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'Guys from the east ask for my coffee.’ Story of a veteran who started business

'Guys from the east ask for my coffee.’ Story of a veteran who started business Artur Voitiuk (Photo provided by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs of Ukraine)

How a war veteran started his own coffee production business, the difficulties he faces, and how combat experience helps in running a business, read in the joint project of RBC-Ukraine and the Ministry of Veterans Affairs.

Artur Voitiuk dedicated 13 of his 29 years to military service. He was a member of an aircraft crew during a peacekeeping operation in Congo, commanded military divers, and destroyed Russian occupiers in one of the sapper units. Captain Voitiuk carried out tasks both in the air and underwater. During his service, he received several serious injuries, and because of this, as well as his father's disability, he was forced to leave the service. Just before this, he was awarded the Order for Courage, 3rd class, for rescuing several subordinates.

We interviewed Artur about his combat experience, return to civilian life, and starting his own business, involving other veterans.

Artur's combat experience

On February 26, 2022, Artur was already set to be discharged from service due to health reasons - four years prior, while serving as a diving instructor, a chemical substance inside his breathing apparatus got into his lungs during a training session and burned them. This led to emphysema and reduced lung capacity. This injury affected his heart function. It was particularly noticeable during a mission in Africa, where Voitiuk was on a peacekeeping mission as part of an aircraft crew in the position of onboard translator.

The plans for discharge from service were changed by Russia's full-scale invasion - Artur could not leave the service, so he formed a combat battalion and went to fight in the east.

"I had a discharge document in hand with necessary signatures. And then everything changed on the 24th (February 24, 2022 - Ed.). At that time, I was acting commander of the sapper battalion, and according to my position, I began the mobilization process for the battalion. It was a challenging task because people not even closely connected with the demining came to us. They were trained, we coordinated all the work, and after that, we went to the Donetsk direction to replace the contractors," Artur recalls.

"Хлопці зі сходу просять мою каву". Історія ветерана, який розпочав власну справу

Artur Voitiuk (Photo provided by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs)

Artur participated in every combat sortie with the guys from his battalion. During one of them near the Vuhlehirsk TPP, which was already under the control of the occupiers at that time, his fighters went on a reconnaissance mission, and Artur stayed to cover them.

"Our troops had left there two weeks before. When we arrived, no one knew what to expect. Literally five minutes passed when they started 'working' on us. The first hit threw me back and broke my knee. The second was closer to me, but luckily, the shrapnel flew past. From the strong blow and the concussion I received, blood started to flow from my nose and ears," Artur recalls.

Since the other two sappers didn't know how to drive, Artur had to get behind the wheel himself to save the guys. Despite his injuries, he managed to drive about ten kilometers to the second checkpoint already in Bakhmut, where the rest of the sappers were stationed. After this, he was sent to the hospital.

"The doctors immediately did IVs and gave me lots of injections. Eventually, my condition stabilized. However, due to the shock wave to the back of my head, my vision deteriorated. The ophthalmologists promised that my sight would return in about a month and a half. Those were probably the 'darkest' days of my life. Then my vision did return, and my hearing somewhat improved too. So I went back to work in the military unit," says the veteran.

Artur admits that it was hard to decide to leave the army because he did a lot of important work there.

"When the day came for my discharge from service, I came with tears in my eyes. I realized that I had given everything I could to the army," adds Voitiuk.

"Хлопці зі сходу просять мою каву". Історія ветерана, який розпочав власну справу

Artur dedicated 13 years to military service (Photo provided by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs)

Finding motivation after service

At 28, Artur had to readjust to civilian life.

"I faced the feeling that besides my family, no one in society needed me anymore. I have an Order for Courage, successful task completions, all my guys are alive and healthy. I put my all into this. But I realized that I was left alone with society. During service, there was no time to think about veteran life," Artur explains.

Starting his own business - COMMANDO COFFEE CO, producing coffee and merchandise, helped Artur cope with these thoughts. During his service with Americans, he learned about a coffee production company founded by ten Afghan war veterans. Initially, they distributed coffee only among veterans, but eventually entered the large market.

"I started brainstorming, why not take a part of their experience and integrate it here. I began learning different types of coffee, developing packaging design, and patenting the logo. I lived this for months," Artur adds.

"Хлопці зі сходу просять мою каву". Історія ветерана, який розпочав власну справу

At 28, Artur was discharged from military service (Photo provided by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs)

The veteran began developing his business idea in December 2022, and the first orders came the following month. Voitiuk immediately decided that his priority would not be so much increasing profit as involving other veterans in entrepreneurship.

"Basic funding came from my own money. Only the Ukrainian Veterans Fund of the Ministry of Veterans Affairs compensated 20,000 hryvnias (about $500 - Ed.). With that, I bought more products. Then programs appeared that helped the development of veteran businesses. I also had support from my guys who are still serving. I understand that sooner or later they will also be discharged and will need a place to work," says Voitiuk.

He emphasizes that he did not overprice the products so people could get acquainted with quality coffee. In addition, the veteran already supplies coffee to military personnel in combat zones.

"Our servicemen, being in the east, do not have coffee machines. Basically, they only have access to boiling water. Therefore, the grind size of the coffee is very important, so it can just be poured with water, and the coffee brews perfectly. Guys even call me from the east and say: 'Come on, send us coffee, because we can't do without it anymore,'" adds Artur.

For his brand's logo, Voitiuk chose a military image - a cartridge with a coffee bean inside instead of a bullet.

