Bruce Johansen: It’s May 9, 2013. I’m Bruce Johansen and I’m at Russian Tea House, located at 1758 W. University Ave. in St. Paul. This is one in a series of interviews I’m doing with business owners along the Central Corridor. My project is funded through a State of Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant. I’m here with owner Nicolai Alenov. [Audio at bottom]
To learn more, read Russian Tea House: “Will light rail bring me thousands of new people? I don’t think so,” by Bruce Johansen, listen to the audio below, and watch video here. This article is part of the series, Along the Corridor: University Avenue business owners navigating change, an oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.
B: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Nicolai Alenov: I was born in Germany and we lived there a couple years. After the war ended my parents and our family were sponsored by a church here in St. Paul. We moved here and we made our living here.
B: What was the church that sponsored you?
A: It was an Episcopal church, St. Mary’s here. It’s about a mile away from here, not far. We lived in the basement there for awhile until they found a family that took us in. They helped us, helped my father find a job, he got a job right away. Right away he bought an apartment building, you know, which needed a lot of work, so he spent all of his time fixing and working and he built, he had a lot of apartments in there. Rented it out. It paid for the place. You know, so it was. Actually, you know, anybody can make it here in America. All they have to do, you know, is apply themselves to work, hard work. Things worked out really well.
B: Where was the apartment building located?
A: Ah, the freeway took it. It was on Dewey Street right in the middle of 94. So we lived there a good 10, I’d say at least 10 years, and then the freeway came in, and the City bought it and then we bought a place here on Feronia down by the Episcopal Home here. Not far from us. That’s where I was raised. I live on Feronia now with my family. So I’ve been here a good you know, some 55 years or more.
B: What’s your family’s history and your history with this building?
A: This building? Well we had a, my father, his father, my grandfather, came with us from the Ukraine. And uh, my grandfather spent time in Siberia. They sent him to Siberia because he didn’t want to give up his farm. The Communists came in and took his farm and then sent him to Siberia, labor camp, and he survived 5 years there, because you know, back then, everybody had to share your wealth. And if you didn’t want to, you ran into problems. My dad roamed around and was homeless for a time. World War II came. That gave an opportunity for a lot of Ukrainians and Russians to leave Russia because Communism was really bad there, so. Of course they didn’t know what the Germans were doing either, so. But then we spent, we were put in camps in Germany to work there, too.
B: Was it because of the church sponsorship that you ended up in Minnesota?
A: Yeah, yeah. After the War there were a lot of people in Germany, DP, displaced people and families. They started shipping people back to Russia, you know, after the War, but then they found out that the Russians, the Communists, as the people flew in, they killed them immediately. So they stopped shipping people back to the Communists because Stalin was a murderer. And so the rest of the world, England, South America, Brazil, Australia, America, everyone sponsored someone. You need a sponsor to get to another country because they helped you and supported you until you were on your own feet. So we were lucky that someone here sponsored us.
B: How did you end up owning a restaurant? Was that something that you’d aspired to do?
