Ukrainian orphans benefit from sales of Whitey’s Vodka

by Sheldon Ocker

Jon Bigadza leads a visitor into his office at Whitey’s Booze N’ Burgers and switches on a video entitled “The Faces of Christ,’’ depicting neglected children in physical and mental distress.

“I get about halfway through then I have to quit,’’ Bigadza said, warning the visitor of the extreme sadness that’s about to dominate the screen.

“And Chernobyl made it worse,’’ he said. The reference to Chernobyl is the 1986 disastrous nuclear accident in Soviet-controlled Ukraine. Bigadza’s parents were born in the United States – first generation Americans – but his grandparents emigrated from Ukraine.

Children under duress and Ukraine fill much of Bigadza’s radar screen.

“My mother was an orphan, and my father started gifting money which continues to this day,’’ he said. “Back in the 1920s, they didn’t send you to an orphanage. My aunt and uncle took my mother.’’

But Bigadza’s father, Harry, recognized that a parentless child doesn’t always land in the arms of a compassionate relative.

Six decades have passed since the Bigadza family started giving away cash, but the destination has remained the same: St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Parma, where the donations are distributed to an orphanage in Ukraine.

Through the years, Bigadza funded his donations to St. Vladimir with a percentage of the gross from Whitey’s. But in May, he tapped a new revenue source, distilling vodka.  Bigadza’s father originated the idea of making vodka in 2007, but he died before he could do anything about it.

“It was something he wanted to do,’’ Bigadza said. “I thought I would carry it on. But at that time, if you had a “D’’ license from the state to sell liquor, you couldn’t also have an “A’’   license to manufacture liquor. That has changed.’’

So the door opened to make and sell vodka, but not just any vodka. Most vodka is made from grain; Whitey’s Vodka is made with mash from potatoes.

“We believe that vodka originated using potatoes,’’ Bigadza said.  “That’ how it originally was fermented.’’

Bigadza wanted to buy potatoes from Ukraine, but the war has made that virtually impossible.

“Poland is helping out Ukraine, so we get part of our mash from there,’’ he said. “The rest we get from Mantua [in Portage County], the potato capital of Ohio. Our water is from the Great Lakes. We tried to get bottles locally [Libby Glass in Toledo], but that is pretty much out of the question [because of shortages].’’

But the buy local theme continued.

“I looked around the area to find the place that was most in need,’’ Bigadza said. “We determined that Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati didn’t need any help but Youngstown could use some.’

So Bigadza purchased a 106-gallon still and shipped it to Youngstown, where Whitey’s Vodka is made.

“This truly is small-batch vodka,’’ he said. “It is watched over very closely; it’s high-end vodka. It sells for the upper 20s [dollars].’’

Bigadza said all receipts from vodka sales go to St. Vladmir and the orphans in Ukraine.

Selling the vodka is the next challenge. Customers of Whitey’s can buy it by the drink in the restaurant, but the only place it can be purchased by the bottle is Corkscrew Johnny’s in Richfield.

At the moment, the sales staff consists of Bigadza, his son Matt, Bigadza’s wife and his daughter, who try to find distributors. What Bigadza needs is a liquor broker, who can make the search more efficient. He is looking.

“It’s boots to the ground right now,’’ said Matt Bigadza.

The more vodka Bigadza sells, the more he can contribute to Ukraine’s orphans.

 Bigadza’s money has traveled to Ukraine but he has not. “No, and it doesn’t look like I’m    going to make it,’’ he said. “I’m running out of time, and they’re crazy.’’

Not that Ukrainians are irrational, but they are busy fighting a war with Russia that has no end in sight. It follows that the orphan population probably will increase. ∞