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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Taste Of Home Nezabudka, Spokane’s Only Russian Store And Cafe, Is Also A Well Loved Russian Community Gathering Spot

Putsata Reang Staff writer

(From For the Record, Wednesday, November 29, 1995:) Nezabudka, Spokane’s only Russian store and cafe, is located at 1104 W. Wellesley. The address was left out of an IN Life story Tuesday.

The man, who is probably somebody’s grandfather and who doesn’t speak any English, is sitting on a bench reading a Russian newspaper. The woman, his wife, has come for the usual: a loaf of Ukrainian rye bread and Russian sausages. The couple linger for nearly two hours, just to talk.

But the owners of this store don’t mind. “It is like in Russia,” says owner Vladimir Kuzmenko.

Welcome to Nezabudka, Spokane’s only Russian store and cafe - a place where the aroma of Ukrainian borscht (a popular vegetable soup) wafts through the air when patrons shove open the door, and where children come to dip their tiny hands into large jars jammed with Russian candy.

“I like it to buy the fish, to buy tea,” says one woman as she points to a small jar of red caviar. She also likes talking with other customers.

And that’s what many come for: the chance to gossip in their own native tongue. To meet with friends. To feel at home.

For the past couple of years, Nezabudka has served as a casual community center for Spokane’s Russian-speaking population. In the back of the store, business cards line one side of a bulletin board, and fliers tacked haphazardly crowd the other side, advertising anything from how to buy a home to where to get a manicure.

A couple of years ago, Russian-speaking immigrants had their own formal gathering center, the Spokane Russian Community Center. It closed last August after the director complained of clashes over religion.

Now, Spokane’s Russians may soon lose their second meeting place. Financial problems could force 33-year-old Kuzmenko to close or sell his store by the end of the year.

“The problem is no money,” Kuzmenko said, sitting in the cafe portion of his business.

Kuzmenko, his wife, Alla, 34, and their two children, Olga, 9, and Artem, 10, came to America five years ago, penniless but full of dreams - a common bond among America’s refugees.

One of Kuzmenko’s dreams was to start his own business. Two years ago, he borrowed about $17,000 from friends and family to open Nezabudka (which is the Russian word for forget-me-not flowers). He quit his part-time job at a local pizza shop to become his own boss.

Offering this kind of specialty store in Spokane seemed to be a logical thing to do. The city’s Russian refugee population has boomed over the past several years. More than 3,000 Russian-speaking immigrants moved here in the past six years.

Like any businessman, Kuzmenko thought he could fill a unique niche by opening a Russian/European store.

“Idea was not just for making money,” Kuzmenko says about the business. “Idea for helping our people.”

Kuzmenko says many customers have come to him to ask for advice on various things, including how to open a bank account and where to get an airplane ticket.

At Nezabudka, Russians and other customers can find the familiar in an otherwise unfamiliar environment: pelmeni (Siberian meat ravioli), szampanskie (Polish biscuits) and pickled herring are among the smattering of miscellaneous items that share shelf space with sardines and Indian tea - a favorite among many Russians, Kuzmenko says.

Although the store takes a Russian name and offers various items from the former Soviet Union, Russians make up only a fraction of the store’s business. Polish, German and other European immigrants also visit often, Kuzmenko says.

Despite its apparent success in attracting a diverse group of patrons, business is suffering.

Friends who loaned Kuzmenko funds to start up the shop want their money back.

“I must return $2,000 to this friend, $1,000 to this friend,” Kuzmenko says. His list of borrowers is longer than his store’s list of inventory.

What’s more, Kuzmenko can’t get any loans from banks. The process is long and complex, he says.

Bankers can empathize.

Starting a small business is tough for anyone, says Ron Bertolucci, vice president of Washington Trust Bank’s small business banking center. Language barriers often make the process harder, he says.

Although Kuzmenko says he has many customers, those who come most often - Russians and Russian-speaking immigrants - are the ones who tend to buy the least. When the cash register flings open, it is mostly empty except for one slot where food stamps pile high.

Americans aren’t coming because they don’t know enough about Russian foods, according to Laura Mathisen, executive director of the Washington Specialty Foods Association.

“It may be that people in Spokane are not familiar enough,” Mathisen said.

In addition, Americans aren’t used to seeing bare shelves.

This lack of selection may be one reason why Nezabudka is not attracting more than its target customers, Mathisen says.

“In selling foods, perception is everything,” Mathisen says. “If shelves are empty, people will perceive it as a failing venture and not want to shop there.”

People who start ethnic markets also tend to face more difficulties in keeping them alive, Mathisen says.

“For any of these ethnic markets, they have to first serve their primary markets - the immigrants - then they have to move to the general population,” Mathisen says.

For now, the customers at Nezabudka will keep coming. To get the Russian videotapes and music cassettes. The scarves. The latest news in the community.

Vladimir Kuzmenko says he will continue trying to find ways of refinancing his business. He says he doesn’t know what he would do if he had to sell his store but says he doesn’t want to return to welfare to support his family.

“I like work,” Kuzmenko says, packing groceries for some customers. “For me, with my language, better is working here.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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