A: Well we, uh, I got a BFA from the College of Art and Design, so I was planning to be an artist, a sculptor. And my wife, too, that’s where I met her, at the art school, and we got married and we lived 3, 4 years trying to do artwork. And I sold at galleries and other places, but I couldn’t make a living and it got worse and worse. So you know you had odd jobs here and there and a company would go under or you’d get laid off and it was very discouraging, so I kind of felt that seeing our church, the Russian church, would have bake sales and food sales and they would make piroshkies and people would flock to buy them and they would sell out every time. And so I’m saying, ‘Hey, you know,’ and my mother was one of the main cooks there and so we’d make them at home sometimes and I learned how to make them. And so I said, ‘Hey, you know, what if I,’ I was living in the basement here, I mean not basement, downstairs, with my wife and I and then my first child. So I said, ‘Why don’t I convert this downstairs?’ My father bought this house here because my grandfather needed a place to live and so it was up for sale, you know, at a really good price back then, so we bought it, and he rented out apartments here and my grandfather lived here, and so I asked my dad, you know, ‘Would it be okay to turn it into a restaurant?’ He said, ‘Okay,’ so we spent a few years remodeling and turning it into a restaurant. It sounded like a good idea. Everybody discouraged us, of course, you know. We tried to even get money from the bank to start a little, to buy some equipment and the banks wouldn’t even give us money. He said, ‘You know 90% of most businesses go under, especially restaurants, go under the first year, you know, why do you want to invest money into it?’ I said, ‘Because I know what I have people are going to want.’ (They didn’t know what I was going to do. ) So I borrowed money from other places and the equipment I bought, I bought on a, some of the companies just, you know I just made payments on the equipment and so on. And so, uh, the first day we were open we had a line of people waiting to get in. We advertised a little bit, put leaflets out, all of the business people came running, saying, ‘Wow, you know, something different here on University.’ This was some 30, almost 34 years ago. 1979, yeah. So it worked out really well. People kept flocking. We had a few interviews, people writing us up, you know. We were mostly carryout, we didn’t even have a seating area then. It was just in and out. Still, it worked out really well. I put in 18, 20 hours a day sometimes, when I first got started. It was really hard. And then we lived upstairs here. You know, you’d get up, you’d go downstairs. I could work all day long. The kids are up here. They’d come downstairs to help, and my wife could come down to help in between times. My mother, who helped, she helped here a lot and cooked a lot. And Linda’s mother, too, she lived with us for awhile and she worked here for many years, too, so uh, we had a lot of help from the family. And as we expanded, a little seating there, a little more seating, it just got better and better.
B: It must have been exciting to have gotten off to such a strong start, especially after hearing from all of the doubters.
A: Yeah, yeah, I know. The biggest thing I bought was my mixer downstairs and that cost me $5,000. Luckily they let me make payments on it, this company that I bought it from, and uh, you know, I think three years later I had it paid off. And it was like, ‘Wow, I’m out of debt.’
B: Back in 1979 I’m guessing that there had never been Russian food available at a restaurant in the area?
A: No. No. You know, we were a Russian carryout service and we checked everywhere and there was no Russian carryout in America. We checked out Chicago, we checked out NY. There were a few delis that did a few things. Nothing like what we did here. It was interesting, one time WCCO was interviewing someone from out East who was selling piroshki. All of a sudden, you know years later, and someone called us up and said, ‘Someone’s interviewing and saying they’re the only ones that make piroshki in the country.’ So my wife calls up WCCO and says, ‘Hey, you know, they’re here in the Twin Cities. I’m calling from the Russian Tea House in St. Paul,’ and they put us on the air right away and interviewed my wife and she told something about the Tea House and the piroshki here. We had interviews in national magazines, food magazines, Russian magazines that came here to interview my brother, who had a guitar store next door, and me, you know, these Russian capitalists, you know, how well are they doing here in America? And we were doing really good, you know, so they were reading about us in Russia.
B: What year was that? Was that early on?
A: Yeah, it was in the ’80s, a little later on. I’d let you read it but it’s all in Russian.
B: The piroshki recipes were your mother’s?
A: Yeah, they’re my mother’s recipes. You know, we only deep-fried them when we first started and they were quite popular and we had a few orders for some baked ones so we started baking them and then we offered both. Before you know it those fried ones were just sitting there so we decided we can’t just waste all of those, so we just stopped frying them. We just stuck with the baked ones.
B: When did that occur?
A: I’d say 20, 20 years ago.
B: And the other recipes?
A: The cabbage rolls, my mother’s, and the borscht, and the potato salads. We had a number of other things that we tried, but either they were too much work and there wasn’t enough profit in them. And of course the recipe changes a little bit. Like I started adding cheddar cheese to my piroshki. First we experimented and somebody said, ‘Hey, you call these Russian hamburgers, I want a Russian cheeseburger.’ So I said, let’s put a little cheese in one of them and see, and it was really, really great. And then we offered them with cheese and without cheese. All of a sudden everybody wants the cheese ones, so now they all have the cheddar cheese in them. Of course the Russians that came here, that come here, I said, ‘You know we have cheddar cheese in ours,’ and they said, ‘That’s not Russian.’ I said, ‘It is now, because you came from the Soviet Union, you didn’t have cheddar cheese just to put in your piroshkies, did you? They said, ‘No.’ ‘Okay.’ I’m sure they do it now because they have everything there now.
