Beyond the beans: Frogtown’s Flava Café brews hope, community support

A person poses for a portrait
Shaunie Grigsby, owner of Flava Coffee & Café poses for a portrait Feb. 13 in St. Paul
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

It’s midday in St. Paul’s bustling Frogtown neighborhood — a community with a vibrant mosaic of Black, Asian and Latin-American neighbors. 

And nestled on the corner of University and Dale is Flava Café. It’s been captivating hearts and taste buds alike since it first opened its doors in 2022.

Almost everyone who comes in knows the shop’s founder and owner, Shaunie Grigsby. 

“That’s really what I wanted to create. Like some people who know me personally have been to my home, they’re like, Shaunie, this looks like a living room,” Grigsby said. “I knew if I’m going to be spending 12, 13 hours a day in a place, I needed to feel like home.”

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And “home” is exactly what it feels for customers like Maria Vallejo. 

“It’s a sacred and safe space and I know it’s become that for my kids as well. Whenever we’re here it’s always beautiful music, beautiful energy. And I mean, the coffee is delicious, too,” Vallejo said. 

A person browses books
Maria Vallejo browses books on the shelf at Flava Coffee & Café.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

From the music, to the art on the walls and the books that hold bookmarks of frequent visitors, every bit of Flava Café is intentional; the coffees are named after famous Black artists and thinkers. 

The “bell hooks” coffee honors the trailblazing feminist, author and poet. It’s made with espresso, brown sugar, maple syrup and cinnamon.

“When I think of bell hooks, I think of just like the sweetest hug from one of your favorite aunties, who is just like, a badass and someone who's a positive role model,” Grigsby says.

She says the space embodies parts of Black culture. 

“I wanted to highlight our shows and our artists, and our authors and scholars and things of that nature to make sure we know this is ours, this is for us.”

Her goal is for people to feel like they’re on an episode of 90’s sitcoms “Moesha” or “Living Single.” 

“I want to create a space where young people feel like they can come because it’s relatable. And it’s not just for adults,” Grigsby said. 

a person works on the laptop
Stacy Shealey works on her laptop at Flava Coffee & Café
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Opening a coffee shop was something Grigsby thought she’d do much later in life. 

The 32-year-old Detroit native went to school for sociology and earned a master’s degree in youth-development. She considered starting up an arts center. 

But when an opportunity with the Neighborhood Development Center came along, Flava Café was born.

Mike Temali is the founder of the Neighborhood Development Center and the CEO of Build from Within Alliance. He says since its founding, NDC’s mission is to help entrepreneurs like Grigsby start businesses in their own neighborhoods. 

Temali says the goal is for small businesses and entrepreneurs to thrive and inspire others in their communities. 

“People in these neighborhoods start seeing their own faces, their own culture, their own family, behind the counter in an ownership position and say, well, we can do that too,” Temali said. 

Beyond the beans, Grigsby pours her heart into her community. 

A person presents bouquets of flowers
Shaunie Grigsby (center), owner of Flava Coffee & Café, presents bouquets of flowers to employees Mae Paw (left) and Annika Leafblad (right) ahead of Valentine's Day.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

She partners with local organizations Hired and Right Track to employ youth who have limited work experience and connect them with resources. 

In many cases, she’s a boss who doubles as a mentor and life coach. 

Just ask 19-year-old’s Mae Paw and Annika Leafblad who both work at the coffee shop and say Grigsby taught them to advocate for themselves. 

“Especially growing into being an adult and how to do that in like adult spaces. She’s definitely taught me a lot about that,” Leafblad said.

“For me it’s definitely like — do what you want to do and don’t care about what other people have to say or what they have to think just go out there, just do it,” Paw said. 

Grigsby says she’d like to eventually explore a cooperative model for Flava Café — where community and employees can have some ownership of the space. 

She hopes so long as the coffee beans are brewing, Flava Café is grounds for endless opportunities. 

“I think if all young people have someone in their lives who they can connect with on those levels, like the world would be a better place.” 

mugs are displayed
Flava Coffee & Café mugs on display.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News