Russian cuisine was entirely absent from the Twin Cities food scene back in 1979. University Avenue, long a bustling commercial corridor, was best known for its new car showrooms, a huge Montgomery Ward department store and distribution center, the Blue Horse, one of the area’s most upscale restaurants, and the Prom Ballroom. It was void of the rich array of cuisines available today. Nicolai Alenov, owner of the Russian Tea House, with wife, Linda, says that Russian fare was scarcely available anywhere in the United States when they opened up shop at Fairview and University Avenues in St. Paul.
We were a Russian carryout service and there was no Russian carryout in America. We checked out Chicago. We checked out New York. There were a few delis that did a few things. Nothing like what we did here.
At the time, the College of Art and Design grads were looking for a better way to make ends meet and provide for a family. For three or four years after finishing school they had sought to make a living from their artwork, selling at galleries and other places. Nicolai aspired to be a sculptor. “But I couldn’t make a living at it,” Alenov recalls, “and it only got worse and worse.” He took on odd jobs here and there, “but a company would go under or you’d get laid off and it was very discouraging.”
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.
Linda’s artistry on display
The couple was inspired to launch their business because of the demand for piroshki that they regularly witnessed at their Russian church’s bake sales. A reviewer for Heavy Table describes piroshki as, “a mixture of ground beef, cheddar cheese, and rice, rolled into a soft, layery pastry dough and baked.”
Alenov recalls that, “they (the 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.” His mother, one of the main cooks, taught him to make piroshki at home.
While Nicolai and Linda were convinced that piroshki and a limited menu of other Russian foods might be just the ticket, others had their doubts.
“Everybody discouraged us, of course,” Alenov says. “We tried to even get money from the bank…to buy some equipment and the banks wouldn’t even give us money. (A banker) said, ‘You know, 90 percent of most businesses go under, especially restaurants, go under the first year. Why do you want to invest money into it?’ I said, ‘because I know what I have people are going to want.’”
With the support of Alenov’s father, who purchased the home that was eventually converted into the Russian carryout, and recipes from his mother, the family spent a few years remodeling part of the home’s lower level, transforming it into a restaurant. Others lent the couple money and they bought the necessary equipment on payment plans.
When the business opened, the couple was delighted to see that the doubters were wrong. “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.”
“It worked out really well,” he continues, “People kept flocking.”
Making a new life in America
Much of Nicolai Alenov’s outlook is shaped by his early life and the life experiences of his grandfather and parents. His grandfather spent five years in a Siberian labor camp after Russians, under Communism, took his farm, “because you know, back then, everybody had to share your wealth.” Meanwhile, his father, “roamed around and was homeless for a time.“ Nicolai was born and spent his first couple of years in Germany.
World War II provided an opportunity for Ukrainians and Russians to leave Russia. England, South America, Brazil, Australia, and the United States sponsored displaced people so that they would not be forced to return to Stalinist Russia, where they risked being killed. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Saint Paul sponsored the Alenov family to emigrate to the U.S. after World War II ended.
Life in the United States opened up new opportunities.
We lived in the basement there (St. Mary’s) for a while 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 (on Dewey Street) 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.
Ten years later, I-94 was built and the family was forced to move. Nicolai was raised on Feronia, just a couple of blocks from where the Russian Tea House is located. It’s the same street where he and Linda live now.
A source of pride—and some amusement—is that a Russian magazine published a story on the Russian Teahouse and Pete’s Guitars, Alenov’s brother’s store that once filled the adjoining first floor space. “They came here to interview my brother…and me, these Russian capitalists, how well are they doing here in America. And we were doing really good, you know, so they were reading about us in Russia.”
Other media, both local and national, have taken note of the unique family-owned establishment.
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….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….It (the installment) was called ‘The Lutefisk Express.’
Based on his experience, Alenov concludes that, “Anybody can make it here in America. All they have to do is apply themselves to work, hard work.”
Changes at the Russian Tea House
Much has changed since 1979.
Originally, the Alenov family lived upstairs from the Tea House. “You know, you’d get up, you’d go downstairs. I could work all day. The kids are up here. They’d come downstairs to help, and my wife could come down to help in-between times,” as would his mother and mother-in-law.
Desperate for more space to raise their children, the couple decided to purchase their current home on Feronia. Soon, the Russian Tea House was transformed from being mainly carryout—with just a few small tables crammed into the downstairs space—to offering ample seating for 50 upstairs. That was about 20 years ago.
Pete’s Guitars, which was housed in the adjoining half of the building’s first floor, closed after Alenov’s brother was killed in a tragic automobile accident some 12 years ago. Pete’s customers included George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Bono and U2, Linda and Paul McCartney, Prince, and BB King, all of whom discovered the Russian Tea House during their visits.
The menu has also been tweaked a bit. Back when the shop opened, piroshki were deep-fried. “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.”
Cheddar cheese was added. “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 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.”
Alenov laughs about the Russian patrons who would tell him, “That’s not Russian.” His response? “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.’ “
While piroshki have always been a staple, the menu also features borscht, Russian potato salad, pel’meni, and on Fridays, vereniki and stroganoff. Russian teacakes are the most popular dessert. New items have been added as part of a Saturday brunch.
Music is another addition. “I’ve had people with guitars that come up here and play, and mandolins that stop by and play, and an accordion player….But I’m known for this person, Dick Rees (an alum of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion), who’s been coming here for 30 years, and he comes whenever he wants to play…..He plays his own music. He knows what’s copyrighted and he won’t play anything that’s copyrighted.”
