An Open Letter to Saint Paul Business Owners from an Average Millennial, the 1 signifies we are the first state capitol to ever revert to being a township

Dear Saint Paul Business Owners,

My name is Dan.  I’m 31 years old and I lived in Saint Paul for nearly 8 years.  During that time, I was a patron of many local businesses (I still am actually), as it’s a personal value of mine to support local businesses and give back to my community.  I bought my tools at Kendall’s Ace, I bought my records at Eclipse, I bought my beers at Ward 6.  Generally speaking, I rode a bike to all of these locations as another personal value of mine is to live light in order to leave a better planet for the next generation.

I mentioned my age because contrary to popular belief, Saint Paul is a young city.  In fact, the median age of the city is 31: exactly my age.  This always comes as a surprise to people when I mention it.  But worse, what comes as a surprise is when I talk to local business owners as an advocate and it is clear from their response that they don’t view me, the main age demographic of Saint Paul, as their demographic.


Violation sticker in the Keys parking lot.

I first started noticing it when I was chatting with Keys Cafe owner Jean Hunn before she testified against the Saint Paul Bike Plan.  She said (and I paraphrase) “I never see bikers come to Keys!  I need to serve my customers!” 

For the record, I had eaten at Keys a week earlier.  I rode my bike there and locked it up at the bike rack at Lunds.

Also for the record, I recently ate at the Raymond Avenue Keys and they marked my old car for towing while I was in the restaurant.  Like many millennials, I have an old car because that’s the kind of car I can afford to drive.  When my partner called to complain, they apologized and said that the folks they hire to patrol their parking lot have done that to a lot of old cars under the idea that folks with old cars are likely vagrants.

This begs the question: Why am I as a millennial seemingly invisible to Saint Paul business owners? Or in the case of Keys Cafe, why do local business owners treat me, a middle class millennial with disposable income, as a nuisance and not a customer?

It frustrates me to see business owners along Cleveland Ave. actively organize in their communities against things like transit and pedestrian infrastructure while actively trying to appeal to millennials with their menu.  It frustrates me to see a local bookstore complain about light rail in a meeting about a soccer stadium when many millennials love both light rail and soccer. It frustrates me that I find many business owners quoting the Villager: a paper expressly designed to service older home owners instead of a blog like this one: something the average aged resident and customer is likely to read.

I feel the city has more than adequately supported the needs of small businesses as the city of Saint Paul has developed.  The small business grants offered during light rail construction  were so successful that it is being studied and replicated at a national level.  If businesses in Saint Paul are struggling, it isn’t Saint Paul’s fault.

And it isn’t millennials fault either, the statistics show that we love to eat out.  We generally like to shop locally as well. 

It’s actually simpler than that.  If you are a business owner in Saint Paul and you are shooing away the primary age demographic of your city, then you can expect to fail.  It’s bad customer service.  It’s bad capitalism.  It’s just bad business practice.

So business owners, next time you see someone my age at a community meeting or moseying along on their bike, take note:

We are your future.  If you don’t want us in your future, you have no future.  You do not get to dictate how I am your customer as I am the one that carries the checkbook and supplies you with income.  This isn’t specific to Saint Paul, this isn’t specific to millennials, this is just simple basic capitalism.

Millennials aren’t going away.  And if business owners don’t change their attitudes and start realizing we exist, they aren’t going to survive in our future.

Daniel Choma

About Daniel Choma

Daniel Choma is a community advocate, a jazz musician, and a former bible salesman. He rides bikes, plays drums, and tells jokes. He can consume a bag of jelly beans faster than almost anyone.

43 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Saint Paul Business Owners from an Average Millennial

  1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    I was also really disheartened when many of the Cleveland Ave business owners gladly went on the news to tell potential customers that parking will be impossible. Pretty much telling them: “Don’t bother coming here.”

    There is ample nearby parking. And whatever perceived difficultly that the bike lanes may cause pales in comparison to the very real damage being done by owners telling customers to just not bother. And I’d argue (as I have) that walking through our beautiful neighborhoods is a perk of a visit to a local St Paul business, not a deterrent.

    1. Al DavisonAl Davison

      I’ve never seen much issue with parking along Cleveland, you maybe just have to go park a block or two away on a busy day. People tend to exaggerate about parking demand, in which claims on that “parking is impossible” just means it isn’t super convenient for them (requiring you to walk 1-2+ blocks). I purposely walk more when in St Paul or Minneapolis because the environment isn’t built for predominately cars versus where I live in Little Canada. A more limited parking supply encourages more pedestrian and bike traffic.

