Sandra Drosdowech and Jason Holland were hoping to open Thyme, a plant-based café and used book store, last spring. Then a little thing called the coronavirus arrived.
"Who could have predicted that?" says Drosdowech with a laugh. Even on the notoriously bumpy road an entrepreneur must take to get started in the restaurant world, a pandemic is not exactly an anticipated pothole.
So the owners of Thyme bided their time, and now this month, the Taché Avenue storefront is finally open, first with a limited takeaway menu featuring local teas, coffees and baked goods, and this week with a fuller menu of soups, sandwiches, veggie burgers, salads and more.
"And for anyone who used to go to Mondragon," says Drosdowech, "they’ll be pleased to know we’ll have Southern-fried tofu, too."
Drosdowech was a founding member of Mondragon, a former Exchange District spot that opened in 1996 and was described upon its closing by the Free Press as an "anarchist icon."
It had an ideology to match its co-operative business model, the contents of its bookshelves, and its ahead-of-its-time vegan menu.
In 2003, the Globe and Mail wrote that the veggie burgers were "almost enough" to convert a carnivore into a vegan. It’s quite possible that they did.
But after what was described by the Media Co-op’s Dominion publication as a "remarkable" 18-year run, Mondragon’s collective ownership decided to shut it down amid financial struggles and the difficulties in maintaining its non-hierarchical organizational structure.
"The bottom line wasn’t a priority," Drosdowech told the Dominion in 2014. "We maintained our vision from the beginning."
Six years later, Drosdowech and Holland, who met at Mondragon, are starting a new one with Thyme.
"We were always looking for a good time, opportunity and location." – Sandra Drosdowech
Getting back into the food world was something Drosdowech says she never stopped thinking about, even as she took over her father’s Ukrainian tour company after he died, and she and Holland raised their three children.
"It’s something we always considered doing," she says. "We were always looking for a good time, opportunity and location."
Last November, they came across the space on Taché, which used to house Cocoabeans Bakeshop. It was a great spot, with a good deal of the required equipment already in place and a space the couple could envision making their own. It also was close to their St. Vital home.
While the pandemic’s arrival certainly wasn’t ideal, the delayed opening gave Drosdowech and Holland more time to renovate the space and get it to where they wanted it to be: they repainted the interior white, bought a number of jade plants, ivies and more greenery, tore down a wall, and installed a cherrywood live-edge countertop looking out at the street — an ideal spot to sit once indoor dining is allowed again.
For now, the books are not being sold, but there’s a solid selection of art, poetry, biography, memoir, history, regional books, and fiction on the shelves. Some are holdovers from Mondragon, Drosdowech says.
And though the new business is operating under a more traditional ownership model, she says Thyme will have a collective spirit in a different sense: local ingredients will always be prioritized — from the flour to the oats to the sunflower seeds — as will fair-trade and in-house production.
"We’re picking food that’s more economical so we can keep prices reasonable," Drosdowech says. "The more people who can afford it the better."
And whatever isn’t made in-house comes from nearby: sourdough from Ellice Avenue fixture Eadha Bread, pita from Main Street’s Baraka, samosas from Sherbrook Avenue’s Charisma of India, other breads from Portage Avenue’s Hildegaard’s, and gluten-free products from Cocoabeans, now on Corydon Avenue.
Where the food is from:Click to Expand
• Flour, flax and oats from DeRuyck's Top of the Hill Farm in Treherne
• Quinoa from Prairie Quinoa in Portage la Prairie
• Produce from Winnipeg's Fresh Option Organic Delivery
• Tea from Winnipeg's Hollow Reed and Tea Mate
• Coffee from Winnipeg's Black Pearl
• Desserts from Winnipeg's Monuts
• Spices from Winnipeg's Spice World
Beside the menu, the restaurant also has a "Pay it Forward" board, where customers can pre-purchase menu items for other customers who might not have the money to pay.
"It’s very exciting," Holland says of the business. "I’m grateful to be back in this position. Doing something you love is just so awesome."
Drosdowech says she’s most excited to build connections with the community, as well as with local farmers and other small businesses around the city. She’s also looking forward to helping make healthy food in a welcoming environment.
"It’s not just for vegans or vegetarians, but for people looking for homemade tastes," she says. "We want to serve the community in that way."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.