SugaRush (712 University Avenue W., St. Paul) is many things. It’s a donut shop with a dazzling array of donuts, apple fritters, coffee, smoothies, and other tasty treats. It’s an independent business entirely staffed by family members. It’s also a community gathering place for many residents of Frogtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
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.
Keoni Nguyen, who owns the shop with his wife, Susie Path, has deep roots in the area. Cambodian by birth, Nguyen emigrated to the United States with his family as a young boy. His family took up residence in St. Paul, near Lafond Ave. and Mackubin Street, not far from where SugaRush is located. Path, who’s Vietnamese, came to this country as a baby.
When Nguyen was 12, his family moved to Orange County, California, but then, one by one, all but his father began migrating back. “This is home,” he says, “because I was raised here, everything, education, I got it all here.”
A St. Paul upbringing
Nguyen’s mother was a stay-at-home mom, who looked after the kids. His father, who had been a school principal in Vietnam, attended college and then did assembly work from home. While brothers and a sister took jobs at McDonald’s, Keoni’s first job was delivering newspapers to homes on Van Buren, Minnehaha, Blair, and Lafond near Lexington Avenue, mornings, after school, and on weekends. In the warmer weather he hauled newspapers by bicycle. In wintertime he carried them on a sled.
“It was more of a community, a very tight neighborhood kind of deal,” Nguyen says of the neighborhood where he grew up. “I used to know all the neighbors from my old neighborhood. I’m still friends with some of those people now.”
The children of many of the kids who Nguyen grew up with attend St. Agnes School. “My kids and their kids are going to the same school.” It’s not that people stayed in the old neighborhood, he explains, but he predicts that many of his childhood friends and classmates will choose to move back. It’s something that he hopes to do.
Little Canada is where Nguyen and his family moved a couple of years ago. “Now we’re thinking about moving back. Closer to home, closer to the kids’ school, closer to the business.” There are practical considerations. Workdays start early and are long, so shaving off time from his commute would be a big help.
“When you get up, warm up your car, gear it up, by the time that you get here, it take an hour out of your day.”
Plus, baker’s hours aren’t “banker’s hours.” “We start baking at around midnight,” he says. “So prepping everything, getting everything started, they get here at around midnight. We should finish everything at roughly around 5:30 to 6:00, because everything should be finished and lights turned on and show time.”
Showtime signals the opening of the shop’s door at 6:30 a.m.
Then it’s another eight hours of work, serving customers, followed by a shopping trip. Nguyen says that those kind of hours require a person be asleep by 7:00 at night. Fortunately he’s now getting some relief. His 20-year-old son has taken over most of the donut production work.
Still, it is far more than convenience that is drawing Nguyen back.
I’m a big city kid, so I like the busy street, I like the noise, all that. Out in the suburbs I don’t get that. I don’t have it. It’s hard for me to function, because I like to do things, I can’t sit around. So that’s the main thing, the kids’ school, the business here, and on top of that, you know, the energy.
Plus, things are changing in Frogtown. “When you have a homeowner occupied area (something Nguyen says the neighborhood is reverting back to) you have more people taking care of their place.” And that makes the neighborhood more attractive to prospective homebuyers.
Jack-of-all-trades becomes baker
SugaRush opened in 2010, taking over the space that had housed Rainbow Donuts, his younger brother’s business for five years. Nguyen credits a younger sister with coming up with the new name. “I asked my sister, ‘I’m trying to think of a name for our donut shop, I want to have a fresh new start, a new beginning, think of a name for me,’ and she came up with SugaRush.”
Nguyen describes himself as a bit more business savvy than his brother, and says that he came to his shop with a lot of determination. “I wasn’t going down without a fight.” Prior to opening SugaRush, he had done a number of things. “I’m one of those jack-of-all-trades. I try a little bit of everything. I did construction to a sewing shop to bartending to a chef.”
How did Nguyen become such a good baker? “A lot of hard work, a lot of time, sleepless nights.” Plus intense training. “I would say it take me around three years, four years to master, to perfect everything.”
In addition to the new name, Nguyen brought in coffee, espresso, and smoothies. The space itself got an overhaul, too. “We remodeled the whole place, inside and back, new equipment. Bigger equipment, because now I have more of a demand than back when I first started, so lots of upgrading.”
Much of the increased demand comes from the wholesale end of the business. SugaRush sells to coffee shops and gas stations, some 15 or 20 in all. Churches are an even more significant part of his business, starting with St. Agnes and building from there.
