit lives on in me.”
The menu at Veselka’s offers a variety of coffeeshop fare including two eggs, hashed brown and potatoes, burgers, and omelettes, but it also continues its legacy of offering what Birchard calls “Ukranian soul food,” including borscht, pierogi, latkes, stuffed cabbage and stews. It also sells Ukrainian beer and homemade Ukrainian desserts.
Birchard adds that it’s more than a Ukrainian eatery and serves a “great burger, buttermilk pancakes, mushroom barley and matzoh ball soup, and comfort food.”
Though many Ukrainians have left the East Village and moved to the suburbs, the Ukrainian connection continues to thrive in the neighborhood, with businesses such as the East Village Meat Market, where they still sell smoked kielbasa on site, and the Ukrainian Church on East 7th Street.
Veselka’s also has a second location at the food hall at Essex Market on the Lower East Side. It had opened Little Veselka in 2011 near the Bowery, but it didn’t renew a five-year lease when it ended. It also ran Veselka Bowery for three years before opting to close it, but Birchard said it “was too close to the original on 2nd Avenue, thus competed.”
Asked to describe the target market who dines at Veselka’s, Birchard replied, “a wide range of people including students from NYU, families with kids, artists, tourists and fellow Ukrainians looking for a reminder of home.”
Prior to the pandemic, Veselka was open 24 hours a day because Birchard said, “It’s the city that never sleeps.” It appealed to the late-night Village crowd, but now it closes at midnight.
Many coffee shops have been shuttering in New York, which Birchard attributes to a score of issues including the cost of goods, labor shortages, rising cost of rent and insurance, and just doing business across the board.
Asked how he feels being named a James Beard nominee, he replied, “Surprised and honored. It’s a real accolade for someone running a simple, independent, Ukrainian soul food restaurant.”
He shared the award with his manager and staff, 50% of whom are Ukrainians, because it “takes a village to run a restaurant and I’m cognizant of their hard work they put in day after day.”
He’s also been able to hire recent Ukrainian immigrants, even though their documents are not 100% in order, who can start working immediately. “Often, they find me,” he acknowledged.
Married with a 12-year-old daughter, Birchard says when he brings her to work she’s an extrovert, who greets and introduces herself to guests. Could a fourth-generation of the family be in the works? But he’s also working with his first cousin Justin Birchard, so the family connection continues at this Ukrainian outpost.
It’s also poised to expand. He says it just signed a lease to open a small outpost in Grand Central, its products are shipped on Goldbelly, and he’s considering “taking the brand off on a larger scale.”