“I realized pretty quickly that we were going to have a problem”: A Q&A with the owner of the former, Soviet-themed Pravda Vodka House

“I realized pretty quickly that we were going to have a problem”: A Q&A with the owner of the former, Soviet-themed Pravda Vodka House

Jasmine Daya inside Pravda Vodka House, before the emergency redesign

In August 2020, Toronto lawyer-slash-entrepreneur Jasmine Daya bought Pravda Vodka House, the Soviet-themed bar on the edge of the Financial District that has been serving Stoli shots and Red Square cocktails since 2003. Things were starting to normalize after two years of pandemic-related disruptions, until late February, when she began to face a barrage of online harassment following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I realized pretty quickly that we were going to have a problem,” says Daya—so much so that she opted for an emergency redesign, a name change and a nixing of Russian vodka. Here, she shares her plans for the future and why Russian-themed businesses are not the enemy.

You bought Pravda early on in the pandemic. Were you a regular patron? A vodka lover? A Russophile?
I’m none of those things. My cousin tells me that we went to Pravda once more than 10 years ago, but I don’t remember—so it must have been a good night. I was aware of the bar, though, because it has been around for almost 20 years so it’s one of those iconic places. I’m a lawyer by trade. I run a personal injury law firm, and normally that keeps me pretty busy, but business came to a halt in March 2020 when the courts closed. Suddenly I had no discovery, no mediation, no motions, no court proceedings whatsoever, and I needed to occupy myself. I have always been entrepreneurial. I decided to look for businesses that were struggling during the pandemic to see if there were any opportunities. When I was growing up, my dad owned restaurant franchises—a Harvey’s, a Second Cup—so I had some experience in that area.

What was it that attracted you to Pravda?
I wasn’t specifically looking for a bar, but I was going through the real estate listings—which I do regularly—and I came across a listing for Pravda. I mentioned it to my dad, and it turned out that he knew one of the owners, which is funny because my parents don’t go to bars—they don’t even drink. Anyway, my dad put me in touch with the owners, who were eager to sell. From there, we were able to work out a deal. The sale was finalized in August 2020. From the beginning, my plan was to do a brand refresh, but there was never the right moment because of the recurring lockdowns. The changes I did make were to accommodate a younger club crowd because with everyone working from home, the corporate crowd who used to come after work didn’t exist anymore. I introduced a bottle service menu and brought in some brands that the previous owners hadn’t stocked because they were doing something more specific.

Meaning more Russian?
Well, yes. That was their vision for the place, and I always knew I wanted to do something slightly different. I wanted to move away from the overt Soviet-era decor, and bring more variety to the food and drink menu. But I had never planned on changing the name.

When did you realize you had a problem on your hands?
On the Friday after the invasion, in late February, there was a conflict between some of our customers. Pravda had a tradition of playing the Soviet anthem at midnight. Not the Russian anthem, the Soviet anthem—many people don’t understand there is a difference. Right after it played, there was an argument between two groups. I sent security over and some people were asked to leave.

That night, our sales were really low, which is of course a concern for my staff who had already had such a hard time. I said, “It’s okay, Fridays are always a little bit slower than Saturdays.” But  then on Saturday, it was even worse. I was on the floor, and I was chatting with some guests—a group of four that had originally made a reservation for eight. I asked what happened to everyone else, and they told me half of their group didn’t feel comfortable going to a Russian bar. Then another person with a group reservation called to cancel, and when I asked if I could rebook them she said, “I love your bar, but my friends said they don’t want to go right now.” Then I started getting messages: DMs through our social media accounts, people writing on our Google page, leaving voicemails.

What kinds of things were people saying?
There were people leaving negative reviews—people who had clearly never even visited Pravda. There were people sending messages saying how dare I support Putin—uh, I don’t. People left images on our Google search page, including one of Putin’s face with the word “murderer” written in blood over it, one of children in a war zone. There were people who wanted me to stop serving Russian vodka, which I did. There were people who wanted me to hang the Ukrainian flag, and others asking me to make a statement about Pravda’s position on the war.

You aren’t the only Russian-themed business in Toronto to be targeted in this way. What do you say to people who are taking it out on businesses like yours?
I would say that Pravda has nothing to do with the leadership in Russia that is behind this war. Of course my heart breaks for the people of Ukraine, but also for the people of Russia who do not support the invasion. Targeting Russian businesses or, even worse, Russian people is not okay. I honestly think with the pandemic, people have become a lot more unhinged and this tendency to spew hate has been normalized. I can handle it, but I worry about the safety of my staff and of course about my business. By the end of that weekend, I knew things had to change—and very quickly. After being closed for so long because of Covid, I wasn’t about to close down for a reno.

So how’d you rebrand your restaurant while staying open?
By that Sunday night, February 27, I was on the phone to an upholstery company. On Monday morning all of the red and gold furniture was being picked up. All of the Soviet era wall hangings came down. I had to order new signage, new artwork, new menus, new wallpaper. Obviously none of this is cheap—we’re talking into the low six figures—and definitely not an expense I was preparing for after the last 18 months of pandemic losses. And then there is all of the behind-the-scenes stuff, like getting approval from the AGCO, transferring our liquor licence, changing the website, social media, bank accounts. And I had to come up with a new name.

You decided on Brash & Sassy. I take it you are a Young and the Restless fan? 
That’s so funny because everyone keeps asking me that, but no, I thought of it myself. I’ve been called brash and sassy before, so I just thought it fit. The vibe is 1920s. I’m thinking the Roaring 2020s—at least that’s the hope. Our colours are black and gold, and our menu has all sorts of 1920s-era cocktails: a manhattan, a French 75. We still have our extensive martini list, but we have changed the Soviet-era names—for example, the Red Square is now the Red Bambino. One of the really fun new features will be a bathtub, a nod to the Prohibition era that’s located in one of our VIP rooms.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from customers?
Well, the vibe is still very similar: same DJs, same performers, same staff. I hope people will embrace the new version, but it’s still very sad for me to say goodbye to Pravda. We had a celebration on the night before we changed the name and a lot of people came out. There was a couple there who had their first date at Pravda many years ago, so they came back for one last visit. It’s hard. Just this weekend, a customer asked me, “Do you really feel like you had to change the name?” Honestly, I just want to move forward.