Keoni Nguyen is a struggling St. Paul baker whose University Avenue shop has yet to enjoy the boom many promised would come with the Green Line. Chris Engelmann, a “street minister,” runs a fledgling foundation that scrapes up food, furniture and essentials for people straining to find stability.
Of course they found each other, this man with dozens of doughnuts he cannot sell each day and the other seeking to find meaning in his life. Daily, they help spread smiles to hundreds of Twin Citians — from street corners to soup kitchens, treatment centers to hospices — one doughnut at a time.
“Chris comes in every day to pick them up,” said Nguyen of the 10 dozen or so doughnuts he gives away each afternoon at his SugaRush doughnut shop. “I guess this is a labor of love.”
Said Engelmann of the joy prompted by Nguyen’s confections: “When you walk in with a box of doughnuts, people are shocked … and happy.”
They first met years ago. Engelmann had risen from hotel laborer to become general manager and partner at the Days Inn at Prior and University avenues in St. Paul. Nguyen’s family ran the restaurant. Later, Nguyen took over SugaRush from his mother and younger brother after the shop went deeply into debt. More than a year of light rail construction outside the bakery’s front door “didn’t help,” Nguyen said. “We basically have no walk-in customers.”
The Metropolitan Council recently released a report touting $4.2 billion in development along the Green Line. With his shop near Grotto Street, just blocks from the Dale Street light rail station, Nguyen said, he has enjoyed no benefit. He’s managed to eke out a wholesale business, selling doughnuts at reduced prices to a couple dozen churches and convenience stores.
“It’s gotten a little better,” he said. But the shop is often quiet.
Doughnuts being a perishable commodity, Nguyen said he found that he had to do something with the several dozen he had left over each day. When he threw them away, several homeless people in the area started gathering near his dumpster. “I felt guilty, chasing all these people away,” Nguyen said.
So he started giving them away. But that too hurt business. People just waited until he offered the afternoon freebies before coming to the shop. So Nguyen started donating his doughnuts to the Dorothy Day Center downtown. Until they stopped taking them.
“They switched to a 2,000-calorie a day diet, I guess,” he said.
Catholic Charities spokeswoman Therese Gales explained: “At our larger program sites like the Dorothy Day Center, we serve hundreds of thousands of meals per year, so we work hard to meet specific health guidelines and dietary restrictions. When we’re the primary source of food and nutrition for so many people, we want to be sure we doing all we can to have that food be as healthy as possible.”
Enter Engelmann, who after the Days Inn sold in 2014, suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. He said he started the World Effort Foundation in 1996 to reach out to homeless and struggling Twin Citians. He came to Nguyen a couple of years ago with a proposition: “He said, ‘I’ll give you $20 for all your doughnuts,’ ” Nguyen said. “Then, it was ‘$20 is too steep. I’ll give you $10.’ Now, I just give them to him.”
Engelmann admits his foundation, too, struggles to raise money. Still, he scrounges up shoes and clothing to give away from a box in the back of his car. That, and Nguyen’s doughnuts. It’s nice to give people who have so little such a tasty a treat, Engelmann said.
“I’m doing my best to make a difference,” he said.
Doughnuts across town
On a recent afternoon, Engelmann scooped up dozens of doughnuts at the shop and launched a frenetic afternoon.
First stop: Catholic Charities’ Exodus program in downtown Minneapolis for Coffee, Donuts and Conversation with Sister Joan Tuberty and friends. As Engelmann played “Amazing Grace” on his harmonica, Tuberty said: “This guy is an amazing grace himself.”
Then, it was back to St. Paul for curbside stops at Listening House and the Dorothy Day Center. As he pulled up to a curb, he called out, “Hey, want some fresh doughnuts?” Many did. They also ended up sharing hugs and well-wishes.
“You really want to lighten someone’s load,” he said of the work he and Nguyen do every day. “You want to brighten someone’s day.”