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A restaurant serving Russian food rebrands itself after Russia invades Ukraine

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Businesses with Russia in their names are facing hardships and even threats since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. One restaurant and grocery in Arlington, Texas quickly rebranded itself. And KERA's Kailey Broussard reports it's now gaining new customers.

KAILEY BROUSSARD, BYLINE: The sign outside Val Tsalko’s family business advertised Russian gifts for years. It was convenient marketing to tell the customers what to expect, even though Tsalko is from Belarus and some of the restaurant's most popular menu items are Ukrainian, like the borscht and chicken Kyiv.

VAL TSALKO: No one really knew about Ukraine until two weeks ago. They still don't know where Belarus is, where I'm from. So we kind of use that as, like, a general term, and a lot of our stuff is not even Russian.

BROUSSARD: Tsalko's restaurant is called Taste of Europe, but some people focused on that word Russian on his sign. He says there were death threats and even a puzzling accusation that he's part of the KGB, Russia's long-defunct security agency.

TSALKO: Been here for, like, 22 years. Like, yes, OK, you know - I was a sleeper agent at the age of 4. Yeah, that sounds about right.

BROUSSARD: Tsalko and his staff are already working on new signs and menus. But after the threats, they switched everything in a day and blacked out the word Russian on the sign. It was a smart business move, but he was also concerned about safety.

TSALKO: Some of my staff is, for example, Ukrainian from Kyrgyzstan, and some of them are just here, straight Texan natives, you know? So the threats - I was more concerned about my staff.

BROUSSARD: Now Tsalko says the restaurant's getting fewer calls and more new customers. Jennifer Dembroski and her husband were looking for good pierogies and visited after hearing about the threats.

JENNIFER DEMBROSKI: We can't do much sitting over here in America but at least want to show that we do support them and support the business here just because they've had so much fallout just because of everything going on.

BROUSSARD: One of the restaurant's regulars, Rose Van Alstine, says the threats are hurtful to a family that's called the United States home for decades.

ROSE VAN ALSTINE: They live here in the community, and they're part of our community. I'm really sad that they had to, like, black out the Russian word (laughter). And so we just want to make sure we continue to support them.

BROUSSARD: And Tsalko wants to show he supports Ukrainians. Among his rebranding are signs with internet links for customers to send donations to Ukraine.

For NPR News, I'm Kailey Broussard in Arlington, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.