This follows on from Eric Aigner – The Man Who Invented Nightlife (1/2)
Looking at Eric back at the Nut, it’s clear to see how popular he is among his staff, who come up to him upon entering, embracing him warmly. I ask Eric about staff relations: “Firstly, I’m friendly with them, and don’t view them just as workers. I want them to be happy, enjoy their jobs. I treat them well, they should be relaxed, customers can tell that. This isn’t a democracy though, I’m in charge, I know how things need to be done, and if I say do it that way, they need to do it that way.” I ask about other policies: “Well, the staff are allowed to have a beer or vodka more or less when they like, within reason.” I enquire of no-nos for Eric: “Stealing is game over – if I catch you, then you’re out. When I walk in my bar, or the stock room, I have a good idea of the levels of things, and can match that up to our takings. I may not be a mathematical mastermind, but I know bars. I have a pretty well developed instinct of how much stock we have, and if barstaff are on the take.” And if you catch anyone stealing from customers in your establishments? Eric’s reply is quite simple and direct, “I beat them”. Drugs are also a no for Eric: “I don’t like them, don’t use them, if I catch anyone using them, they’re gone.” What about strict enforcing of the age limit of 18, I wonder “That’s hard to enforce, and Ukraine isn’t really the country for that kind of thing. We make efforts to ensure people are 18, no obvious under-agers. But vigorous checking of ID, etc, we don’t really do that.”
I bring up something I’ve heard, that a reason for his break-up with Viola was Eric’s infidelity. “I know, she has said that, and it’s true, I did stray at times. Working in this environment, in the position I have been in, temptation always exists, and sometimes, it is hard to say no to. But, when I love a woman, I love a woman and that is in my heart. I’ve never been a pick-up artist, never gone looking for other girls.”
Eric is indeed a complex character, fun-loving yet strict, romantic yet susceptible to temptation. I ask him about this: “Well, I’m a German guy, and ex-army, so I come from that background of rules and discipline. But, in my heart, there is a desire for craziness. I came to Ukraine because in many ways, Ukraine has the same characteristics as me – that uninhibitedness, wildness. Yet I brought some of Germany with me.” How important is Germany to Eric, I enquire: “Well, it’s my family and my beginnings, so important, but modern Germany is too boring for me – everything too systemized, structured.” Eric now believes his Russian to be even better than his native German.
Eric’s approach of reconciling two such different philosophies has been mostly successful. Yet, sometimes his embracing of Ukrainian methods of business methods has rebounded on him. Eric never signs contracts with partners here, having stated in the past that, in Ukraine, they mean nothing. Yet, in 2006, when partners Vladyslav Maksimov, Oleksandr Trush and Vitaliy Dubenko conspired to force Eric out of the partnership, they seized on the lack of contract as evidence that Eric had only ever been employed as a bar manager, stating that if otherwise, then he as a German would have had contractual evidence. I ask Eric about that: “The contract situation there is academic; they wanted to screw me – they’dve equally done so with any number of signed pieces of paper.” I ask Eric why they had wanted this. “Purely money. They wanted to keep pushing the prices up, and I was the one telling them not to do that. So, they came to see me as a barrier to them making more money, when in reality I was what was keeping them in business.
None of the establishments have been as successful since they forced me out, many have closed.” I ask Eric about Ukrainian business partners, and he sighs: “Well, it’s a difficult situation, you need a Ukrainian business partner to smooth over things here with the authorities, yet they can get greedy quite quickly, and be ruthless when it comes to getting money.” Eric then went into business with New Zealander Ken Carter, running the ill-fated Tapas Bar in Kiev in 2007. Carter launched a legal action, and claimed that Aigner defrauded him of $42,500, even suing Eric in court for that sum. Aigner denies those charges: “We were in business together, the business was going well, then he decided to take over, to meddle, and he ran it into the ground. I’m not going to subsidise him for that.”
After Kiev, Eric headed to Odessa, running a Nut, which he reports: “that was hugely successful, more than my wildest dreams.” And then, as he relays, when the managing partner’s wife went away on a business seminar and, in Aigner’s words “came back thinking she owned the place and wanting to control everything”, Eric and his Odessa Nut were over. After this, he simply went to work in a pub there as a barman: “People would see me there and say ‘Eric, you are running a new bar!’, to which I’d reply ‘No, I just work here’, but they wouldn’t believe me.” In addition to that, Eric wrote a book (in Russian) called Mein Quest about his life in the former Soviet Union, dating to his business travels in Russia of the early 1990s. Then, an offer came to return to a Kiev, which seemed happy to have him back, with the stage set for a successful comeback.