B: Over time you’ve expanded the menu a little bit?
A: Yeah, yeah. Well on Fridays we offer a beef stroganoff over a potato dumpling, vereniki. Now we make pel’meni, a little Siberian dumpling, which are really very popular in Russia. And different desserts occasionally, mostly the Russian teacakes, we’ll offer. So we keep it very simple. Not a big menu. Because if you feel like a piroshki or whatever, they know where to come. There’s no other place you can really get them now.
B: This is truly a family business.
A: Well, it’s just me and my wife right now. My parents are gone, her parents are gone and we just started to cut back a little bit so that only we can handle it. We’re hanging in there but we’ve got other income sources, which because the business isn’t making that much where I could just live off the business. It keeps us going and busy.
B: And you have two daughters?
A: I’ve got one daughter and I have two sons. They’re all graduated, they’re all working, and they were all raised here.
B: What kind of work do they do?
A: My son’s a chiropractor. He has Alenov Wellness Center in Woodbury. My daughter’s an artist. Everything you see in this room here, she’s a photographer and she does encaustic- that’s the wax done over photography. She started this a good 10 years ago. She sells a lot of encaustics. So she’s having a lot of shows at the art school, the Institute, orders online. So she does really, really well.
B: I’ve admired her greeting cards downstairs.
A: Oh yeah, the cards. It was, she actually has them at the Russian Museum here in Minneapolis. It was funny that the Russian Museum, they buy things from Russia, and they went to Russia in order to buy things and they looked for cards there and they didn’t find anything really nice there to sell. So we approached them and they looked at the cards and for the last 10 years, almost 10 years, they’ve been buying cards from her because they’re beautiful. She lived in Russia for a year and she traveled around there and did a lot of photography there.
B: Have your kids had an interest or taken part in this business?
A: Well they’ve all worked here. They’ve cooked here, they’ve run the window and so on. But we didn’t really encourage them, because the health department here has grandfathered me in on many things and they said that I can’t transfer the business to anybody without redoing everything, the walls, the handicapped accessibility, things that would put me out of business if I had to do now. So it wasn’t an option for me to transfer the business to someone or even to sell it to someone else because they would have to invest a lot of money to rebuild it to their standards.
B: Over time, a number of media folks have discovered you.
A: The biggest one was Alton Brown from the Food Network. He traveled up the Mississippi and stopped at mom and pop places and someone recommended the Tea House. Someone here. He knew someone here, so he said go to the Russian Tea House. They’re a mom and pop place. They have really great food. And so they came up on motorcycles and stopped here, with their crew, 10 of them. They spent hours and hours here, filming and interviewing us. We were on his half-hour program, Feasting on Asphalt. And this started in New Orleans and he followed the Mississippi to the source up at Itasca, so he went up the whole Mississippi and this was one of his last stops here. It was called the ‘Lutefisk Express,’ you can go on YouTube and see it there. He put me in his recipe, uh cookbook. He said my stop was one of the best he liked. He just got a little tired of the fried foods coming up the Mississippi, the donuts and all the other stuff, and then he finally came here for some really good food and he really, really liked it.
B: What about Michael and Jane Stern or Lynne Rosetto Kasper? Have they discovered you?
A: No, I don’t think so. Are they Food Network people? I’ve been on Public Radio, MPR. They’ve interviewed us. I’ve been in a number of travel books, the best of travel, I’m listed in a lot of, all of those, and of course the Minneapolis/St. Paul books. Every newspaper you can think of has written about us because we’re so unique. One of the only Russian places that has survived. There are a few that have gone up, other than Moscow on the Hill, they’re still there because they have the biggest vodka selection, probably in America, so people go there to try the different vodkas. They’re doing pretty good. They’re about 5 times the cost but they’re good.
B: Do they serve some of the same dishes or is that unique to you?
A: No, they have a number of different things, a few things are similar, but mostly more gourmet type sandwiches and other things like that.
B: I’m guessing that you’ve seen University Avenue change quite a lot over the years.
A: Oh yes, tremendously. Yeah.
B: What was it like when you first encountered it?