      St Paul in general is pretty easy to park in my opinion. Even over in Minneapolis, I was able to squeeze into a free spot a few blocks away from the Stone Arch when Northern Spark was going on. If I wanted to park closer, all I would have had to do is pay.

    2. Monte Castleman

      I kind of wonder if the business owners are A) Still trying to make their case to the city about how much they think the bicycle lanes will hurt them by purportedly telling their customers to stay away, or B) Trying to screen out the customers that are going to complain about parking on Yelp and ruin their rankings.

      As for as selling being forced to park a long ways away as a feature not a bug, I think that would be a tall order. People get used to the idea, particularly at a regional mall, so they could get used to the idea in St. Paul, but I don’t think many like it, especially if it’s hot, cold, raining, snowing, or if they’re in a hurry. If one wants to park a long ways a way and take a stroll it’s not like there’s anything stopping them now.

      1. Rosa

        pretty sure most of the mall parking spots are at least a block away. Those parking lots are startlingly big, every time I venture out there. I’m mostly at Twin Cities malls at weird off-hours, to see movies, and it’s still pretty far from an average spot to the actual door. Plus there’s no sidewalk in most of the parking lots – you have to dodge cars the whole way in.

        1. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel

          Riverview Theatre has NEVER had a parking lot. Hasn’t bothered anyone who has to walk 1-3 blocks to see a movie….since 1948.

  2. Janne

    While I’m a Minneapolitan, I’ve eaten at Keys many times (at locations in Mpls and St. Paul), and I don’t own a car. I pretty much ALWAYS bike. Should I stop biking to Keys to eat brunch? I mean, there are many, many equally good options much closer to my home. That have installed bike parking, and don’t oppose bike plans/lanes.

    1. Amanda

      Just a few weeks ago my husband and I met my dad at Keys on Raymond for breakfast. We all biked. There wasn’t any bike parking. How are they thinking they’re going to distinguish cyclists and train/bus riders from drivers? Should I wear my helmet while I eat?

  3. GlowBoy

    The opposition of myopic business owners to losing a couple of subsidized parking spaces is disappointing, though this is not unusual. In Portland, a proposal to make NE 28th Avenue – a popular restaurant and shopping district – more bike friendly met with massive merchant resistance a couple years ago, and still hasn’t happened.

    I think you’re right. Although I’m not a Millennial, it’s clear that urban residents are rapidly demanding improvements in non-car transportation. It’s also clear that younger adults tend to eat out more often (that was true of Gen X too, it’s just that our reduced numbers didn’t make as much impact). Older diners may skew towards eating at more expensive restaurants, but Keys and Trotter’s aren’t high end. I would hope the owners of these establishments would recognize that a significant number of their current consumers – and a VERY large number of their future consumers, as bike lanes bring new people in and their existing consumer base ages – will appreciate the changes brought by the Bike Plan. But I had similar hopes for Portland’s NE 28th, and same problem.

    I like Trotter’s, and I like Keys. Although tempted, I’m not going to stop patronizing them because of this. But I will bring my helmet in with me on future visits, so they know how I got there. And once the Cleveland bike lanes are open this fall (?), I’ll seek out new businesses on that street to spend my dollars, and I’ll do the same there.

  4. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma Post author

    To be clear, I love hamburgers and good reubens. I’m what human resource professionals would call “extremely snack motivated.”

    I also believe that really great advocacy can be done while holding a helmet and eating a delicious reuben. (That’s why I went to Keys the last time I was there when my car was ticketed for being old.) (Okay I’m lying, I didn’t do it for the advocacy. I just wanted a good Reuben.)

    I would just hope that the creators of such delicious food are able to see that they can spend 400 bucks on a bike rack and have it be paid off and profitable EASILY by the end of the summer.

    (Here’s a nifty link:

    I hope that business owners will realize like the business owners on Broad Street in Memphis did that they can increase their business by 30 WHOLE FREAKIN’ PERCENT, something Pat Brown (owner of T-Clifton Gallery) elucidated on regarding the bike lanes on Broad Avenue in Memphis. Here’s the quote:

    “Our business revenues have grown on average 30 percent per year – yes, an art-related business in a tough economy.”

    (Nifty Citation :

    But if we’re being honest, I really just want Keys to stick around. They make really good food. And I like really good food.

    It would be a crying shame if their delicious Reubens became a delicacy forgotten to the past because the owners listened to bad advice from disingenuous rich real estate moguls. (ex: John Mannillo and Jim Crockarell) Sadly enough, it seems this maddening validation of such disingenuous real estate moguls does seem to be all the rage these days.

    But I digress.

    This is pretty simple. Do it for the snacks.

    If you are in the business of food, give me a bike rack and I will literally advocate a path to your door.

      1. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma Post author

        That is a better link, thanks Janne! Dero is a really rad company. Not only are their bike racks industry standard and really easy to lock a bike to, but they are really nice people all around.

  5. Anders Bloomquist

    Very nicely put Dan. Bravo.

    A problem with many of the anti-infrastructure arguments from businesses is that they quite often don’t make sense when you really parse them down:

    – If the presence of bike lanes or a lightrail will irreparably harm your business, what is your plan the next time the city/county has do a major overhaul of your street? It’s Minnesota, so you’re never more than a couple years away from major road construction in your area.

    – Business owners acknowledge that younger folk comprise a high percent of those advocating for these improvements, and that many of those young people are renters and thus don’t have the same strong connection to the community (their words not mine)…sooo the plan is to what? Alienate an entire generation of customers until they don’t renew their leases and move to Mpls? Then the city raises taxes on homeowners to pay for roads and the remaining people in the area can’t afford your business?

    – Having a car-heavy customer base makes your business increasingly vulnerable to crosstown competition. Subtext & Half-Price in Highland get all my book business because I can walk to one and transit/bike to the other. If I had a car I could head out to the burbs and get books at a big-box place.

    I think the best insight in Dan’s article is how so many people in a community can swallow assumptions of an entire social group that they become blinded. The inability to even conceptualize that some of your customers may fall into the category of those wanting infra changes is sad but true. How many businesses on Grand or West 7th are shooting themselves in the foot by alienating the customers who will decide which businesses thrive or die in the next decade?

    1. Monte Castleman

      I know there’s a lot of people here that don’t like Midway Books. I don’t share that dislike. I think their problems are:
      1) Transit customers using their shop as a transit shelter, rather than a bookstore, on cold days
      2) With the profit margin of a used bookstore, if a soccer stadium brings in more Millennials a couple of days a year it doesn’t matter if you’re closed because you can’t afford how much your property taxes have gone up. I’d see these as problems if I owned it too.

      I don’t know where their customers come from, but if they do rely on auto customers I don’t think it hurts them too much. They have free parking and are near the freeway, which encourages auto customers to come to them instead of their competition. (And their real competition is eBay now) I’ve been to Majors and Quinn in Uptown twice, but with the cost of parking and the hassle of getting there it’s not really worth it. However I get the sense they have a ton of customers that can either just walk or are already parked to go to a restaurant or something. There’s simply no places comparable to those in the suburbs.

      With bicycle lanes, I’ve never heard anything to the effect that businesses object to the temporary construction disruption, rather than the permanent loss of parking.

      1. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

        There are plenty of times when I walk into a shop and browse around without the intention to necessarily buy something. Especially places like used bookstores. If I’m also waiting for a bus, does that somehow make me a non-customer?

        1. Monte Castleman

          Depends, there’s a difference between browsing and loitering, and it’s normally obvious to store owners. Are you interested in books and might buy one if you find one you like, or are you just trying to get inside somewhere out of the cold? I get the idea that the issue here and at Riverdale is the latter.

          1. brad

            Solution: Make some space (or acquire neighboring space) and put in a Starbucks franchise (or other coffee bar). Hell, B&N is successful in large part because most of their locations include a Cafe. People come in, find a book that catches their eye, grab a Latte, sit down, read a chapter, decide they like the book and buy it on their way out.

            A business that does not learn to adapt to changing times and entice customers through novel (or not-so-novel) ideas will whither and die.

            I suspect Midway books will either have to adapt and change, or will move to a new location and the building will become a soccer pub.

            Which, either way, we win.

            1. Monte Castleman

              Moving into an adjacencies that you know absolutely nothing about just because it seems like it would complement your existing business is a good way to ruin yourself. Just ask Xerox, who thought getting into financial services would be a good idea because most users financed their copiers.

              The owners obviously know something about running a bookstore or they wouldn’t have been there for decades. How much do they know about running a Starbucks? How much capital would it take to open one? If the building is better suited as a Starbucks someone will make them an offer on the property that they can’t refuse that will enable them to retire.

      2. Joe

        I get that it’s annoying when people are in your store when its raining or whatnot. I don’t think it’s that big a deal personally but I get why they would be bothered. But when you repeatedly use the n-word and other racial slurs to describe the people waiting for the bus, you’ve lost my business. I went in twice, heard that word both times, and have talked to at least 3 other people who have overheard this as well. So I do not care if they go out of business. Good riddance.

      3. Nathanael

        Midway Books sounds like a hobby business. A lot of these *so-called* business owners don’t know *jack* about running a business and really are going bankrupt on their own. These tend to be the ones who go to city council meetings whining about ficticious problems — because they don’t want to admit that they *suck at business*, they blame their problems on whoever they happen to be bigoted against.

        I see it happen all the time. The competent business owners who are running successful busineses behave *very differently*.

        1. brad

          The owner of midway would do himself a favor and flying out to Denver for a week and spending the entire time from open to close at Tattered Cover.

          Just 20 minutes and they’ll realize… the New/Used bookstore game has changed, and they’re about 10 years behind.

  6. Bob Parker

    For the record, Ward 6 Food & Drink is extremely Pro-Bike.

    Eric Foster (my partner/co-owner) and I have always embraced the idea of bicycles coming to our restaurant– er, I mean bar. We heard years ago that the bike trail down below us was going to be connected with Aguirre Street– the alleyway next to our building. It hasn’t happened yet, but we are eager to see it. It will be a most welcome addition to our neighborhood, and to be honest, having more bikes parked outside whilst their owners enjoy Reubens and cocktails at Ward 6 is pretty appealing.

    When a bike lane was proposed for Payne ave, I know that we and Kendall Crosby (Kendall’s Ace Hardware, next door) were vocal in support.

    1. Eric SaathoffEric S

      In full agreement with Bob. The Aguirre connection should be coming in the next CIB cycle. Payne Avenue bike lanes have not been confirmed by Public Works, but the Payne Arcade Business Association voted twice to support bike lanes on Payne Avenue. Dulceria Bonbon on Payne Ave even told me he wanted to get a bike corral in front of his place (before he knew of the bike lanes proposal). The younger / newer business owners on Payne Avenue are getting it! But we need them to become active in the old business associations instead of letting the old guard always define the voice of the business community.

    2. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma Post author

      You guys are the best. Since I moved I haven’t gotten to bike over as much as I’m closer to Cleveland Ave than Payne. (That usually means I just stay in Longfellow and eat there)

      Y’all (and bunch of the other folks on Payne) are examples of savvy smart business owners being smart and making a mark for kicking ass at food, beer, AND business. Bravo, and I miss seeing y’all behind the bar.

  7. NiMo

    This is why I don’t go to St Paul very often, except for the occasional trip to On’s Thai Kitchen.
    1. I feel like St Paul doesn’t really offer anything I can’t already get in Minneapolis.
    2. Why would I go out of my way to go to a place where I’m not even wanted?
    3. Riding in St Paul is meh

    These things combine to keep my spending in Mpls.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      1. Long list, beginning with the other amazing University Avenue restaurants. On’s Thai is just the beginning.
      2. Lots of people would love to see you in Saint Paul, including businesses like the Foster’s just above in this thread.
      3. Yeah, it can be. There are lots of great rides in STP too, though. Hills can be fun if you let them. With continued progress, soon there will be infill routes connecting STP’s decent bike trails into a coherent network.

      But sure, you’re right.

      1. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma Post author

        1. Cough. Lee & Dees. Cough. Saint Paul’s BBQ is alive and well. Minneapolis doesn’t know how to cook BBQ. Cash only, but go git it. Also, I have warm spot in my heart for The Best Steakhouse. It is named accurately.

        2. Agreed. There are some really rad business owners in Saint Paul. There are also some very vocal ones that are being influenced by some rich landowner jerks. But the radness makes it a worthy bike ride over.

        3. Bill is being sneaky, but I’m a loudmouth. Here’s 3 must ride places in Saint

        Bruce Vento –

        Get on the green line, Get off at Union Station, take this up to the East side. You’ll roll past Flat Earth Brewing (they have a patio now and it isn’t full and loud.) You’ll ride through Swede Hollow, a historic immigrant valley that the U of M has been doing archeology digs in like real life Indiana Jones. Eric and Bob’s bar Ward 6 is at the top of the hill. Payne Avenue just won the best street for food in Saint Paul, so from there you can have beer, burritos, and damn near anything delicious from a whole bunch of rad folks. Oh yea, and there’s bike racks. And soon to be a lot more. Keep going and you are at Hmong Village, so you can crush some delicious Pho.

        Carver –

        This place is super rad to crush some mega mountain biking. Actually, nevermind. It doesn’t exist. I’m keeping this all to myself. There’s only Teddy Wirth.

        The Grand Round!

        Okay, this is a little bit of a humble brag, but Saint Paul is refinishing the Grand Round. One of the funnest bike rides you can do is the St Paul Classic, a ride where they shut down the street for the entire Grand Round of Saint Paul and you get to ride like royalty through rolling hills, along lake Phalen, (a rad old lake with a sweet Mafia history.) by Lake Como, and by the Mississippi River. I was on the steering committee to make some sweet improvements to it whereupon there will be off street trails added. It’s gonna be rad and you should totally do the Saint Paul Classic.

        My point is that Saint Paul is rad and full of rad people and rad snacks and rad rides. It gets a bum rap because a very very small collection of white land owners go on to the news whenever anything new and cool happens and they complain about parking and facilitate general xenophobia. But ignore the haters. Saint Paul is really cool, you just gotta dive in and explore.

    2. EA

      Hi NiMo,

      Thank you. This is the exact cause and effect that St. Paul businesses are complaining about.

      To area businesses it feels like St. Paul is trying to isolate itself by limiting small business access to local residents (walkers), mass transit riders and bikers. Opening access to these demographics while limiting access to everyone else by removing off street parking with the introduction of limited demographics and I guarantee most created their business plans with the assumption that the existing parking would always be there (except during construction — which is a temporary condition).

      I personally don’t believe businesses intentionally limit their customer base on age. I believe this is a side effect based on the average age range of walkers, mass transit riders and bikers.

      1. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma Post author

        Offstreet parking is not really exactly part of the businesses plan for Saint Paul, but rather a requirement of the city. The city requires businesses have a parking lot in order to operate. This puts a really really big stress on start up businesses when their only option is to a) spend $40K on a parking lot or b) inherit a zoning exception from a previous tenant who pulled some HELLIFIED strings on the zoning board.

        The zoning exceptions are really really tough to inherit because they expire if the building is vacant. And surprise surprise, 2008 happened, so alot of the buildings that Dan Bostrom hasn’t already knocked down stood vacant and lost their zoning. So a lot of the new restaurants are faced with these massive bills to make a lot that many owners *don’t even want.*

        Especially savvy business owners have found that by building bike racks they can lobby the city and be forced to make less off street parking. It also encourages locals to visit their establishment by foot or bicycle. Generally, that leads to a sustainable business that celebrates the neighborhood vitality Saint Paul is known for. Outside folks can usually still find parking within a block or two. Trust me, I live in MSP now and I still can find parking in St Paul. It’s REALLY easy.

        Because business owners ARE ALREADY REQUIRED to provide more than ample parking, it’s a stupid idea to defend parking on the street for businesses. They bought that lot. Use it. It’s a sunk cost, so just do the simple business solution and go to your local Kendal’s and buy some paint and make a really good sign telling people where your parking lot is.

        My point is that if business owners made a business plan that is incongruent with reality, they can expect to struggle. The very real reality is that 40K for a parking lot is a dumb idea as a business, unless you inherited your exception. And if you inherited your exception, why not support bike infra? It’s really an elegant way to boost business.

        The very real reality is a $400 bike rack can make businesses have more regulars, be required to make less parking lots, and generally attract a growing demographic of walkers and bikers. I think the impetus is on business owners to make good business decisions. And there is SO much data that bike infra is a good business decision.

      2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        The thing is if you’re, for example, a barber shop or a pizza and sandwich place with multiple locations across the metro, you really can’t seriously be expecting a lot of customers from outside the neighborhood.

        Being better connected to the neighborhood, through improved bike and pedestrian facilities and transit, seems like it could easily make up for a loss of a few longer-distance customers.

        1. EA

          What about the many small businesses that do not have multiple locations. Their bread and butter is dependent on one location?

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Unless you’re something very, very specialized, you’re probably overestimating how many of your customers are coming from outside the neighborhood too.

  8. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Mass transit and rail in particular ought to be great public goods, but so far St. Paul’s ability to plan it stinks.

  9. Paul

    I recall seeing hand-made signs at this bookstore and comments in the STrib from the owner against light rail years ago. It’s funny that they have bothered to hold on to a such a prime location that is would be much better suited to a restaurant, bar or coffee shop wher unplanned foot traffic is welcome — versus some cranky senior looking for a particular book who can’t/won’t buy online and drives in from Shoreview or wherever.

    1. Monte Castleman

      I’m assuming that
      A) They like their jobs; their opinion on the neighborhood nonwithstanding, and/or
      B) They’re not in a position to cash out and retire comfortably in Florida.

      And the typical customer I’ve seen in there may be from Shoreview, I wouldn’t know, but isn’t a cranky senior.

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