The Kyiv Post headline from 2009 heralds “Eric’s back in Kyiv! Restaurateur who shaped night life returns”, as he opened a new bar / restaurant named Friends of Eric in Ultramarine. The fact is, that despite that bar doing ok, it closed a few months later, with the friends of Eric perhaps being rather more fair-weather than he might have liked. I ask Eric if he feels a bit let down by people not being there for him, who he had perhaps expected to be there. “Yes,” he reflects, “I do a little, there were a lot of people there when everything I opened turned into Kiev’s hottest spot, fewer when I could have done with them.”
After that, in 2010, Eric got an offer from Donetsk, and headed there to run a couple of bars, including a Donetsk Nut. In his time in the east Ukraine city, he also opened a bar called Kunterbunt (a German word for psychedelic – pictured below left). “I really liked that project, it looked like an expensive lounge bar, there were cushions and sofas everywhere. But, the prices were low, the kids dug it.” Then, as he relates “The bookkeepers of the Donetsk partners of my Kiev partners got involved, and started meddling. Suddenly, everything wasn’t right, everything needed amending. That was the first sign of problems, in late-2011, then in 2012, the center my bars were based in was taken over by a Donetsk firm, and it was game over.”
The Donetsk experience which had started well, ended badly, with Aigner eking out a living DJ-ing and doing what work he could for a few months. I ask him about it, “It’s pretty rough, when you only have 50 UAH left, and a daughter to feed. I’ve been down there. When I was successful before, I never really knew what that was like, and I know now what a fine line, particularly in Ukraine, there is between financial success and only a few hryvnia left.” I ask Eric if he owes anyone money still, and he informs: “There are a few friends I borrowed money from, and I’m paying back, but there’s no one chasing me for money. And it goes both ways – when friends have asked me for loans in times of need, I’ve helped them out.” The Kiev return came in mid-2012, and got off to a false start, with Eric opening another Friends of Eric over on Kiev’s left bank, only to find his friends unwilling to travel. Then, in September 2012, the call which returned Eric to the Nut came.
In his time, Eric has run over 20 venues in near 20 years, and fathered 3 daughters from 2 marriages – Maria and Julia, in their 20s, in Germany, with Maria a language teacher and Julia a painter, and teenager Rebecca, from his marriage to Viola. He lives with Rebecca, and also has a close relationship with Viola’s daughter from a former marriage, Veronica, who now works as a member of Eric’s bar team. Eric sees his family as wider than that though: “I can name over 40 couples I know who met at my places, and have gone on to get married and have children, at one point I had planned to start a club Families of Eric, which I still may do!” This is borne out by another night I pop into Eric’s, when a young man, of 20, proposes to his girlfriend, who accepts. He tells me later: “I know I’m young, but I love her and this feels like the right thing to do, and place to do it.”
This time Eric is a little older, 50 now, and wiser, wisened even, by experience. The industry has changed, and times have moved on, I ask Eric if he’s concerned about increased competition, to which he replies: “I think that if you do something well there is no competition. I don’t see any real development here, people are trying to do what they’ve always done here – open expensive venues which are all the same! No one can run a bar like I can run a bar.” This is a man who’s survived countless presidents, prime ministers and partners, a man without whom the modern Ukrainian nightlife scene as anyone knows it would not exist.
Eric has gone from frozen pizzas to being listed the 18th most influential expat in Ukraine. And he still gets a kick out of it, explaining: “I love it, every night is different. A unique combination of people in a place which will only happen once, I always want to see what will happen on that particular night, to play my part as a catalyst in taking the chemistry of the room to wherever it needs to go.” And what if it goes too far? “I’ve put more people in taxis home than I can remember, and I know when it’s time to do that. Some people have accused me of liking to party too much, but I know my limit, know how far I can go and when it’s time to call my own taxi.”
There are no signs of it being taxi time for Eric just now though. In a country where some never get a second chance, he’s back on his umpteenth. Eric has seen every side of Ukraine, from extreme greed to strong love and I ask Eric why he has both succeeded in Ukraine, and been able to rebound from failure. “Firstly, to succeed here, you need to know and understand this country, which takes a year at least. Then, you need to let Ukraine into your heart, to love it. For all its faults, I really do love Ukraine. And you need to forget about European logic, things that apply in Europe have no relevance to Ukraine.”
*After writing this, Eric was invited back to run The Cave, which he did for a couple of months before the partner informed him for the venue to continue he would need to invest financially. Eric decided otherwise, and continues to focus on Orekh, which continues to boom.