A: Well, I can go back to when I came around with my father here and you’d see a horse pulling a cart. And especially we’d go to the farmers’ market downtown St. Paul too. A farmer came with his horse and cart to bring food there. Because the farms were just outside downtown St. Paul. So it was like wow, that’s amazing. I never thought much of it but now when I look back.
B: This would have been in the ’60s?
A: The ’50s. Yeah. There were a few left, a very, very few left.
B: Were there streetcars running?
A: No, no, they were already covered up. Or I don’t remember the streetcars. I don’t remember when they took them out. Yeah, I spent a lot of time here. Across the street at the YMCA. As a young kid there, too. That was a nice place to hang out. They had a cafeteria in there, a little place to get malts and burgers and then a bowling alley in the basement down there. It was a really nice place to hang out. That was a really busy place. People from all around went there for lunch. It was packed. I’m surprised they took it out. Actually they shut it down and then the child care center took over the kitchen where they’re using it for their children now.
B: What about the businesses up and down the Avenue?
A: Oh, the businesses. Yeah, it was a, the streets were very busy, very safe. I never even locked my back door here on University. When I first opened I didn’t have a lock on it. Today, I can’t go out to throw out the garbage without locking my door. Because I walked out one time to the front of mine to cut a piece of a tree off and I came back a half hour later and someone’s already been in and taken my cash register within 20 minutes, so it’s changed here because it’s unsafe. I’ve been robbed many times now. Every time I get robbed I put up some more security. The windows and the back door are plastic so they can’t smash through them any more. It’s not as safe as when we first opened. The whole neighborhood, even where we live now, too, it’s just not safe any more. And it’s a battle. Trying to have the city come in and clean up some of these houses. Those apartment buildings that are just a block away from here, there were murders in there, drug deals in there. And another block away from where we live, too, there was another prostitute house and drug dealership. We were constantly fighting with the police to try to shut them down and of course after years and years of fighting they finally shut them down and condemned the places. So you know, you really have to fight in order to keep these people, I think they come up from Chicago because they get such, they get their, Minnesota is number one in giving out welfare. And so they come up here. I even have some people that I know that say hey, we came here, even from California, because it’s, because they give out more money here. So it’s, so you get all these people up here and they don’t help the neighborhoods at all.
B: Have you ever thought about leaving the neighborhood, or are you committed to staying?
A: Yeah, I think every summer I think about leaving. It’s hard. It gets harder and harder. And the neighborhood has had its ups and downs. It’s on the up now. There’s, I think that light rail might help the neighborhoods a little bit. Because there’s going to be more people wanting to live along University. Of course that was their main plan. I saw their plans 10 or 12 years ago. They had a meeting and they showed the plans of the warehouses and the businesses that they want to eliminate, and they are eliminating them. And it’s only a matter of time until the paper company down here on Vandalia, it’s only a matter of time before they move out. It’ll be like the other places along there. They’ll build more lofts and apartment buildings for people to live along light rail and to move in.
B: Do you think that will be a help to businesses along University Avenue? Or what will the impact be?
A: People living in this area now, they don’t walk to the businesses. They might take the bus and then go home. I get a few people from the neighborhood, but not a whole lot. Most of my customers are driving in and they need a parking lot. Lucky we have a parking lot, too. So light rail, there are developers that have told me that’s going to bring a lot of people here because I have a station a block or two away from here, people might come down from the downtown areas just to know there’s a Russian teahouse right there. They might jump on the light rail and go there. So that’s a possibility, too. So I’m anxious to see how that’ll work. If we’re still here.
B: If you weren’t here, where would you be?
A: Hawaii. Somewhere warm where I don’t have to shovel snow anymore. That’s become a, this year was. And the year before I burned out my snowblowers. I had to buy new ones. So we’re not sure, you know, how many more years we’re going to be here. It’s just getting harder, harder. We’re not sure what we’ll be doing this summer. We’ll probably be cutting back the hours again this summer until they’re completely done with light rail. And then maybe starting in the fall we might try some different hours, we’re not sure about that yet.
B: What if the demand is there for expanded hours once the light rail is done?
