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Belljar Café: Three Keys To Their West-End Success

Belljar Café + owners Geoffrey McPeek and Lisa Kannakko
Belljar Café + owners Geoffrey McPeek and Lisa Kannakko
Photo: Belljar Café

A location in the "middle of nowhere"; a live music series that was launched by Daniel Lanois; a health plan for all their workers; bosses who encourage their staff to pursue other projects: in starting Belljar Café, co-owners/couple Lisa Kannakko and Geoffrey McPeek have built a community and revived a small stretch of Dundas West that is neither Parkdale, nor technically Roncesvalles, and definitely not The Junction. How have they found success? Eater breaks it down in three steps.

1. Give your staff many reasons to stay, including a health plan.
"Geoff is an insulin-dependent diabetic so we have to have a health plan for him," Kannakko explains, "so I might as well have it for my staff and have a small number of people who are well taken care of. We got the plan because it makes sense and it's something we can do." Kannakko also says this to all her staff: "This is a space where you can be creative and to take it and run with it, and know that I'm backing you on it." She says that most people are shocked when they're hired because they're given a lot of space. Proof that it works: they've had the same barrista for three years.

2. Do-It-Yourself
By the time Kannakko egged McPeek on to pursue his idea of opening the café, the couple had already gone through the process of renovating their home. So when the Belljar needed work, she was ready: "I was just going for it. I did a full interior reno to build a prep area, and to put in a bar fridge, and a bar for people to sit at. We closed for a week and I think that all the contractors I hired were in shock because I was the last one out and first one in, (getting) two or three hours sleep. And they were like: "Who are you?" We just had to keep at it. I just love building shit. I had never built a patio before but it was a really fun three months of sanding, pointing wood, and having a carpenter who would listen to me (laughs). It was a creative process.

3. Slyly convince a music legend like Daniel Lanois to launch your music series.
As Kannakko remembers: "He'd come in every few months (his studio is across the street). He came in (one day last year) and I was in my overalls, covered in sawdust." She was in the middle of building her patio. "I said, 'Come on in and take a look at my patio.' Every time he'd come, he'd see the progression. Then I opened as a bar after I did a big reno. And I was like 'Yo, I've got this idea.'" Which was Live At The Belljar, a music series, but she was careful not to ask him to perform. Lanois took the bait and immediately instructed Kannakko that he would perform within the week. Four days later, he performed an intimate show to a crowd of sixty and Kannakko, also a professional photographer, with the help of three others, captured the historic event on video. Live At The Belljar has since filmed many performances and are working on a new slate of performances for this spring/summer. This weekend, they launch their full brunch service.

Belljar Café

2072 Dundas West Toronto ON M6R 1W9