Golden Thyme owners stepping down after leading Selby rebirth in St. Paul

Rondo CLT
April 29, 2024
Rondo staff with the Liberated Land Trust Tour delegation
Rondo staff with the Liberated Land Trust Tour delegation

Star Tribune, Sept 8, 2023

Mychael and Stephanie Wright hoped their launch of Golden Thyme Coffee & Cafe 24 years ago would serve as a catalyst for a resurgence of Black-owned businesses on Selby Avenue, a commercial corridor of St. Paul's old Rondo neighborhood.

Neighbors and customers say they've done that. But on Saturday, the Wrights turn over the keys to an organization — Rondo Community Land Trust — promising to use the coffee shop to accelerate the area's transformation.

The Community Land Trust announced it will create Golden Thyme Presents — an incubator for restaurateurs and food vendors who are Black, Indigenous and other people of color. The space will also serve as a platform for Rondo-based food businesses to get their start or expand through pop-ups or future long-term lease options.

In a state where Black business ownership still lags behind its share of the population, Mychael Wright feels he's sustaining entrepreneurship in the neighborhood.

"We have done what we can to position our people in the best place in order to succeed," Wright said between orders on a recent morning as the breakfast crowd swelled. "We've sold to someone with a vision to make Golden Thyme an employee-owned co-op. They wanted to preserve the institution, and help it grow even more."

In a news release, officials with the land trust said they plan to test the blending of a franchise community coffee house with a cooperative ownership model.

"Like countless other people, I feel something special when I walk into Golden Thyme — the long hours, the heart-driven effort and the immense love that went into building such a unique and inviting culture makes this a neighborhood asset that can and should be preserved for generations to come," said E. Coco, deputy director of Rondo CLT.

The Wrights' announcement came on the same day as the 2023 Selby Avenue Jazz Festival, which Wright launched shortly after he and his wife opened the coffee shop. Each year, it draws thousands of jazz fans from far and wide to the intersection of Selby and Milton Street.

The coffee shop and the jazz festival were meant to give the stretch of Selby, between Lexington Parkway and Dale Street, a positive and uplifting vibe, Wright said. That's happened, neighbors say. More than a dozen new, small Black-owned businesses have opened within blocks of Golden Thyme.

Robin Hickman-Winfield's new Soul Touch Productions office is one of those. She called Stephanie and Mychael "the wind beneath my wings" and said it's no accident that in the two decades they have been on Selby other Black-owned businesses have "filled in the gaps" nearby.

"They are the dynamic duo for the success of Golden Thyme and the impact of Golden Thyme," said Hickman-Winfield, whose old office was across the street from the coffee shop's original location. "Just to see their vision and commitment was amazing."

Dave Bonko, a marketing consultant who has worked with the Wrights for 21 years, said the Wrights' goal was to ensure Black-owned businesses were a part of Selby's transformation — not displaced by it.

"He's kind of this catalyst of community pride," Bonko said. "His commitment to the neighborhood has inspired others to commit to the neighborhood."

Renay Dossman, president and CEO of Neighborhood Development Center in St. Paul, said the Wrights did more than lead by example. They have served as coaches and mentors to others. When Shaunie Grigsby opened Flava Cafe at University Avenue and Dale Street, Dossman said she made sure she connected with the Wrights.

"That's the hard part about starting a business, knowing where to go for advice, expertise," Dossman said. "I just think [the Wrights] have been in community, and they've been in the community that whole time."

Thirty years ago, the Rondo Community Land Trust was formed to help preserve and create affordable housing in St. Paul. In 2018, it was the first in the state to apply the land trust model to commercial uses. For all the Wrights have helped foster, Coco said, more is needed. Officials said they hope Golden Thyme Presents accelerates that growth.

According to a 2021 report by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Black and people of color remain underrepresented in Minnesota's economy, making up 24% of Minnesota's population but just 13.5% of all nonemployer business owners and 6.7% of employer firm owners.

Still, minority-owned businesses are growing at a fast rate and make up a larger share of all Minnesota businesses over time, the Minnesota Chamber reported. In 2012, Minnesota had 47,565 minority-owned businesses, making up 9.7% of all firms in the state. By 2018, that number had grown to 63,097, or 12.3% of all Minnesota businesses.

Mychael Wright said he expects to keep fostering new business owners and new businesses. But after 24 years running a coffee shop, he and his wife are looking forward to a slower pace and maybe later mornings.

He plans to build a new garage at their home, maybe an outdoor pizza oven. And he hopes to build Stephanie a cottage kitchen so she can invite friends over to cook with her.