Selby Avenue anchor Golden Thyme fights to keep lights on
The pandemic scuttled Stephanie and Mychael Wright's plans to retire this year from Golden Thyme Coffee and Cafe, the St. Paul neighborhood anchor they opened 21 years ago.
"The pandemic knocked us on our keister," Mychael Wright said, "and we are struggling to get back to one knee ever since. ... We are barely keeping the lights on."
The husband-and-wife team turned Golden Thyme into a Selby Avenue institution, feeding thousands, hosting community meetings and pulling in artists, music lovers, food trucks and vendors citywide for its annual jazz festival.
In November 2019, the Wrights moved the café across the street into a new building at 934 Selby Av. Crowds initially flocked, keeping the cash register singing in the bright, larger café that featured a new shrimp, soup and sandwich menu and lots of jazz-themed art.
All that goodwill crashed four months later with the pandemic. Golden Thyme closed for six months and laid off eight workers.
When they were allowed to reopen in September 2020, the couple could only offer take out. And they had to do it alone because former employees wouldn't return.
"They were making more money on unemployment and the stimulus checks than I could afford to pay them," said Mychael Wright, 63.
So Golden Thyme opened for just five hours, five days a week, down from 12 hours daily.
"There were some rough days," said Stephanie Wright, 65. "For sure, we had to break in our savings to make that heat bill."
Anchor Bank deferred the couple's home mortgage for six months. The Wrights took out a $15,000 COVID small business loan through the state.
A daughter jumped into Golden Thyme's kitchen to cook whenever she wasn't working as a flight attendant. A son helped out on Saturdays. It wasn't enough.
Without staff, Stephanie Wright canceled the Sunday brunches the restaurant had hosted for years for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
This fall, the couple was finally able to hire a few workers and expand the restaurant's hours. But Mychael Wright still isn't sure they will make it.
Revenue is down 60% and it's unclear whether they'll have to repay the $20,000 they received in April 2021 through the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Competition for workers is tight, especially from larger employers who can afford to pay more. Margins are already slim. And new mandates soon go into effect.
"We [pay] $11 an hour and will have to do $15 an hour soon," he said. "It is a lot for a micro business like ours."
The Wrights look at the bright side. They say they have their health and are luckier than some entrepreneurs and neighbors.
Last year Stephanie Wright emptied all the books from the Little Free Library in front of Golden Thyme and filled it with beans and rice and other food items from the cafe.
"Even though it was tough out here, I'd fill the box so people who needed something had somewhere to go and grab food," she said. "I still fill the box."
It empties fast.
One day Stephanie went to refill the box and smiled. Neighbors had added apples, bananas and canned goods.