A: There’s always a demand for more hours, but… If it grows then that means do I have to hire people, and if I hire people then I have to produce more food. And to sell twice what I’m selling here, that means I need more refrigerators and I need storage space. And it’s an endless investment then. Maybe 30 years ago I would. I just had someone here who’s offered to invest in me setting up at the State Fair. There is a machine called a Rheon unit that I looked at 30 years ago that the Japanese made. And it would make my piroshki. It would fill them and roll them and get them ready to fry. But it’s $50,000 just for that machine, so this guy said, ‘I’ll get you a machine, I’ll invest in you, set you up at the State Fair.’
B: Is that tempting?
A: Yeah, it’s very tempting. You just work just a couple, a few months a year and you make enough that I’d work a whole year here. It’s a lot, a lot of work.
B: When did you expand into the second floor here?
A: About 20 years ago. We slowly worked our way up here. Once my family. You know, we bought a house a few blocks from here. I had three kids and were all in one bedroom so it got to be a little too tight so we just decided to move out and convert this into a little seating area. So everything we have here has been grandfathered in because we can only limit it to a certain amount because of restrictions for building code and whatever. We’re at our limit now as far as how much seating we can have.
B: What is the capacity?
A: 50 people, that’s all they’ll let us do.
B: And are there times that you have 50 people?
A: Not all at one time. People come and go all the time. So there are never 50 at one time.
B: Do you do any advertising, or is it mostly word of mouth?
A: Well, we started advertising. We were in buy one, get one free books, and things like that. Pioneer Press. We had coupons in there. The response just wasn’t worth paying that kind of money for advertising. After awhile it was just word of mouth. Of course one little article. KSTP had us on Channel 5 a few times. How people react to TV is just amazing. It was on a program that was on at like 4:00 or 4:30. And half hour later people were lined up at my place. And I was still open. And I said why are these people coming? And they said, you were just on KSTP. I said, ‘Oh, really?’ So people respond to TV. And articles mostly. That might be the way newspapers and magazines might have to go. Instead of calling me up and saying, ‘Hey, would you like to advertise or put a coupon in our magazine? We will write an article for you,’ but I would have to pay for the article. So that’s a form of advertising. You write something about me, I’ll pay for that. Because people respond to those things. The commercials and ads in there, I just skim through them, too. Who looks at those anymore? It works, it works. Sometimes you’ll watch a movie and the guy picks up a Coca Cola can and he’s showing that and you know he got paid to do that in a movie. So there’s different types of advertising now.
B: Last week when I was here there were 25, 30 students here.
A: I get students from St. Thomas, Macalester. These high school kids that have Russian classes, they’ll come here. I’ve had them from Wisconsin, a Russian class. They would bus 50 kids here and they’d line up. They’d call me first and make sure I had food. They’d line up here and order in Russian because they got credit for ordering in Russian. So it was a field trip for them. So I’ve had a lot of students. And of course we have a school across the street here, it’s a German immersion school, and we had Avalon used to be across the street here, too. They would line up here. They love our food here. They’re all moving this year. There won’t be any schools across the street anymore. They’ve got new places, bigger places. They have a place down on Como. We’ll miss them.
B: You’ve also added accordion music, at least on Fridays.
A: I don’t advertise that. Because for legal reasons, okay, if I hire someone to play it’s going to cost me and I need a license for someone to play, and if this person plays something that’s copyrighted, I’m the one who’s going to get in trouble not the guy who’s playing it. It doesn’t make sense, so I said, no I’m not going to hire anybody. I’ve had people with guitars that come up here and play, and mandolins that stop by and play, and an accordion player would stop by and play. If they want to stop by and play I can’t say, ‘Get out of here.’ But I am known for this person, Dick Rees, who’s been coming here for 30 years, and he comes whenever he wants to play. He was one of the first, he was part of the first Prairie Home Companion, the first few years, he played for Garrison Keillor. He’s a really good accordion player. But he plays his own music. He knows what’s copyrighted and he won’t play anything that’s copyrighted.
B: How did you make that connection (with Dick Rees)?
A: He came by here one time, 30 years ago, and he had his little music box with him. He just sat down in the front and played something, and he just kept on coming.
B: I understand that when your brother’s shop was next door it attracted a lot of musicians.
