Restauranteur in family of small business owners brings New York-style pizza to St. Paul

Let’s talk pizza. Specifically, Tommie’s Pizza. The shop's owner, Tommie Daye, opened Tommie’s Pizza on Selby Avenue near Snelling in St. Paul in October 2018.

It is the only Black-owned pizza shop in St. Paul and it specializes in New York style pizza. MPR News economics contributor Chris Farrell went to check it out and talked with MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer about what he found.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Let's see, 12:40. Yeah, it's lunchtime. It's time to talk pizza perhaps. What do you think? Specifically Tommy's Pizza.

The shop's owner, Tommy Day, opened Tommy's pizza on Selby Avenue near Snelling in Saint Paul in October of 2018. It's the only Black-owned pizza shop in Saint Paul. And it specializes in New York style pizza. I could go for some of that right now, as a matter of fact. I'm kind of hungry.

Of course, our own economics contributor, Chris Farrell, went to check it out. He's with us right now. Hey, Chris.


CATHY WURZER: I am hoping-- hoping that you had some pizza when you visited Tommy's.

CHRIS FARRELL: I did, my favorite, the classic pepperoni pizza.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah. [CLAPS] Very good. OK.


I understand it was quite a journey for Tommy Day to open this restaurant.

CHRIS FARRELL: So he moved to Minnesota from Racine, Wisconsin after graduating from high school. And a brother and a sister were living here. And he was in a band. But he started out in the restaurant business in 1988, working at the former T Wright's in Minnetonka.


CHRIS FARRELL: And here's Tommy describing how he got his start in the business.

TOMMY DAY: I started out as a dishwasher. I was a dishwasher. And a couple of the cooks asked me if I wanted to get into cooking. I was like, yeah. I've never cooked before. We'll show you. And that's kind of how I got into it. And I've been doing it ever since.


CATHY WURZER: I love that. Yeah, good, just give it a try. What the heck.


CATHY WURZER: So moving around I know it's kind of common in the restaurant industry, right?

CHRIS FARRELL: Yes. And he had a number of jobs. It's a 30-plus year career. He managed the Alamo Grill at the Mall of America, opened Cozy Restaurants, and managed the food department at the Hennepin County Medical Center, a number of other jobs.

And his wife finally told him, look, you have been doing this for so long, you should own your own place. So she took the initiative and found the spot where Tommy's Pizza is now. So she gave him the push to become an owner.

And, Cathy, when I was talking to Tommy, I was curious, did his experience pay off now that he had his own place?

TOMMY DAY: Absolutely. It still helps me. It helps me with just my knowledge and menu development, food quality, just customer service. I believe that my restaurant front of the house and back of the house experience has helped me tremendously with operating this place.

CATHY WURZER: Well, I love his place. It's great. So when you and I have talked in the past, we have talked about how oftentimes Black entrepreneurs specifically have some significant trouble raising the startup capital from traditional financial institutions. What was Tommy's experience?

CHRIS FARRELL: Cathy, it's just the classic money story we've heard so many times from Black owners. It wasn't easy, he says.

TOMMY DAY: It was difficult. It was difficult. I got some help from family members and just pretty much did most of the stuff that I could do myself. I'm pretty handy when it comes to-- I built the counters, pretty much started this place with a shoestring budget and it just kind of took off from there.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. How many employees work at Tommy's?

CHRIS FARRELL: OK, Cathy. This is the part of the story that I just love. So Tommy's Pizza, it's small. It's got a couple of tables. It's got a long counter at the window looking out on Selby Avenue. And much of the business, by the way, is takeout, which is one reason why it did so well during those COVID years.

But what I loved is this is a family business. He has seven children. And several of them consistently help out at the shop. His daughter, Kayla, she was working there the afternoon that I visited, so was his nephew. So here's Tommy on family and work.

TOMMY DAY: I mean, I'm having more fun than I've ever had in my entire career. I work with my daughters, my nephew. My wife works here sometimes, my family. Most of my family is in and out of here all the time. It's kind of like a meeting place. Yeah, so it's very, very cool to be able to work with my kids like that. That's probably the best part about it.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, I love that. That is great. What an entrepreneurial family.

CHRIS FARRELL: Well, it is. And I've talked to many entrepreneurs, particularly Black owners, and they talk about the importance, Cathy, of creating generational wealth through their entrepreneurship. But what's also being created within the family is entrepreneurial knowledge. For example, his son Tommy owns the vintage clothing store, Urban Jungle, in uptown. And there's more.

TOMMY DAY: Yeah, my daughter, Tamaya, she does hair. My daughter Kayla, the one there, she does lashes. So we're all kind of entrepreneurs a little bit. My other daughter, Summer, she lives in Arizona. She's a realtor. So when she comes here to visit, she also works here. So I have four of my-- all four of my daughters here at the same time.

My son Dion, he comes in every now and then. So it's a total family deal. Nobody works here other than my family. And then my nephew, he works here as well.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, I'm hoping that he can expand and have more Tommy's Pizzas. But I wonder, does he have enough family members to work?


CHRIS FARRELL: I think so. And he is looking-- here's the good news-- he's looking for locations to open up another neighborhood pizza shop right now.


CHRIS FARRELL: So he says, they're in the search for that place that fits their business model. But also-- and I think this is very important-- meets the budget.

TOMMY DAY: It's hard to say. It's just a matter of finding a location that works for what we're trying to do and the rent is affordable to us. A lot of people start out and the rent is too high. Well, your business plan is shot. It's not going to work. You're paying too much in rent. So we're looking for a place that's affordable, similar to this, a good location, walk-by traffic.

CATHY WURZER: Good for him. I hope he finds that place. Chris Farrell, it's always-- you have the best stories. Where do you find your stories?

CHRIS FARRELL: Oh, I just-- people talk to me. I wander around town. And, by the way, since I am doing these stories, if you know a business I should know about, let me know.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Good enough. There you go. Chris Farrell, have a good day.


CATHY WURZER: That's NPR'S senior economics correspondent, Chris Farrell.

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