Sweet Enterprise in Bitter Times

In Mariupol, many people like the confectionery from Chocolate Art Studio KL. Chocolatier Larisa Kapranova, the chocolate studio founder, started her sweet business in 2017. At first, it was a hobby with orders only for family and friends. Then, the business grew into a full-fledged enterprise – manufacturing handmade sweets from Belgian chocolate and other confectionery products.

Chocolate Art Studio KL is not Larisa’s only work. In Mariupol, she was a PhD in Economics and Associate Professor and Chair of the Economic Theory and Entrepreneurship Department of the Pryazovskyi State Technical University. Larisa skillfully combined two seemingly unrelated professions and succeeded in both.

Before Russia’s full-scale war, Larisa’s chocolate studio had its own confectionery shop and a large client base. Sweets were sent by mail throughout Ukraine and beyond. Larisa’s sweets can be found in several partner cafes in Mariupol. There was a separate Chocolate Art Studio KL Store in the city; but, it closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, the Studio sold between 50 and 100 boxes of chocolates every month.

Chocolate Art Studio KL is a family business,” says Larisa. “I was engaged in the manufacture of sweets, my husband took care of the logistics and procurement, whereas our son helped with photos and social media. It was a business for the soul.”

“In Mariupol, I Lost Everything Except My Life”

On February 24, 2022, everything changed. Mariupol was one of the first cities to feel the blows of the Russian army. In early March, a shell hit the studio, destroying everything: Three refrigerators, two freezers, a microwave oven, an oven and pastry tools. No candy mold survived the blow. Before the start of the war, Larisa was actively preparing for March 8, International Women’s Day. About 150 boxes of chocolates were made for the holiday and about 40 kilograms of chocolate were purchased for another 200 boxes. All was destroyed.

A few days later, a Russian enemy plane dropped a bomb on Larisa’s apartment which was also destroyed. Fortunately, the family managed to escape. They had only one road to Kyiv, where their son was waiting for Larisa and her husband. It was frightening because Mariupol was almost closed by that time. Only on March 16, the couple, together with friends, dared to leave the city. And, they succeeded.

The next two months were difficult for Larisa. It was almost impossible to comprehend and accept everything that had happened. In April, she was ready to delete the studio’s Instagram page because she did not understand who would need her products. Primary support for Larisa was the husband and son. It was them who inspired her to get back to business.

A Good Job Can Save

At some point, I wanted to do something with my hands. First of all, knead the dough and bake something out of it,” said Larisa. “Then I unexpectedly received an order for the production of Easter cakes in Kyiv. I was very excited. All the equipment I had back then was an immersion blender and some spatulas. I bought them a few years ago when I visited my son. So I had to knead everything by hand. ”

The chocolatier received support from friends and colleagues. Somebody gave Larisa chocolate, someone else presented a mixer and sent molds for products while others simply helped with financial support. This allowed Larisa to start production and start making sweets again. The power of Instagram also worked. Ukrainian TV presenter Katya Osadchaya saw the message about Larisa and communicated the Chocolate Art Studio KL story on her page.

Orders started coming with incredible speed and Larisa was barely keeping up. She had to look for new suppliers; but, managed to retain some key suppliers she had earlier in her entrepreneurial career. For example, Larisa continues to order boxes for sweets from a Kharkiv company.

She says she can find boxes in Kyiv; but does not want to abandon a long lasting business relationship. The Kharkiv region is facing difficult times and Larisa wants to support its business community as that community supported her last spring.

Resuming the production had a positive effect on my moral, spiritual and physical condition,” says Larisa. ‘If it weren’t for the work that I really like and take pleasure and inspiration from, then I don’t know how I would live now.”

To fully resume work, Larisa needed professional equipment and supplies and financial resources did not cover everything. A microgrant for Ukrainian entrepreneurs through the EU4Business program helped solve this challenge.

First Pleasant Impressions in Six Months

Larisa serendipitously saw information about the microgrant in Diia’s mobile application. She had applied for various grants, but never won. Her hopes were measured; but, she decided to participate in the competition. News about winning the microgrant pleasantly surprised Larisa. She remembers she danced with happiness about the news.

A microgrant of UAH 150,000 (about EUR 4,000) made it possible to purchase important equipment, supplies and raw materials. Funds were spent on a professional chocolate tempering machine, a refrigerator, an airbrush, a spatula with a built-in thermometer and a professional immersion blender. Additional confectionery tools, chocolate and cream were purchased.

Thanks to the microgrant, the company was able to hire a courier. In the spring of 2023, Larisa plans to hire an assistant. She also purchased another kitchen machine.

After receiving the microgrant, the studio almost reached the pre-war number of orders, says Larisa.

 How Does the Studio Work Now?

In the fall of 2022, a separate space for Chocolate Art Studio KL was located. When landlords learned where Larisa was from and what she was doing, they waived three months of rent and six months of utility payments.

A new assortment of goods is under development. She makes candles and wine-based marmalade. The assortment of sweets that the chocolate studio had in Mariupol is gradually being restored. Now the studio offers 30 variations of sweets.

Larisa continues to work remotely as Chair of the Economic Theory and Entrepreneurship Department at Pryazovskyi State Technical University which relocated to Dnipro. And, she constantly learns from world class chefs and chocolatiers.

Larisa dreams of opening a family confectionery with a children’s play area. And, of course, to return to a liberated Mariupol.

Back in the spring, Larisa was offered to go abroad, but refused. I don’t see myself abroad. In addition to my studio, there is Pryazovskyi State Technical University.  The university is fighting for victory. My family and I are not military men and have never held a weapon in our hands. All we can do for the good of the country is to work, support the economy and thereby bring our victory closer.”

Microgrants are supported by the international cooperation program, “EU4Business: SME Competitiveness and Internationalisation”, funded by the European Union and the German Government and is implemented by the German development organization, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in cooperation with The Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, The Ministry of Economy of Ukraine, the public service online portal, “Diia“, the national project for development of entrepreneurship and export, Diia.Business, and the Ukrainian state institution, the Entrepreneurship and Export Promotion Office. The microgrant initiative implementing partner is the international organization, East Europe Foundation.