Aretta-Rie Johnson will tell you that she's just a big kid at heart. But she also grew up in a family dedicated to faith, education and community-building in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood.
Combine that background with brainstorming educational opportunities for teenage girls in the group home she runs, and what do you get? Why, the Tooth Fairy Candy Store, of course.
Johnson last month launched one of Selby Avenue's newest businesses as a way to teach her girls entrepreneurship while also having a lot of fun. Eye On St. Paul recently sat down with Johnson to talk about the neighborhood's latest corner candy store — and what she hopes it becomes.
This interview was edited for length.
Q: You said you bought this building, which had been used by your uncle and then your mother for years. Why?
A: I have always had a passion for education — education is the rudiment of success for us. I'd been fortunate enough to be a stay-at-home mom. Then we were empty nesters. I started fostering girls and there was nothing for the kids to do in the summers, so I created a program called Verbal Advantage. It grew to 125 kids in the summer. Then I started the DIVINE Institute, then DIVINE Intervention — a group home for girls. We needed administrative offices.
Q: Why a candy store?
A: If you know me, you know that I love to have fun with you. I wish people could understand. Even though I'm an administrator, I came to play. And the girls we serve? Nobody wanted these girls. They're angry. They've been dealt a terrible hand in life, so they take it out on everybody. But they're trying to be kids.
When I was doing my research and I wanted to help Black women who were in business stay in business. But then I told myself, why do we want to wait until they become women? We could help girls become entrepreneurs.
Through lots of discussion, we came up with the Tooth Fairy Candy Store.
Q: So the girls were really key in driving this decision?
A: Yes. I get really excited about this and I pray one day this dream becomes a reality, but if I could have my way, I would like to take all the onus off of a child. So many of these girls are dealing with serious issues. Kids shouldn't be responsible for figuring out life. That's my job. When they come here, I want them to take all the grownup stuff and throw it away.
So [someday] I envision a place, a Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory coupled with a FedEx-Kinko's type laboratory where we could do projects and presentations.
Q: Why is fun such an important element for you?
A: I don't know. I think it has something to do with my childhood. Somebody told me, and I don't know if they were being condescending, but I took it as a compliment. They said, "You're just a big kid." And I said, "I really am." And it could be because I was sick my entire childhood. [Johnson had grand mal seizures and took multiple medications every day. But at 14, a visiting preacher convinced her she was healed.]
I haven't taken a pill since. And I haven't had a seizure. I think I'm drawn to fun because my childhood was kind of stolen a little bit.
Q: It seems you're also enabling these girls to have fun, because they also have been robbed of a childhood.
Q: How do they help you with the candy store?
A: They have [helped] at the candy store since its inception. I asked them the other day, "How long have we been talking about the candy store?" They said, "About a year, Miss Aretta."
Some months, we would do intentional focus groups. What kind of candy is going to be in this candy store? So they would take out their phones and we would start researching candy. We also did our own market analysis, if you will. We went to every candy store in proximity. The closest is about five, six miles away, called Regina's. They were very friendly. We went to the Mall of America, with several candy stores, to get ideas.
We did a lot of taste-testing. Especially when it came to Taffy Town. Would just sit there and eat samples.
Q: That's research I want to be part of.
Q: How many girls are with you on this?
A: Well, I am licensed up to 11 girls. I would say about eight girls helped with the project.
Q: That's got to be satisfying, that they had that kind of a role in this.
A: When we were thinking through this thing, I said, "Oh my God, this becomes on-the-job training." Many of them have never had a job. So it helps them with some work experience.
Q: So they work behind the counter. What else?
A: They help with inventory. They also know how to input receivables. Last night, we were $6 negative in the till, so I'll ask, "What do you think happened to it?"
Q: What are your expectations financially? Are you going to turn a profit?
A: I have never done retail to this extent. So it's a learning experience for all of us. Based on what I know, it took about $25,000 [of my own money] to set this up. It's going to take about a year before we start making a profit.