A: My brother’s guitar shop was one of the first vintage guitar collectors and sellers in the country. He got very well known by the bands and he made, he started making guitars and buying old things and selling them to the bands. He made a guitar for Prince. He made a guitar for Paul McCartney. A left-handed flying V. His wife Linda would call sometimes wanting to buy guitar gifts for her son. And the Rolling Stones they were always buying from him. They would stop by occasionally. Eric Clapton stopped by a few times. I got to go to his birthday party one time. That was exciting. George Harrison stopped by here. Right here at the Tea House. And U2 stopped by. They were in concert here. And after their concert they got in their limousine. They knew Pete, my brother Pete and Pete’s Guitar and they stopped by with the limousine. I didn’t know who they were. Of course the bodyguards got out first, they came into the Tea House to check me out and they kind of shut the place down around here. And the whole group. And this guy comes in with a couple guys and they ordered everything on the menu here, and they said, ‘Can you bring it over to Pete’s Guitar?’ I said, ‘Oh sure, alright,’ and the bodyguard pays me, and I said, ‘Who was that guy?’ ‘That was Bono. You don’t know Bono?’ I said, ‘No. Who?’ He said, he likes unusual foods, that’s why he came in here. I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ That was the biggest tip I ever got. He handed me a $20 bill. For a tip. I said, ‘He must be doing good.’ Bob Dylan would come here and he would play, he’d come in and jam, we could hear him next door jamming with the guitars. My wife one time heard somebody playing over there real nice, so she ran over there to encourage this young kid who was playing over there. She said, ‘Keep it up, you know, I think you’re very promising.’ It was Bob Dylan playing over there. BB King would stop by. Johnny Winter. I could just name tons of people. I got a lot of autographs from my brother.
B: And your brother was in a car accident?
A: Yeah. About 12 years ago there was a car accident. He snapped his neck and died right away. So I shut my teahouse down for 2 years. A year or something like that. I had to learn the guitar business in order to sell everything and settle his estate. I sold everything he had there, paid off his bills, and things like that. It was sad to see someone started a vintage guitar business the way he did.
B: Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you’d like to talk about?
A: Well, being on University, that’s one of the reasons we’re still in business. Even though there was no light rail, University was a very, very busy street. Not as busy as it is now, because of the light rail. The city really should try to make it easier for businesses to set up, especially for mom and pop places. The regulations and the restrictions and things like that keep people from starting businesses. Not that we don’t need some regulations and safety factors but they just go a little bit overboard on the rules and regulations and it’s keeping people from starting businesses. So I think that they should make it a little bit easier so that it’s not a corporation or only a fast food place that’s able to do it. And that’s what’s happening. Hardware stores are disappearing. Little grocery stores are disappearing. And these little places like ours can’t keep it up.
B: Has that become more of an issue over time? Are there more rules and regulations now than when you started?
A: It seems like there are more and more rules and regulations. They say it’s for safety purposes but I don’t, I can dispute half the things that they’re talking about. I’ve gotten by for 35 years without doing something or having something and all of a sudden if you don’t we’re going to shut you down. That’s a little too extreme. And that’s becoming too, it’s like having the KGB come in and say, ‘Hey, you do this or we’re going to come in and shut you down.’ That’s kind of scary. Even when light rail comes in and we get a bill, everybody on University Avenue got a bill, an assessment, because they wanted to put in these two-headed lights and these flowers or bushes. Everybody on University went downtown and said, ‘We don’t want this, we don’t need this.’ But they still voted it in. And they said, ‘Well, we’ll wait another four years and see if we can find the money instead of having you guys being assessed for it and then every year pay for the maintenance of these flowers.’ What’s funny is with the letter that they sent out is that we’re the beneficiaries of these things that they’re putting in. It’ll help your businesses. The businesses say, ‘You prove to us that this will help our business. Those flowers and those lights.’ And never got a response from the city. They just went ahead and did it anyway. Even the sidewalks they had to rip out. Our sidewalks were fine and now they’re making us pay for the sidewalk again. So the businesses on University are paying out for light rail. And they’re not getting that much benefit for what we have to pay for. So they’re making things much more difficult for businesses with their assessments and upkeep. The issue is that the City thinks that they can bypass what the people want. I wrote letters too, saying that all the businesses on University are the ones that should have voted for what they wanted out here extra and not the City Council which most of them don’t even live here or have businesses along here and they’re the ones who voted on it and not the businesses. And we’re the ones who should have voted on it because they’re charging us. If they could prove that we were going to benefit from it, yeah, okay. I had a bus stop right in front of my place here and I got maybe 2, 3 people off it a year. So is light rail going to bring me thousands more people? I don’t think so.
