Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World : Exclusive Interview with Director and Owners

Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World : Exclusive Interview with Director and Owners

 ©Fiore Media Group

Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World : New York City’s beloved Ukrainian restaurant Veselka is best known for its borscht and varenyky, but it has become a beacon of hope for Ukraine. As the second-generation owner Tom Birchard reluctantly retires after 54 years, his son Jason faces the pressures of stepping into his father’s shoes as the war in Ukraine impacts his family and staff.

Genre: Documentary

Original Language: English

Director: Michael Fiore

Producer: Michael Fiore

Writer: Michael Fiore

Release Date (Theaters):   Limited


Distributor: Fiore Media Group

Veselka, 1©Fiore Media Group


Exclusive Interview with Veselka’s former and current owners, Tom and Jason Birchard, and Director Michael Fiore


Q : Michael, you made films like “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life” and “Stalking Delirious.” What’s your relationship with Veselka that made you decide to tackle this as a film project?

Michael Fiore: I went to NYU Film School which neighbors Veselka. I was aware of it while I was in film school. A friend of mine recommended I go there and I got hooked for 20 years, up until filming this movie. I’ve been going there as a patron. Friends and colleagues introduced me to Tom and Jason in November of 2021.

We sat down and I talked through this idea that I had. At the core of the concept was this multi-generational story of fathers and sons. I think that resonated with Jason because he felt like, “If we’re going to do something, I would like to pay homage to my dad and all the work that he put into this place”. Everybody sat on the idea for a bit and then, time was passing. I wasn’t hearing from Tom and Jason and there were rumblings that there might be this war starting.

I contacted them a couple days before the war started, and said, “The history of your restaurant starts as a result of Tom’s father-in-law /Jason’s grandfather Wolodymyr Darmochwal leaving Russian oppression in the 1950s, and creating [the restaurant] as a refuge for other displaced Ukrainians. There’s a resonance here.

History repeats itself. I think if you’re going to tell your story, now’s the time to do it.” They were in agreement and we started filming. Our first day was day 11 of the war. That’s largely the act-one of the movie. So people see in real time the evolution of feelings and emotions in the restaurant on that day.

Q: Jason, you started to work in Veselka as a busboy when you were about 12, right? You studied finance and economy in college, so what was the reason that you chose to work in Veselka after you studied finance? 

Jason Birchard: I had the opportunity to work here as a young man, as a teenager, and honestly, I saw all the hard work and long hours my father was putting in. Then I had the opportunity, when I went to college, to do something more, not discounting the fact that the restaurant business was bad, but I wanted to push myself to do something different.

So when I went to college, I [decided to] study finance and economics. It was a very lonely business in terms of, if you worked in an office on a computer, you had very little personal contact with people. Having that experience working as a young man and knowing my character, I enjoyed being around people.

Then having that opportunity to work with my father out of college and returning… after I travelled to Hawaii and then Japan. I lived there for several years, having the opportunity to come back here to really live the family dream. What was true to my heart is my life here in Veselka. That being said, that’s why I’m here now.

Q: Tom, When the restaurant opened in the 1950s, there were about 60,000 Ukrainian people living in the neighborhood. Now it’s about 25,000 as it said in the film. Because of drug problems [in the neighborhood] plus the rise in the rent and all that, what was the most radical change in the environment of the neighborhood that you guys experienced that could affect your business? 

Tom Birchard: Obviously, the neighborhood has changed a lot. When I first came, Veselka was really a little center, a gathering point for the Ukrainian community. The staff was all Ukrainian or Polish and we really didn’t cater to non-Ukrainian or Polish-speaking customers. We sold a lot of different Ukrainian newspapers. We had some Ukrainian food. But as you said, the Ukrainian population dwindled.

And, particularly in the ’70s, when the neighborhood got very, very dangerous, there was a big flight to the suburbs. The business model that my father-in-law had left me, again, was centered around selling newspapers and cigarettes and really catered to the Ukrainian community.

That business model didn’t work anymore. I really struggled and almost went out of business, but slowly, in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, the neighborhood started to do better. I realized that the future, if there was a future, was based on Ukrainian food, homemade food and not the other things that we had been surviving on.

Luckily we got a positive review of the Village Voice in 1980 for our cheese blintzes, and slowly, due to the improvement in the neighborhood, and me getting my act together, I professionalized the staff a bit and realized that the real core of what people wanted from Veselka was just simple good homemade, and very reasonably priced, food. Luckily, I came to that realization before we went totally bankrupt. Starting in 1980, it was a grind, but we [slowly] started to grow and build a clientele.

Q: In the 1990s, many places were open for 24 hours. Jason, you started working overnight over the weekend when you were younger. What was it like back then in the ’90s, getting all the customers from the club and bar scene? It must be tough to handle.

