By Fernando Cienfuegos and Aurora Rivera
Azusa, CA and Los Angeles, CA
Hidden on the corner of Witherspoon and Spring streets in Princeton is a small juice bar that brings Latin American flavor to Central Jersey. Inside Tico’s, co-founder Renee De Bernard serves up healthy juices and acai bowls.
“I think it’s amazing that we’ve become such an integral part of this community,” De Bernard said.
She wasn’t always in the acai business. When she and her husband, Ammel, first bought the restaurant, then called Moondoggie Café, in 2006, she worked as an accountant while her husband ran the business. (They changed the name to Tico’s, the nickname for a Costa Rican—Ammel grew up there—shortly after taking over Moondoggie.) In the beginning, the family found it was difficult to balance work and a home life. But as soon as the business was able to keep the family afloat, De Bernard decided to leave her job in order to take care of her kids and help her husband live out his dream of running a successful business.
“When we decided we were going to open this business, we knew it was not going to be easy,” De Bernard said. “To make it work, we needed to put in the hours.”
With two sons, 11 and 15, the De Bernards take turns opening and closing the juice bar throughout the day.
Two years ago, De Bernard decided to serve up the newest trend: acai bowls. But when it comes to acai, Princetonians have options. Down the block from Tico’s is Frutta Bowls, the newest of the acai bowl vendors on Nassau Street.
“It’s a craze right now!” owner Haydee Kapetanakis said. Frutta Bowls, founded in New Jersey in 2016 and now operating in 14 states, opened its Princeton location this year.
Like De Bernard, Kapetanakis wasn’t always in the food business. Kapetanakis spent the past 30 years in human resources working for a pharmaceutical company. Her husband, George, works in the medical field doing cardiovascular studies, giving the family a decorated background in the wellness business. They previously owned kickboxing gyms, adding on to their résumes in the health and wellness field, and are now pursuing the food industry, trying to figure it out along the way.
Since opening five months ago, Frutta Bowls has tried to reach out to Princetonians through different fundraising events and community activities. Kapetanakis wants to continue emphasizing community outreach, but she also wants to prioritize her life outside of acai.
“I wanted some flexibility with my family,” Kapetanakis said about her former job, where she said she worked demanding hours. “I needed that balance. I want to make sure that I’m there for my kids.”