Supercoffee’s Cassandra Nicolaou on the Importance of Community in Mount Dennis

Cassandra Nicolaou didn’t sleep much last night. Over the next few days, Nicolaou will have to hit a temporary pause on Supercoffee, the Mount Dennis mainstay she opened in 2014. She’s kept it running for the past few weeks as a virus has swirled around the world first infecting pockets then blocks then cities, hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not comforting solidarity to know that business owners throughout Toronto and across the globe are battling the same question: so what’s next then?

The truth is, Nicolaou isn’t sure. “If we close for a few weeks, that’ll be the first time I’ve stopped doing this in like six years,” she says. But it’s more than the lattes, it’s a part of her identity, even before she opened Supercoffee, the majority of her 15 years as a filmmaker were spent sitting at tables like the ones in her shop.  

Now, this is important: Supercoffee is not a coffee shop. Even if it looks, smells and sounds that way, anyone who’s ever found themselves in some strange foreign place while travelling and set foot inside a coffee shop like Supercoffee knows these places will never be just about the coffee. They’re the anchor, the centre of the community that needs to hold even when everything else is uncertain.

Supercoffee 2.jpg

Uncertainty is all too familiar in the Mount Dennis neighbourhood. The building that Supercoffee is in sits at the crossroads of Eglinton Ave. and Weston Rd. Nicolaou’s father has owned it since the 1980s. Loosely speaking, the man’s a bit of a serial submarine magnate insofar as over the course of the 1980s and 1990s he opened a few different sub shops throughout the city.

The one he had in the location where Supercoffee now lives (which is an homage to Superburger, the fast-food joint her father opened just outside of Shelburne, en route to cottage country) was called Atlantic Submarine. At least, that’s what Nicolaou remembers it being called. “They were all different names… he had a Super Submarine but that wasn’t the one here… I should say it was, it’d be better for the story.”

The building stood through the hard-hitting closure of Kodak’s Mount Dennis factory in the mid-2000s but the elder Nicolaou’s business didn’t. “Kodak provided most of his customers and obviously once the plant closed down… you know,” says Nicolaou. “He would lease this space out to other businesses, obviously they were struggling – the whole neighbourhood struggled and continues to struggle but (during the 1980s and 1990s) it was a pretty good business strip here.”

Nicolaou acquiesced to her father’s repeated hints she should open a coffee shop in the building, and in 2014, three years after the Crosstown Metrolinx Transit project broke ground – and with the promise of the Mount Dennis LRT Station right across the street – she launched Supercoffee. Quickly, she was ushered into the Mount Dennis BIA.

“I wouldn’t say I was strong-armed,” she says with a laugh. “It was more like: you’re here now, join this struggling BIA and let’s get some stuff done.”

The Pollinators Mural by Nick Sweetman

The Pollinators Mural by Nick Sweetman

Nicolaou says it felt instinctual to volunteer to be a part of it. Today she’s the vice-chair of the BIA. “I’m into coffee shops and the community that it provides and on a broader scale, I’m interested in the Mount Dennis community,” she says. “Maybe it sounds hokey but I believe that there’s strength in numbers and I think over the years we’ve done a lot.”

The focus has been on improving the streetscape and redefining the area’s main street through public art, capital improvements, and street elements like bike rings, benches, banners and greenery.

“We’ve tapped into a bunch of different public funds,” says Nicolaou. In 2017, Nicolaou’s building was covered in a colourful mural by artist Nick Sweetman featuring six different types of bees and 15 different plants. It’s called The Pollinators, explains Nicolaou. A second mural went up down the road. They all draw notice to the area’s nearby green spaces at the Humber River and Black Creek and the role they play in protecting the 300-plus bee species that call the city home.

The local community association is advocating to turn Mount Dennis into an eco-neighbourhood which is in line with the BIA’s plan to place pollinator-friendly planters along the strip to further awareness. But really, it’s all pieces of a whole; close siblings to the thoughts that have been keeping Nicolaou up at night: how do you sustain a community through uncertainty? And what’s next?

Eventually, the Covid-19 virus will run its course. Supercoffee will reopen, patrons will tighten the distance between them. The community will be able to commune. Mount Dennis will still wear the label of a neighbourhood in transition. But in the not-to-distant future, it will wear other labels: transit hub, pollinator waypoint. And when it does, Nicolaou plans to be there doing what she’s continued to do these past six years, help make the community whole. “(As a BIA) we’re doing things that are showing this is a community that is cared for.”