A Russian restaurant in Chicago founded by Ukrainians might have to change its name due to threats, but the owners aren’t happy about ‘giving into the ignorance’

  • Restaurants in the US selling Russian food or products have faced online hate. 
  • Russian Tea Time in Chicago has received threatening phone calls.
  • The owner told Insider she’s thinking about changing the establishment’s name for her staff’s safety. 

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Two to three people call every day, asking if Russian Tea Time is going to change its name. 

The callers say, “You are  supporting Putin, you are a terrorist, you have to change it,” says one of the owners, who asked that her name not be used for fear of the safety of her family back home. 

Russian Tea Time was founded in Chicago in 1993 by Klara Muchnik, who was born in Ukraine. Her son, Vadim Muchnik, remains a minority stakeholder in the business, which was sold in 2018, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Tea Time is one of many nominally Russian establishments owned by people of a variety of backgrounds that have received hateful messages, phone calls, or lost customers amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

For Tea Time’s co-owner, it might be enough to get them to change the name of their business.

That comes with its own set of challenges, however. “We are thinking about it and talking about it, but it’s not as easy as it sounds because we’ve been here since 1993,” she said. 

Besides the logistical hassle, they have to apply with the city to put up an “on-premise sign,” (unless it is a smaller, temporary one) which the owner said takes six months. A spokesperson for Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection said, “an on-premise sign permit can be issued in as little as 30 days,” in an email.

Even despite that, “Changing it is not a big deal, but then we are taking the side of giving into ignorance,” she told Insider. “It’s a difficult choice. On [the other] hand, we have to think about the safety and security of our staff, because it takes one ignorant person to do something crazy,” she added. 

Russian Tea Time serves tea and a variety of dishes from countries that were a part of the former Soviet Union, from latkes to Ukrainian Borscht, the owner told Insider.

“Russia is far more diverse and deep and beautiful than Putin,” she said. “It’s one evil person trying to erase thousands of years of culture and tradition.”

She estimates the name-changing process would cost between $6,000-$7,000, between fees to the city to expedite the process as well as install the sign. “We spent that much installing the new sign with the city fees included,” she said, referring to a new sign erected in December, adding it took eight to nine months to get it approved.

Other business owners told Insider previously they and their staff were struggling with threats via phone and email when many are Ukrainian themselves, don’t support the invasion, or use the label “Russian,” essentially for marketing.  

One restaurant owner said that she was buying flags for the windows to indicate her support of Ukraine, and another, of Sveta in New York City, said he worked to change all restaurant’s social media to “European,” food rather than “Russian” food. 

“Until quite recently it would have seemed completely natural, as well as politically insignificant, for many Ukrainian restaurant owners in America to use a Russian name for a restaurant and to characterize their establishment as ‘Russian,’ especially given that most Americans prior to Russia’s invasion couldn’t even find Ukraine on a map,” Jordan Gans-Morse, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University told the Chicago Tribune. 

Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, but the country is still holding its largest cities. U.S. companies have pulled out of Russia, and countries around the world have pursued sanctions. 

On Friday, President Biden announced he would ban imports of Russian diamonds, vodka, and seafood. The US on Tuesday also announced a ban imports of Russian energy, like oil, liquefied natural gas, and coal though it constitutes little of its supply.