The family has changed as well. The three young children—two sons and a daughter—grew up and followed different paths after working in the restaurant during their youth. One is a chiropractor, another a photographer and encaustic artist. Alenov’s father, who purchased the home for himself and Nicolai’s and Linda’s family, has passed away. So have the two mothers who provided recipes and helped cook and run the business.
A changing University Avenue
A lot has changed outside the Russian Tea House doors, too. Alenov remembers University Avenue at earlier points being a very busy and safe street. “I can go back to when I came around with my father here and you’d see a horse pulling a cart….We’d go to the farmer’s 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.”
Growing up, the Midway YMCA, directly across the street from the Russian Tea House, was a favorite place. “Yeah, I spent a lot of time here….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.”
And then there was Porky’s Drive-In, just a couple of blocks to the west. “Boy, do I miss Porky’s,” he says.
Car dealerships were prominent landmarks on the University Avenue that Alenov first knew. “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 (on a high rotating pole) 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.”
Porky’s and the car dealerships are gone, and so is the sense of safety the Alenovs once knew. Even in the early years of the Russian Tea House, Nicolai says, the Avenue felt safe. “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.”
He explains, “I walked out one time to the front 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.”
Higher taxes, special assessments, more regulations spell uncertain future
The Alenovs remain uncertain about what impact the Central Corridor light rail line will have on sales once the trains are running in June.
“Is light rail going to bring me thousands of more people? I don’t think so,” Nicolai says. He notes that the closest stop is at their intersection, University and Fairview, but Russian Tea House customers drive, he says, or always have. “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.”
It is possible, he admits, that developers may be right. They’ve been telling him that light rail will draw new customers to his door. “People might come down from the downtown areas just to know there’s a Russian teahouse right there,” at the Fairview stop. “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.”
It’s not just the new transit line and its construction that are posing challenges. Alenov expresses concern about all of the special assessments that small businesses like his are being asked to bear, along with rising property taxes. He says he’s not alone.
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.
Add to higher taxes a growing list of regulations, and Alenov says it’s become almost impossible for someone to launch a small business today.
The City really should try to make it easier for businesses to set up, especially for mom-and-pop places. 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.
As a result, he says, the cards are stacked in favor of corporate chains and fast food outlets. “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.”
There is one change that Alenov heartily approves of, and that’s the large presence of ethnic eateries along University Avenue, particularly east of Snelling Avenue.
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….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 City has theirs. We could easily have something here, too.
“I have some really cool things on my mind.”
Regarding their own future, the Alenovs are taking a wait-and-see approach.
In summer 2013, the Russian Tea House opened on Fridays only, something the Alenovs did the first year of light rail construction. “That drew in enough people to pay my bills here.” Then, in October, the Alenovs did something unprecedented, they reopened on Saturdays and began serving brunch, featuring new items: a sweet blini filled with sweet farmers cheese and topped with grand marnier sauce and maple syrup, and a savory blini of sautéed mushrooms and onions and aged sharp cheeses.
Hours may change once again after all of the dust has settled, and Nicolai Alenov hints at some other possible changes, too, though he won’t say what they might be. “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.”
Beyond the immediate future, the Tea House co-owner points out that he is unable to transfer the business to anyone, including his own children, or sell, without costly changes being made that would be prohibitive.
“The health department here has grandfathered me in on many things and they said that I can’t transfer the business (or sell) to anybody without redoing everything, the walls, the handicapped accessibility, things that would put me out of business if I had to do it now.”
As a result, one option is to simply close up shop. “Every summer I think about leaving. It’s hard. It gets harder and harder.”
What would the couple do if they closed the Russian Tea House? Move to Hawaii is one possibility, “somewhere warm where I don’t have to shovel snow anymore.”
Another is to open a food stand at the Minnesota State Fair. “It’s very tempting. You 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.”
To learn more about the Russian Tea House, its owners, and the celebrated musicians who patronized Pete’s Guitars, listen to an audio version of the interview with Nicolai and Linda Alenov and read the full transcript here, and watch a short video featuring Nicolai and Linda Alenov, produced by Jose Luis Morales Alegria. Additional assistance was provided by Luce Guillen-Givins and Mary Turck.
To see more photos and to keep up with news and future plans, visit the Russian Tea House Facebook page.
The Russian Tea House is located at 1758 University Ave. W.
This article is part of a Central Corridor small business oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.
Articles in this series include:
• Along the Corridor: University Avenue business owners navigating change
• Dubliner Pub: “Do you think I have a crystal ball or something?”
• Russian Tea House: “Will light rail bring me thousands of new people? I don’t think so”
• Flamingo Restaurant: “We feel like we’re home”
• Homi Restaurant: “If you like our food, come support us”
• Best Steak House: “When they told me business would go up…I couldn’t figure out how, but it really has”
• Ngon Vietnamese Bistro: “We knew this was right for us, and we knew light rail was coming”
• SugaRush: “I just hope that corporate America don’t come in and take us all out”
• Big Daddy’s Old Fashioned Barbeque: “I would just like to see a better mix of things”
• Bangkok Cuisine: “When this opportunity came up, we just had to take it”
• Ha Tien Grocery Store: “We are confident that it will be better, a lot better”