Jen (in stripes) and Kena in their bright new shop in Leslieville.
By Tracey Ho Lung
The once quiet strip of Queen Street East, between Broadview and Logan is becoming somewhat of a hot-spot for specialty boutiques and restaurants. Already home to hipster hangouts such as La Carnita, Boxxcar Social and Sweet Jesus, this Riverside ‘hood recently welcomed BRIKA, a modern gift shop selling everything from baby stuff to jewellery to home décor. “We have friends who live in the area and we’d always hear them complain about not having any cool shops in the area to quickly grab a birthday gift or house-warming present,” says Kena Paranjape, one of the creative genius’s, along with partner Jennifer Lee Koss, behind BRIKA. “So, we did our research. We were already on Queen Street West and thought that there was an opportunity to be on the east side,” she says.
Described as a curated shop of special pieces for conscious consumers, BRIKA was born after a chance meeting between the two. Today, BRIKA boasts two, stand-alone retail stores in Toronto, one in Square One (Mississauga) and a pop-up shop at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in Toronto. This Fall watch for another shop to launch in Yorkdale mall in September, and a pop-up shop at the Lululemon store in Yorkville and in the Path downtown.
We met up with the pair just before they officially launched their shop on Queen Street East, and quizzed them about their secrets to success.
What was the ‘aha’ moment for both of you to when you realized that you wanted to create this type of venture?
JEN: It was meeting each other, which was quite serendipitous. I was working in finance looking for a creative outlet and came across a blog I really loved (the now shuttered, In Life and In Fashion). I loved the voice, the products that were featured, and there was just something else… I needed to meet this person. I emailed her and it just happened that it was Kena and she lived in Toronto so we met for a coffee. Everything after that seemed so natural.
KENA: We were talking about life and career and what we wanted to do next. In came out that we both wanted to do something beyond our careers that was entrepreneurial and creative. We started having regular meetings before work to brainstorm ideas. At the time e-commerce was huge and one of our ideas that stuck was creating a destination where busy women like ourselves—who don’t have time to navigate Etsy or shop in a million boutiques—could find those unique, special item to give as gifts, or buy for themselves, the home, the kids, all in one spot. I’ve worked in retail for over a decade. My last job was for a high end eco-friendly shop and working with artisans first-hand. I noticed that they were passionate and talented and made beautiful products but they didn’t’ know how to reach their audience. At BRIKA we want consumers to know more about the artisans that make their product, as well as feature their products the way it deserves—in the most beautiful space.
What makes BRIKA different from Etsy, or any gift shop?
KENA: We’re a retail brand built around the authenticity of makers and modern crafts. The value we bring is to help customers feel good about where they’re spending their money. We want them to know the talented people it was made by and who put a lot of thought into creating it.
JEN: We also offer special services through our gift concierge’s (store associates). While we’re a store about lovely items and goods, the service we provide is helping someone find that feel-good or instantly happy gift for themselves or someone else. We want to build that long term relationship.
You started in e-commerce. Why the jump to retail?
JEN: We always knew we wanted to do something offline and launched a pop-up at The Hudson’s Bay Company six months after we started as a test. It worked so well that it was obvious that we needed to do something more significant. We started driving up and down Queen West. This was the first area we thought of.
It says to belong to BRIKA, an artisan has to be three things 1) dedicated to their work 2) ethically minded 3) making a contribution to the community. How do you able to stick to these three work ethos?
KENA: It’s hard but we’re pretty stringent in our process. People love us because of that so we want to stick to our guns. We’ve come across a beautiful product, but if it looks like something else, or if the artisan can’t tell us anything about who makes the product, or if it’s made in China, we turn them down.
How are you able to manage the needs of both sides: the artisan and the consumer?
JEN: We always talk about how we’re a bridge between those who lead creative lives and people who want creative things.
KENA: We also provide service to customers in our stores but we also offer service to our makers. We do a lot of it organically with our day to day interactions with them. We give a lot of feedback and advice, we have done formal consulting and Google Chats but we really believe in that the bigger we get, the bigger they get and we want to support them.
What is the most challenging part about running your business?