Jason Birchard: Early on, it was a great success. Actually, it was a big party. As a young man out of college in my early 20s, it was a grind. It was long hours, but the party just continued to go on after the bars and clubs closed at four am. People probably were intoxicated or on drugs, but they were very respectful of the place. When we opened seven days a week, again, it was difficult on me physically, but I was able to put a team together that enjoyed working those hours.

Those are hard hours but there were a lot of industry types who would come in after their jobs and or were people coming from a late show. I’m not going to say we didn’t have the drunks coming from the bars, but it was the cabbies who needed a pit stop for refueling while on the overnight shift.

I think a lot of people over the years have always had a late night story in Veselka, and a positive one at that. It could get bad. There’s a lot of bad things that happen late at night, but this is the city that never sleeps. We wanted to take advantage of that. Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten back to that post-pandemic. We now close down at midnight, but we have plans to reopen 24 hours very soon.


 ©Fiore Media Group

Q: That’s great to hear. Tommy, could you talk about those times when you guys still sold candy or lottery tickets back then. In order to survive, you needed to have those elements. talk about what you guys were selling back then along with running the restaurant.

Jason Birchard: as Tom mentioned in the course of the movie, Veselka has transformed and evolved to what we are today, but he can tell you more about those times.

Tom: It was very fortunate that we were able to sell lottery tickets. As I mentioned before, with the old business model of catering to the Ukrainian community and selling things like cigarettes and Ukrainian periodicals and the New York Times, I just couldn’t make ends meet doing that anymore.

I was offered early on the opportunity to be one of the first candy stores, newsstands in New York, to sell lottery tickets. I knew from being in the neighborhood that playing the numbers was a very popular thing among the working class people in the neighborhood. I had a feeling that that would be successful. I applied and had to post a pretty substantial bond with money that I didn’t really have, but I took a chance.

Then we became one of the first places to be allowed to sell lottery tickets. It was a huge success right from day one. The Daily News came in to do a  story about Veselka, about me selling lottery tickets and lines started forming. Even though we only made five cents on every dollar of sales, it gave me enough cash flow to start paying the bills and figure out, for the longer term, how to turn the place into more of a restaurant and get out of the dying candy store business.

Q: Michael, could you talk about how you organized the shooting to cover all the staff, because the restaurant is a family business built by an extended family, not just Tom and Jason. Talk about how you came up with the structure of the film. 

Michael Fiore: At the core of the movie, I always wanted to tell a story about fathers and sons rooted in the multi-generational story of the storefront being started first by Wolodymyr and then his son Tom taking it over and now it being handed over to Jason as the third generation owner.

I always had that at its core. When the war started, that happened after even conceiving these initial ideas and, ironically or sadly, that theme of father and son’s got enhanced and layered because of what was going on with the staff members. One couldn’t have written it [any better] that way. It just happened. What we started to see was various staff members, both men and women, displaced by the war. In the case of a couple of gentlemen that we focused on, one very quick want to go back and fight. He lost so many friends in the early days of the war when we first started filming.

For another gentleman, his mom and dad were in Kyiv, in the middle of it all. They weren’t sure what they wanted to do. Even coming to the United States seemed like just too big of a journey, too much for them. So you see the evolution and thought processes of those two gentlemen and their families’ decision to leave Ukraine and come here with the support of Tom, Jason and Veselka.

If you went back in time and asked any of those people, “Do you foresee yourself letting a film crew follow you with cameras over the next year,” they would have said, “Absolutely not.” I think over time everybody saw I was in it for the right reasons, just to share this evolving story of Veselka and everybody became friends and family through the process.

Within a few months of us filming, I think within like six to eight weeks, people started to come around and sit down, first for an interview, then we could follow them around their work and, a couple months later when they were open to us being there, at the airport when their family members had landed. It was all about trust and making everybody feel comfortable with the work we were doing, surrounding their lives. I made it known to everybody that making them feel comfortable was the most important thing to me.

Q: Tom, when you did a big renovation in 1996, Jason was building a similar business in Hawaii. he was not here for that. talk about how you wanted Jason to be back, instead of simply hiring another employee to work in Veselka. Why did you decide to bring Jason back to work there? Jason, why did you want to go back there?

Tom Birchard: I wanted Jason back because he’s a family member and I was lucky enough to have the privilege of joining this family, my second, Ukrainian family. [The original owner was Tom’s father-in-law.] The place always had a very family feel. I know it’s a cliche, but we always tried to treat our employees like family. I wanted to continue that. The rest of my family members weren’t particularly interested.