B: Do you have regular conversations with other business owners?
A: Yeah, yeah I do. The print shop, he’s leaving in a couple months. He bought another place in Roseville. He just got fed up with fighting with the City here on University. The property taxes are outrageous. My property taxes are four times higher than when I started. They’re very high. So he’s moving. I talk to Wendy’s all the time. They’ve got lawyers. They’re fighting property taxes and assessments, they’re fighting that, too. We should all get together and fire all our legislators. Start from scratch. That’s what we need to do I think.
B: Who were some of the neighboring businesses when you started out?
A: There was the YMCA, the Griggs-Midway Building. A lot of people from there. Wendy’s next door. A lot of people say, ‘Wow, you’re next to Wendy’s, I bet they’re causing a lot of problems for you, taking away business.’ I say, ‘No, people come there to eat and they’re driving by and they say, wow, look at that, there’s a Russian teahouse there, let’s try them next time,’ so they actually draw people to my place, so you know.
B: And you used to have Porky’s down the street.
A: Oh, Porky’s, too. Boy, do I miss Porky’s. I’d go there for lunch. Great burgers there, you know.
B: And were the car dealerships here?
A: Oh, Ford, Ford down here. They were just down here, a block from here with that little car that used to spin on the top there. Every year they’d put a car up there and they’d have it covered and you’d know that’s the new model. And there was a rumor that if anybody could remove that car from up there, they could have it, without getting caught. I don’t know if that was true or not, but nobody ever tried. Other businesses, not that many more that were along here.
B: The Avenue has really become a lot more ethnic than it was back in the day.
A: Oh yes, I’ve been to a couple of meetings about what our University Ave. should be like. And I’ve said that the City should invest in making a Chinatown or an Oriental Town way up over there and design it so that it looks like a Chinatown. They have these wonderful little Oriental places, foods and shops in there. It’s just wonderful stuff. And of course no one said anything about that. But that would really take off, having a Chinatown there. A place where you’d like to come out and walk there, stop in the beautiful little shops. Like San Francisco has their Chinatown. New York. We could easily have something here, too, instead of putting these flowers and things here they could have invested in a Chinatown. That would have really drawn people. Right on University.
B: Anything else? I think we got to my questions.
A: You had a lot of questions there. I can’t imagine answering all of them. Well, hopefully we’ll stay in business for a while longer. This summer it’s probably just going to be Fridays, which I did the first year of construction. It was only Fridays. That drew in enough people to pay my bills here. And then the following fall I’ll decide what I want to do. It maybe will be a little bit different and maybe a different menu, too. I have some really cool things on my mind. We’ll see if it comes.
B: What will you do with the rest of your week?
A: Sometimes I’m here days before because we’re still going to need to make the piroshki. That’s an entire day. And it takes another day before to prepare for it. So I’m still preparing and I’m still working. But it’s just having to open up and having the hot food there and if it just sits there during these quiet times, it’s not worth opening. We’ll see how it goes. And of course I’ll be on Facebook. I have a lot of photos on there, articles on there, in different lengths, and information about what we’re going to do.
B: Has Facebook been good advertising for you?
A: Facebook’s been really good. I get a lot, a lot of people on there. I’m not sure how it quite works. I suppose their friends see it on there, so everyone gets to see it. That’s the only place I’ve done anything, is Facebook.
B: I really appreciate your taking time to do this. I would like to get some photos. If I have follow-ups I know where to find you. And if you think of anything you’d like to add.
A: Just pop in. If you’d like to stop in anytime you can take some pictures of my wife, Linda, at the window or whatever.
B: It would be nice to get some photos of the two of you.
This article is part of a Central Corridor small business oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.