Since the Russian invasion began in Ukraine, Anna Afanasieva has been heartsick with worry for her parents and sister who live in Odessa, in southern Ukraine.
“Our kitchen is super tiny, maybe 200 square feet,” said Afanasieva of her bakery, Laika Cheesecakes and Espresso. “We have 20 employees and we were baking nonstop to keep up.”
Once she put out the word on Facebook, people came by the thousands.
“I couldn’t believe it — it was like all of San Antonio showed up,” she said.
Afanasieva and her employees spent day and night baking and decorating miniature cheesecakes, which customers buy by the jar, by the slice or in six-packs.
Within hours, the cheesecake line wrapped around several blocks, and by late afternoon, people were waiting for up to four hours, she said.
Customers were glad to do it.
“Tried today and sold out, but I’ll be back tomorrow! Love to you and your families!” one woman commented on the cafe’s Facebook page.
“There are still compassionate people in this world,” wrote another customer. “Beautiful job you are doing and delicious cheesecake — my book club definitely enjoyed it.”
“This is so beautiful — please let us know if you need any physical help too,” commented a local pub owner. “I can work a cash register for a few hours if need be or whatever.”
Afanasieva said she was stunned by the response, and glad she decided to funnel her angst into action.
“I couldn’t go home to Ukraine to fight,” Afanasieva said. “But I could bake cheesecake.”
For two years, Afanasieva has co-owned Laika, a popular dessert spot in the San Antonio suburb of Alamo Heights. The cafe is known for miniature cheesecakes in jars that come in more than 20 flavors, including raspberry white chocolate, toffee turtle and tiramisu.
Afanasieva opened the bakery and cafe with a friend about eight years after she came to the United States as a foreign exchange student and decided to apply for legal residency.
“When I learned that Ukraine was under attack, I realized the only real way for me to help my parents and others in Ukraine was to buy more ingredients, sell more cheesecakes and donate the money,” she said.
Afanasieva and her business partner, Viktor Krizma, contributed the earnings from everything they sold in the cafe between Feb. 25 and 27 to a fund for soldiers’ resistance efforts.
By the time she and Krizma closed the shop on the 27th, about 3,000 San Antonians had purchased more than 4,500 jars or slices of cheesecake and had donated money on top of their purchases, bringing the total to more than $72,000 to help Ukrainian soldiers.
That number has since climbed to about $100,000, as people continue to donate on the Laika website, said Afanasieva, who says she has forwarded the money to a fund in Ukraine earmarked for military supplies.
“I never imagined it would be so successful and that so many people in San Antonio would turn out,” she said. “They stood in line because they wanted more than a slice of cheesecake. They wanted to do everything they could to help.”
“Even after we’d sold out of cheesecake and coffee, they continued to show up,” she added. “They were happy to give to the cause even if they received nothing in return.”
Afanasieva said she has fond memories of growing up with her older sister in Odessa, a port city of 1 million on the Black Sea.
“It’s such a beautiful place and I am so worried that now it will be destroyed,” she said. “Until the pandemic, I was going home to visit every two years. I almost have no words to express how I feel. It’s heartbreaking.”
While her mother and sister were safely evacuated to Moldova, then Turkey, her father stayed behind to care for her grandmother in Odessa and to help defend the city, Afanasieva said.
“I can’t stop thinking about them — what is happening in Ukraine is the worst thing that could possibly happen,” she said.
Afanasieva said she was 18 when she came to the United States as a foreign exchange student in 2013.
“When my studies were over, I wanted to travel a bit and see the country, so I drove to California,” she said. In San Diego, she said she met Krizma and they started a marketing and photography business together. Five years ago, they decided to expand their company and relocate to San Antonio.
When her homemade cheesecakes were a hit with friends about three years ago, she developed a passion for baking and decided to open the bakery and cafe with Krizma. They named the shop Laika after a stray dog from Moscow that was launched into space by the Soviet Union in 1957.
The terrier was the first living creature to orbit the Earth, but sadly died shortly after launch in Sputnik 2.
“The irony that it was a Russian dog is not lost on me,” Afanasieva said.
“We opened during the pandemic in December 2020 — not the best time to start a business,” she added. “But people in San Antonio really love cheesecake and they supported us.”
The same people who bought six-packs of “to go” cheesecakes then are among the most generous contributors to her cause now, she said.
“They know that I am hurting,” Afanasieva said. “I don’t know if I will see my friends and my father again.”
She said the support she feels from her adopted country brings tears to her eyes.
“Here in San Antonio, people have big hearts,” she said.