“I have roughly around 10 churches, just around the neighborhood here, that support me through the tough time and all that.” Each of those churches purchases 25 to 30 dozen donuts each week. For one church it’s 120 dozen. Nguyen donates his day old donuts to the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul.
Wholesale customers expect their donuts and apple fritters by a certain time. “We have a deadline that we have to be finished with everything by, 5:30, because if we’re not done by 5:30, we’re going to have a lot of unhappy gas stations and a lot of unhappy coffeehouses.”
With help from his children—he and his wife just had their sixth—and a 17-year-old nephew, Nguyen has no need to hire outside of the family.
Hopefully one day this whole light rail thing gets kick-started, bring in some new faces, give me the opportunity to hire more people.
Ominous times for small businesses
Whether the green line will bring those new customers is a big unanswered question for SugaRush. Closest stps to SugaRush are two blocks east, at Dale Street, and four blocks west at Victoria.
By and large, business owners such as Nguyen, who lease their spaces along the Central Corridor, express more concern about the incoming light rail line than those who own. First they had to weather the construction. Now, some fear that their rents will skyrocket, forcing them out of business. “I lease this space. The lease is coming up in six months. We’ll see how all that’s going to turn out. Hopefully we go on strong.”
Nguyen foresees big changes appearing gradually. “I think it will take roughly around five to seven years for it to get to where it’s supposed to be or somewhat, because just like everything else, things don’t change over night.” By that point, “the big picture of University will totally, completely change.”
Unfortunately, a lot of what exists today will disappear. Or so he fears.
I just hope that what I see don’t come true, because if what I see is what is going to be, then eventually all small businesses will slowly disappear, because it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be tough.
Many of the businesses are leasing space in buildings that are run down, Nguyen observes. “Eventually they (the property owners) need to upgrade it (their property) or they’re going to get knocked down and be bought out.” This would dramatically alter the commercial corridor. “I just hope that corporate America don’t come in and take us all out, because I would love to stay on University, stay here, and have some fun. I love University.” The cost of relocating, he adds, is not cheap.
Nguyen credits the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) with helping him stay afloat during the construction. NDC has provided technical support, aiding him with the management of his business, including better bookkeeping practices. “They give me good feedback. What I do wrong, and what I need to upkeep. What I need to do to maintain a business. It’s good, it’s good. It keep me on my toes.”
One of the big challenges confronting SugaRush and other businesses is the loss of parking spots that has accompanied the light rail line. One way to circumvent that loss is to tear down some of the buildings along the Avenue, says Nguyen, but that would displace small businesses.
A place for old-fashioned donuts
Until Nguyen has a better grasp on how the changes along the Central Corridor are playing out, he’s reluctant to tinker with things at his shop. In the past he tried adding sandwiches, croissants, and other items, “but it’s not that kind of area yet.”
If you want your old-fashioned donut, like you had when you were a kid, this would be that kind of place….If you want some fufu stuff, I’m pretty sure there’s some fufu stuff at other places and that’s what they’re known for.
Outdoor seating also seems unlikely. Nguyen tried that and discovered there were too many rules and regulations he had to follow. “I can’t leave a table outside, I can’t leave a chair outside, so at night I have to pull it all in, and in the morning I have to bring it back out. And on top of that, people loitering around, because University Avenue is not that kind of place yet.”
Nguyen says he doesn’t want to be a trendsetter. “If I were to do it (again now), I’d be the only sidewalk café within a one-mile radius here on University….It doesn’t work that way, you have to, everybody has to be in synch with each other….It would be nice to be a trendsetter, but it is hard, it is hard.”
Regardless of the challenges that Keoni, Susie, and their children face, Nguyen says that those challenges are nothing compared to those his parents’ generation confronted.
They are a lot stronger than we are now, because for them to leave their homeland to walk into the unknown, barely speak the language…some couldn’t even speak the language, don’t even know how America look like. But they were willing to walk into that unknown….Quite honestly, we are weak compared to them. They were strong to come over here, to face what they did.
Update: Recently Keoni Nguyen and Susie Path have decided to vacate their space before the end of their current lease, July 31, 2014. They are actively looking for a new home for SugaRush Donuts, and are considering spaces in both St. Paul and Minneapolis.
To learn more about SugaRush, listen to an audio version of the interview with Keoni Nguyen and read the full transcript here, and watch a short video featuring Keoni Nguyen, produced by Jose Luis Morales Alegria. Additional assistance was provided by Luce Guillen-Givins and Mary Turck.
SugaRush is located at 712 University Avenue West, St. Paul.
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”