JEN: The manic-ness of it. How high the highs are and how lows the lows are. You’re on a journey and sometimes you don’t celebrate the wins enough. It’s a scary place to be but I think the best part is that you own your own stress. You’re accountable to yourself and your team and that’s something that I’m grateful for.
What inspires you?
KENA: We live in a world where inspiration is everywhere. The makers, the artisans are so creative and committed to what they do. I’m also inspired by our team and how committed they are. So many of them came to us because they fell in love with BRIKA and wanted to get to know us. And those are our strongest team members
JEN: Ditto. Everything she just said.
How do you relax?
JEN: Ha. I’m not a person who needs to relax. Physical activity is a big thing for me—my husband is a former athlete and we both need to be active. I need at least 45 minutes to an hour a day just to myself. Sometimes it’s Pilates, a run… But I do prioritize that in my life because I know myself and if I don’t do this, I feel off. It’s not down-time, it’s up, but it is my zen time.
KENA: I have a hard time relaxing. My family makes fun of me because I don’t know what to do with myself. Exercise has helped me get through so many things. I really feel it in my mood and body and even how I approach work when I go without it. When I got pregnant (baby is due this October) I went through three months of horrible nausea and wanted to throw up every day so I fell off the wagon for a bit. But I also need quiet time, whether it’s sitting at a coffee shop, on the couch or a walk alone. When I take time out to do that it makes a big difference.
What makes you laugh, and what keeps you laughing?
KENA: Our team, each other. We laugh all day. We’re always laughing at ourselves.
JEN: We laugh A LOT.
How is running a business with a partner?
JEN: This would not have happened if we were not doing this together. There is NO way. I think this entire thing is a product of a chance meeting. It’s not like this was meant to happen—WE made it happen. That’s the truth. We came together, we saw, we conquered.
KENA: The way we work together and the skill-sets that we bring to BRIKA, it’s still remarkable and amazing to me. Especially when people from the outside see us and comment on our ability to work so well together. It’s been four years since that coffee meeting and we talk a gazillion times a day, every day. We became friends, business partners, sisters. People can’t believe how different we are but totally gel…We realize we’re so lucky to have each other.
JEN: It is a crazy thing. It’s not like you go shopping for a business partner, but sometimes you can see that that person has skills and can do something that you cannot do. There’s something that brings you together but there is complimentary skill-set.
What’s next for BRIKA?
JEN: World domination is always my answer. A lot of it is around the philosophy about how we think about retail, which is we want to be where our customers our, offline or online, but in a place where you’re not expecting it like a pop up store…we don’t look at it so black and white. That’s not a way to think about retail in general and that’s the reason why I think we’re so successful is because people have seen us in so many permeantations and they remember us. That, and our products speak for themselves. We’d love to be in every amazing neighbourhood in the world. Everyone could use a BRIKA store. Everyone could use inspiration. Everyone could love a happiness shop. And I think we’re totally primed to deliver and execute on that.
Favourite Date Night?
KENA: I think the best dates are low-key because then the pressure is off and it just becomes about each other’s company. I love to go for a walk to our local ice cream shop and walk to a nearby park to sit on a bench and chat.
JEN: We love the patio of Terroni’s in Summerhill on a summer night. I think it’s one of the best rooftops in the city. And if our date night gets crashed by our kids, it’s still a great place to go
Favourite kid-friendly spot?
KENA: I’m looking forward to those early days when the smallest things create total wonderment! Like the first time she feels sand on her feet, or the breeze in her hair or a puppy licks her hand. I’ve heard they get much harder to impress from there!
JEN: We love going to Norway – which is where my husband is from. It is quite the ordeal to get all three kids over on the long haul flight, but it’s worth it when we get there and are surrounded by our family. Watching the kids embrace the culture and the environment is priceless!
Describe your daily uniform
KENA: Right now, its whatever fits (ha ha!). Luckily it’s summer so I’m wearing comfy dresses (many of which were passed on to me from Jen!) and cushy metallic sandals.
JEN: I dress based on what the weather is like outside. I definitely got for comfort first unless I have somewhere to go in the evening. I love that I can still wear things that I’ve had in my closet since high school!