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When Mark Zubovskyy, 21, put up a TikTok video on July 25 asking for help to save his family restaurant, Kapitan, he was not expecting to go viral almost immediately.
In the video, Mark explains that his father, Vadim Zoubovski, had invested the family’s life savings into setting up a restaurant serving Slavic cuisine, but “sales kept dropping”.
To save the family from possibly going bankrupt, Mark explains, he dropped out of university to work in Kapitan.
The first mission? Changing the menu.
Many users were moved by his sincere plea, and the comments section quickly filled up with words of encouragement and promises of patronage.
Life after virality
Two weeks after his newfound fame, I caught up with Mark at his restaurant in Maxwell Chambers, located in Singapore’s Central Business District.
Since the video, he says, business has picked up significantly.
While they used to struggle to fill seats, sometimes having just one occupied table at dinner time, the restaurant is now “at least 70 to 80% full”.
But Mark refuses to be complacent.
This is, after all, not the first time that the restaurant has seen a spike in customers after making headlines, only to experience a decline after the hype died down.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the restaurant was was met with a slew of hate comments on their social media page.
Kapitan first started out as a Russian restaurant named Dumplings.ru, with a focus on Russian and Ukranian cuisine.
Mark’s father, Vadim, who founded the restaurant alongside his wife, was born in Ukraine, but holds Russian citizenship and Singapore permanent residency.
Following the hate, the family responded by donating 10% of their delivery sales to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, as well as making a donation to the Ukrainian Red Cross.
Their act of kindness was covered by various media outlets, and led to a surge in traffic to the restaurant by those looking to support them.
Unfortunately, as media interest died down, so did demand.
A lucky break
Where other marketing methods like running ads, drink promotions and even hiring marketing professionals failed, TikTok has come as a lucky break for the struggling business.
Mark also received favourable responses to his candid video on why it was not feasible for Kapitan to become halal-certified.
He is eager to capitalise on the hype, and excitedly speaks of potential plans to invite influencers down to the restaurant for collaborations.
However, working full-time in the restaurant with only one other staff to help means that Mark finds himself starved for time.
“I haven’t had time to touch my computer in like, a whole week now, because I’m here morning till night. [I have] no time to focus on like marketing [and] the sort of things we want to do to expand the restaurant,” he reveals, adding that he’s considering hiring a full-time chef.
From zero cooking skills to chef
Mark explains to me that in his culture, people don’t tend to eat out much, preferring to take their meals at home.
Growing up, he never had to learn how to cook as his mum did most of the cooking for the family.
In fact, his father also only picked up the skill when he decided to start a restaurant.
For Mark, it’s been a lot of learning on the job since he started helping out at Kapitan while he was schooling and then during National Service (NS), first waiting tables before progressing to help out with food preparation.
Mark was born in Ukraine, but holds Singapore permanent residency, making NS mandatory.
Since taking on a full-time role at the restaurant after NS, Mark hasn’t just learnt how to cook, but has also taken it upon himself to revamp their menu to better appeal to customers.
He walks me through the steps of one such creation—a fusion dumpling and pasta dish which he offers as part of a S$17.90 lunch set.
Mark explains to me that while Russians and Ukrainians traditionally consume dumplings on their own as a main dish, the local clientele prefers something more filling, which is why he added pasta and vegetables.
Other menu items that Mark is currently experimenting with include a Japanese-inspired salmon dumpling with mentaiko sauce, and a Chinese-inspired beef dumpling with mala sauce.
Honouring his heritage
While Mark is constantly reinventing to attract new customers and keep old ones coming back, there are parts of the restaurant that remain true to the family’s roots.
Take the maritime inspired decor, for example.
Prior to accepting a job in shipping that took him to Singapore 19 years ago, Vadim had spent a decade of his youth at sea as the captain of a ship.
You can see that part of his personal history in the map, wheel, portholes and ropes that adorn the walls of the restaurant.
Coming soon: our interview with That Guy From #TikTok
They also continue to serve traditional food, such as shuba (S$13.90), a salad made with potato, beetroot, carrot, eggs and salted herring, as well as red caviar bliny (S$25.90), a dish of traditional pancakes served with salmon roe.
These, Mark explains, are celebratory dishes typically eaten during events such as birthdays or New Year’s.
It may still be early days, but things are already looking up for the restaurant.
With the increase in customers, Mark is optimistic that Kapitan will be able to close above the red in August.
No small feat, considering the restaurant incurs approximately S$50,000 (US$36,800) in rent and operating expenses every month.
I ask Mark what are his plans for the future are, and whether he ever intends to return to school.
For now, he says, he’s not sure.
“I’m going to be focusing on this (the restaurant) for the next couple of years until it’s back on its feet. And then I will decide on whether [I’ll be] going back to university or not,” Mark elaborates.
He also takes on part time gigs as a model to supplement his income, explaining: “It’s good money, and it helps me survive as well because I try to take as little money as possible from the restaurant.”
Given all that the business has already weathered, I also asked Mark if he’d thought about whether they might reach a point where they decide it’s no longer feasible to continue.
But he seems unwilling to entertain the possibility, saying:
“I’m going to be spending every last second [to keep the restaurant going]. We’re not going to give up so easily on this restaurant … if it really comes down to it, we’ll cut down all the staff and it’ll just be me and my dad working… but for the moment we’re working and we’re putting all our effort into this.”
Images via Saeyeon Lee and Natalie Teo.
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