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Hello Oma Owner Back From Ukraine and Ready to Reopen

Thu, 08/04/2022 - 08:51
Wooden crates will soon hold produce, refrigerators will chill green juices, and upscale pantry items already line the shelves.
Christopher Gangemi

Kristofer Kalas, the owner of Hello Oma, a farm stand and coffee shop on Race Lane in East Hampton, was wearing board shorts and walking barefoot across the street last week, with a sleeve of ice over one shoulder.

It's hard to imagine a greater contrast from where he was just a month ago, in a war zone in Ukraine.

"Everything was left quite a mess," he said of the store, which he plans to reopen any day now. "I pretty much just dropped everything and got on the next flight" when the war began last winter.

Mr. Kalas plans a scaled-back version of Hello Oma for the remainder of the summer and hopes to stay open through Christmas. Hours will be 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

The store is tiny, and zoned as a farm stand. Wooden crates will soon hold produce, refrigerators will chill green juices, and upscale pantry items already line the shelves. A brick floor, laid by Mr. Kalas, completes the open outdoorsy vibe. The roof is white tarp.

"Because it's zoned farm stand, I'm not allowed to have a real roof," he explained. "People love to grab a coffee or green juice and hang out in the back." Tables and chairs are arranged behind the store, in a neat patio area.

"The main attraction has always been good coffee, and we do fresh green juices, too," he said. Mr. Kalas is also a trained pastry chef, but won't be offering baked items any time soon. "I don't have the bandwidth or staff. In fact, right now I have zero staff. We'll start off slow."

A FedEx driver poked his head in the store, excited to see Mr. Kalas. "How you doing? You getting there?" he asked.

"It looks better than it did a week ago," was the answer. "How are your daughters?"

While it's clear that he's happy to be back in the community and excited to get the business up and running again, it's also clear that his mind is uncomfortably divided between East Hampton and Ukraine. He says the feedback he's received about his work in the besieged nation has been mixed as well. "It's been fifty-fifty between disapproval, people who say 'You're totally nuts,' and people who say, 'That's inspiring.'"

"Some people understand the war is more than just about Ukraine. If it didn't stop there, it would go to Poland and the Baltic States pretty quickly."

Mr. Kalas, whose wife is Ukrainian, described a more stable situation on the ground there now than when he first arrived in March. In the beginning, he said, there was a lot of "random humanitarian work" — running food, medicine, water, and helping people evacuate. Now many areas feel much safer, he said, with fighting concentrated along the eastern front. Much of his work when he left, he said, was supplying equipment to front-line workers and soldiers.

"We figure out ways to purchase what the soldiers request, because it usually comes from outside of Ukraine, and then get it to them on the front line." The experience of running Hello Oma helped him in Ukraine, he said. "You've got to get something and get it to someplace."

Mr. Kalas expects to be talking about his experiences in Ukraine and raising awareness about the war once the store reopens.

"People want to see me. They've been thinking about me. Which is really what the coffee experience is about. The chat, a quick chat. The barista shares a little of their life. It's a non-stressful place where you can interact with another human being. I think a lot of people don't relax enough."

"I still have my mind focused in Ukraine," he mused. "Being in a war puts a real perspective on your life. I'm not stressing out about this. Over there I ate salted porridge and pickles, sometimes just a stick of butter. They were high-calorie and very dense. It made me realize how much excess we have here."

He won't be selling cold sticks of butter as power bars, but war-torn Ukraine will still have a presence at the store.

"I'm going to put a big Ukrainian flag on the front window. The village will probably yell at me."

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