Veselka was growing and it’s really advantageous to have somebody you trust as your right hand man to to keep an eye on things. I think, in the back of my mind, I had a succession plan in mind too. I realized at one point, I’d be retiring and would step away. So for many reasons, I wanted him to come back. Originally the restaurant was 100% Ukrainian owned. Then, when I came and took over ownership, I was not Ukrainian at all. I’m Ukrainian by persuasion. I was persuaded eventually, but it made sense, that it would go back to Jason, who’s half-Ukrainian.

Q: Jason, do you want to add something to that? 

Jason Birchard: I always enjoyed my time here as a young man. Working here after [college] and helping it to succeed in the overnight business,, I had to ask myself, “Was it the right move to go to Hawaii?” I always try to live my life without regrets. It was an opportunity that I thought I couldn’t pass up.

Was it the right decision? It’s still to be determined, but it gave me some solace so I tried to do something else. I knew that I could always come back here. When I did, we had an honest conversation about the future of the business and our relationship; it became something of a no-brainer. I just decided that, yes, we’re going to make this work the second time around. I knew that I wanted to lay my roots here.

As a young man, I wanted to travel as much as possible. I had, believe it or not, studied Japanese at university and going to Hawaii was only a stepping stone. I ended up living in Japan for several years after leaving Hawaii, teaching English and learning the culture and studying the Japanese language at a basic level. It was a great experience that, I think, only helped me.

I had a great opportunity. I worked for the Gaken book company that had English speaking schools for students. It’s actually very fortunate that right down the street, we share on 9th Street what is Little Japan with all the restaurants and the Sunrise Market, which unfortunately now is  closed. There’s a rhyme and a reason for everything as they say.

We have to be very aware or cognizant of our surroundings and how to manage people. Running a restaurant means wearing many hats including knowing how to talk to people and seeing people’s opinions from different perspectives. Traveling and stepping away for a few years definitely broadened my horizons. I’m grateful for the opportunity and we were able to reconnect. As somebody asked me, I’m a proud Ukrainian American running my family business.

Q:When making a new menu, how do you decide what to remove and add, what research do you do? Do you look at other restaurants? 

Jason Birchard: Tom can start with that. I can tell you what we’re doing now, but he’s the one who really took our very few menu items that we originated with to where we are today. I think he can take the credit for that.

Tom Birchard: Honestly, it took me a while to realize that our customers really wanted Ukrainian Eastern European food. In my early days, there was a coffee shop called L&M that was a block away that was always really bustling. It had a classic diner menu. So I tried to shift Veselka’s menu a little bit more in a diner direction. We had some success with that, but over time, I came to realize that what the people really wanted was the Ukrainian and Polish classics like borscht, pierogies, blintzes, the stack of pancakes and more.

We still have, as Michael made reference to earlier, some diner classics on the menu. We have kind of an unusual menu, but over time, I’ve discovered that people prefer Eastern European food.  Many of our Jewish clients come from Eastern Europe and it’s the food they know from their grandmas. A lot of people refer to our menu as quote unquote Jewish food. I think that’s part of the reason we’re so successful because so many people have an emotional connection to this Eastern European comfort food that we’ve been offering. So over time we’ve gotten away from the diner stuff.

We always pride ourselves on having a good hamburger and tuna fish salad and some diner classics for those people who want them, or just aren’t familiar with or not comfortable with Ukrainian food. But again, over the years, we came to the realization that what people really wanted was the Eastern European classics. I hear even now more and more often just being outside Veselka that people walk by and say, “Oh, that’s the pierogi place.” We’re getting more and more well known for pierogies.

I don’t know if that answers your question but we’ve taken these basic pierogies and put different fillings in them. I actually saw the other day that Jason had the staff make a Valentine’s Day pierogi that actually had chocolate in the dough and then cherries and a sweetened cheese inside. I thought it was a really good idea. It made me want to run down there and try it. So as far as the menu goes, we try to occasionally experiment by adding creative twists to the classic Eastern European menu. More specifically, making pierogies that aren’t old. I call them New World pierogies as opposed to the old classics.

Q: What are the key ingredients to staying in the business in New York for such a long time? 

Tom Birchard: There’s a lot of key ingredients. One thing is that we’ve been very fortunate in a lot of ways. We have a very accommodating landlord, our building was sold to an Ukrainian nonprofit. When I came to Veselka, in that building, there was Veselka on the corner, but then there were three or four little stores next to us.

As we grew, every time we needed to expand, one of those stores became vacant and we expanded. That happened two or three times. Most recently our neighbor, Dinosaur Hill toy shop, the proprietor retired and we took over that last store. We now occupy the entire building. When I started we only had the little corner place on Second Avenue and 9th Street. Our landlords have been incredibly kind to us and we’ve just been fortunate that we’ve been able to stay in our home and physically expand as the business expanded.

Here’s the trailer of the film. 
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