"Хлопці зі сходу просять мою каву". Історія ветерана, який розпочав власну справу

Coffee and branded products of COMMANDO COFFEE CO (Photo provided by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs)

Military experience helps in business

According to Artur, sometimes you feel like giving up because there are many difficulties. The biggest challenge when starting a business was the lack of knowledge about the financial aspect. This prompted him to seek new knowledge and even pursue an education in economics.

"I wanted to enroll in a master's program a long time ago, but due to lack of time, I studied remotely within a free program for veterans. I didn't know about any programs, I was never interested in this. Now I started learning how to start an individual entrepreneur business, what types and activities there are, when to pay taxes, and so on," says the veteran.

He adds that military experience helped him in business. The skills and knowledge he acquired during his service are now successfully applied in his entrepreneurial activities.

"My whole life is military. With the development of my own business, I began to think the same way as in the service, that you need to do everything for people - subordinates who will work with me in the future, as well as my customers. You can't look them in the eye and sell some trash. You have to be confident in your product," adds Voitiuk.

Sometimes the veteran has to work even at night when there are urgent orders, especially if they are heading to the front line.

"At one o'clock in the morning, I received a message that the guys were leaving for the east at eight in the morning and asking to bring coffee because it was their comrade's birthday. At six in the morning, I went to the warehouse, packed everything, and delivered it to the customer," says Artur.

Voitiuk emphasizes that it is very important for him that customers give feedback on his products because this way he can improve his work.

"At the Invictus Games (international veteran adaptive sports competitions - Ed.), I met many veterans, and they started 'showering' me with ideas. There were so many that I said it was hard to do everything alone, there must be priorities. Prioritizing always saves because if you are everywhere at once, you won't have time for anything," says Artur.

"Хлопці зі сходу просять мою каву". Історія ветерана, який розпочав власну справу

Coffee from COMMANDO COFFEE CO is sent to the military on the front line (Photo provided by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs)

Joining the Created by Defenders project

In February 2024, Voitiuk joined the project of the Ministry of Veterans Affairs of Ukraine Created by Defenders, and received special branding.

"I started with 50 kg of beans, and now we process about 175 kg. I invest all the revenue into increasing volumes. I am responsible for all stages, all accounting, all SMM work, marketing, communication - everything. I even participate in advertising shoots as a model. I needed to somehow present that this is a veteran's business. Not a business because it primarily aims at enrichment. But a job - when people also join you," says Artur.

He adds that he wanted to get the Created by Defenders branding not to highlight himself and his activities as the best in the world, but to show people that defenders create something cool.

"Хлопці зі сходу просять мою каву". Історія ветерана, який розпочав власну справу

The production volumes of COMMANDO COFFEE CO have tripled (Photo provided by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs)

"Хлопці зі сходу просять мою каву". Історія ветерана, який розпочав власну справу

The production volumes of COMMANDO COFFEE CO have tripled (Photo provided by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs)

Plans for a veteran café

Currently, COMMANDO COFFEE CO has more than tripled its production. The next step for Artur is to open a café in his native Khmelnytskyi city.

"It will be a place where only veterans will work. Admin, baristas will also be veterans. I want it to be a veteran establishment where veterans, their family members, servicemen, law enforcement officers like the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine - Ed.), national police would come to," says the entrepreneur.

For his café, the veteran wants to choose a location with good accessibility, and it is also important that there is a park or beach nearby. So far, three months of searching have not yielded results.

"Many people sell their ideas. But this idea is created for veterans like me. My conscience cannot allow selling it all. There are intentions to unite with other veteran businesses in the future. Because now, no matter what, everything is developing," says Voitiuk.

Now the veteran plans to replenish the assortment of the online store with new varieties and types of coffee. Work on the design of packaging for drip coffee is already underway.

"I want to make life as easy as possible for our defenders. It's really cool because a person would take drip coffee, put it in their pocket, and when needed just pour boiling water. Then you don't have to wash the mug, dispose of the leftovers. And in general, I would like to roast coffee myself. But for this, you need to buy a machine worth one and a half million hryvnias (about $37,000 - Ed.). So now I have to pay another company for this service," adds Artur.

In addition to coffee, Artur's online store also sells souvenir products. These are mugs and T-shirts with various prints related to COMMANDO COFFEE CO. Artur explains that merchandise is the face of the brand. Therefore, it was decided to add it to the assortment to increase the company's recognition.

"We all give gifts. But the hardest part is choosing them, especially for servicemen. Therefore, I wanted to simplify this task as much as possible," says the veteran.

"Хлопці зі сходу просять мою каву". Історія ветерана, який розпочав власну справу

Artur plans to open a veteran café (Photo provided by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs)

Civilian life with the consequences of war

The consequences of injuries are still felt - twice a year, the veteran has to undergo treatment that promotes brain recovery. Due to heart and lung problems, he constantly experiences shortness of breath and physical exertion is contraindicated. However, despite this, this year Artur participated in the selection for the national team of the Invictus Games.

"Sometimes severe headaches start from nowhere, hand motor skills deteriorate so much that it's hard to hold a mug. It all combined with heart and lung problems. Even in the Invictus Games, due to health issues, I was not allowed to participate in many sports that I used to love," says the veteran.

Artur spends most of his time in his native Khmelnytskyi city, where his father and two younger brothers live. His father is a former military man, who participated in a peacekeeping operation in Lebanon, where he was seriously injured, leading to disability. His younger brother is currently studying at a military lyceum.

"I decided to do my own thing and meet the guys after their service here or send them coffee to the front so that they understand that they are not alone," adds Artur.

"Хлопці зі сходу просять мою каву". Історія ветерана, який розпочав власну справу

Artur with his father (Photo provided by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs)