Como welcomes new businesses to a full past

Bryce Haugen

A postcard from 1954 recalls the pre-Metro Transit era, when trolleys ambled through the Southeast Como neighborhood, home to future Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

In the photo, next to the Como-Harriet trolley, a billboard advertises Lipton Iced Tea. These days, a curved brick building occupies the same intersection. But the sign on the front invites passers-by to enjoy a hotter, different, beverage -Muddsuckers’ coffee.

Muddsuckers Coffee, which opened in May, is one of three businesses to join the 5,700-person community since spring. Como Grill, a restaurant, opened across the street from the coffee shop last month. And East River Market, two blocks north along Hennepin Avenue East, arrived in March.

Open most nights until 10, Muddsuckers Coffee offers University students and other Como residents a place to sip, study, buy art and play chess.

The coffee shop is “so convenient,” said religious studies sophomore Will Martin. “There’s really no other place to go in the Como area.”

Store owner Cevin Chladek, 28, said launching a coffee shop required long-term planning. He said he studied coffee shop products and marketing for years, including on a three-month, nationwide road trip two years ago. That trip motivated him to pursue his dream, he said.

So piece by piece he assembled a business plan. Chladek said he spent most of this spring remodeling “everything but the outer wall,” maxing out his credit card, and wrangling with government officials over paperwork.

“I took a lot of chances to get this far,” he said.

Because of new employees, Chladek’s workweeks have gone from 110 hours to between 75 hours and 85 hours, he said.

“I pretty much live here,” said Chladek, a Downtown resident.

Monday at Como Grill, just across Como Avenue Southeast, Bev Retzlaff, an associate administrator in the genetics, cell biology and development department, enjoyed a burger with a friend during a lunch break.

She said a co-worker recommended Como Grill, which is becoming a popular workplace lunch stop.

“We’re hoping they’ll have catering at some point,” she said.

Owner Tim Cullen, a restaurant industry veteran, said independent eateries rely on word of mouth because of the high cost of advertising.

“Is it going to work or not? I don’t know,” he said.

“I don’t want to be (McDonald’s) or Applebee’s,” said Cullen, while taste testing Como Grill’s pizza in hopes of perfecting the recipe – with Jimmy Rogers providing musical ambiance. “I just want to have good food at good prices.”

He said he likes the Southeast Como neighborhood’s historic aversion to chain stores and restaurants.

Unlike what Northeast Minneapolis’ The Quarry, the West Bank and Uptown have become, “This is not a suburban strip mall area,” he said.

Through a maze of Como streets, only two blocks north of Como Grill, Art Institute of Minnesota graduate Nina Wong serves an eclectic mix of fresh food at East River Market.

The store’s distinctive products and service draw customers, said Wong, owner of the market and the building.

At East River Market, the Vietnamese-born Wong, who is Chinese and grew up in Minnesota, offers fresh sandwiches, Asian dishes and a multinational assortment of convenience products.

“My food is pretty much from all over the world,” she said. “You get the best of me, the best of the world.”

She said she hopes to draw University students and staff members by offering them a 10 percent discount.

Unlike many Como businesses, East River Market has ample parking. On Como Grill’s block, between Fifteenth and Sixteenth avenues southeast, there are 12 parking spots for 10 businesses.

The parking dilemma has killed dozens of businesses – more than 40 in the Como Grill property – on this block over the past 33 years, said Pete Kish, longtime owner of Pete’s Como Barber Shop.

Besides parking, many of the 75 businesses that have occupied the block’s 10 properties since the early ’70s were poorly run and didn’t last long, he said.

“A lot of them had a good product,” said Kish, whose shop is filled with stuffed hunting prizes. “They just had poor business sense.”

In 2005, the Como neighborhood broke even on coffee shops. Muddsuckers opened, but Guardhouse Coffee, at 2010 E. Hennepin Ave. – the former General Mills building where Cheerios, Wheaties, and the airline “black box” were invented – closed in August.

Como Avenue detours proved too much for Kelli Fifield’s five-year-old art and tea shop, Tea Leaf Gallery, which found itself on the wrong side of construction.

“People simply couldn’t get to my building. That sort of thing isn’t good for business,” said Fiefield, who is relocating to the former General Mills building, which houses small businesses.

Chladek, Cullen and Wong said they have the necessary ideas and vision to succeed in the Southeast Como neighborhood.

Muddsuckers’ unique character, and the student population, will keep the doors open, Chladek said.

James De Sota, neighborhood coordinator for the Southeast Como Improvement Association, said he expects the new businesses to succeed.

On Tuesday, Wong revealed her recipe as she prepared chicken and chive dumplings.

“Friendly, fresh and affordable,” she said. “As long as you have these three ingredients, people will come.”