Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Building small businesses

Meet one of Toronto's entrepreneurial power couples

Niki Tsourounakis runs Café Neon, Bar Neon and Amphora Products. Credit: Shannon Webb-Campbell
Niki Tsourounakis wants nothing more than to be surrounded by good friends, food, coffee, drinks and art. It’s the reason she started two businesses this past year: Café Neon opened in July in Toronto’s Junction Triangle, and her latest endeavour, Bar Neon, is Bloor West’s newest hotspot.
 
“I am a big foodie,” Tsourounakis says. “I just wanted to bring good food in an unpretentious atmosphere. I was sick of going out for drinks and wanting food and not having any good options other than frozen food fried by a line cook who didn’t want to be there.”
 
Bar Neon’s kitchen is open right until the last call sign lights up at the end of the night, serving items like mushroom fricassee, salt-cured ham, mini croque-monsieurs, marinated sardines with tomato onion and mint, roasted dates stuffed with almond and ginger wrapped in bacon, and Ivan’s own truffles.
 
On tap, Bar Neon offers Amstel Light, Mill Street Organic and Cobblestone Stout and delicious handcrafted drink specialties: bourbon negroni and a bourbon snap made with bitters, ginger, orange juice and maple syrup.
 
The décor is a mix of industrial and cozy with wooden tables, metal chairs and a custom mural by local artist Jeff Garcia in a kaleidoscope of colours. There’s an elementary school-esque water fountain at the bar and a bathroom floor tiled with real pennies.
 
Inspired by her Greek family heritage, Tsourounakis also runs Amphora Products, which produces Vlatos olive oil. Both her grandfather and father were born and raised in the small town of Vlatos on the island of Crete, and travelling to Greece every second summer as a child exposed her to village life there.
 
“We would visit the olive grove, his house, neighbours’ homes, and were constantly shown their way of life,” she says. “This mostly consisted of the villagers gardening and foraging for their food and then bringing it back home and creating wonders in the kitchen. There weren’t any supermarkets there. Everything came from nature, or from the neighbour’s garden. Eating food like that is mind blowing. You can never go back once you have a meal from the mountains.”
 
Tsourounakis is just one half of an entrepreneurial power couple. Her girlfriend, Katy Chan, co-owns Schoolyard with Hilary Dennis. Since 2007, Chan and Dennis have developed screen-printed paper and fabric goods combining their love of colour, texture and pattern. From sleepwear to aprons, Schoolyard’s stationery, baby items, men’s and ladies’ underwear and accessories can be found in independent shops across Canada, and were recently picked up by Indigo books.
 
Chan operates the studio space above Café Neon. Both Vlatos olive oil and some of Schoolyard’s durable and anti-bacterial hemp-and-linen-blend tea towels are available for sale at the café downstairs.
 
“Schoolyard comes from a love of all-over patterns, the environment and trying to make some money doing what we love – making thoughtful, useful things,” Chan says.
 
Chan is a graduate of the textiles program at Sheridan College and Dennis received a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. They draw inspiration from nature and home life. Made locally with eco-friendly materials, their acorns, oak leaves, gardening tools, letters and floral patterns are uplifting, bright and playful.
 
“We wanted to design a line that was fresh, contemporary, but do it an eco-friendly way,” Dennis says. “I really like making functional pieces that people use every day. I really enjoy people’s reactions to our products. They are surprised that we design the fabric and that it’s actually made in Canada.”