Three Successful Uptown Entrepreneurs Share Their Stories

Uptown is home to many entrepreneurs, small businesses and institutions that brighten the community with culture, service, entertainment and employment opportunities. Recently, we interviewed three community members who are contributing to Uptown’s exciting growth. Learn more about their passion projects and businesses below:


Q&A with Gayle Renfro, founder of Gourd-geous Sacred Vessels, an artistic collection of cremation urns and decorative prayer vessels.

What inspired you to begin Gourd-geous?

I saw this book of these amazing gourds. It sort of exploded from there. I also operate a business with my husband, Renfro Funeral Service. When I started, I wanted to create a line of urns that really celebrate culture because I saw a void in the market. The death industry just had, and still does, very little recognition of the African-American culture.

Why Uptown?

This is where we call home. Our main business has been here since '56. Avondale is centrally located and undergoing a wonderful transformation, thanks to the hard work of the Avondale Community Council and stakeholders. It's in the heart of everything and we are proud to be one of its landmarks.

What are your long-term goals?

Long-term, I want to fill the cultural niche in the market itself. I also want to go a step further to teach and ultimately hire within Uptown to help us manufacture nationwide. The gourds offer a potential to teach a craft and utilize members of this community who are talented and can prosper in a non-traditional job.


Q&A with Darren Phan, owner of Cilantro, a Vietnamese bistro serving affordable, healthy food.

Why did you decide to re-open Cilantro?

When we closed, so many people were talking online, and telling my wife, how sad they were to see Cilantro close. With two young kids and a corporate job, I didn’t want the stress anymore. Later, after thinking everything through, the community outreach inspired me to re-open. I wanted its legacy to live on—especially for our two children.

What aspect of Cilantro makes you most proud?

It’s the people. Our employees and customers become family—that’s my every day. It’s not for everyone, but it’s what I enjoy, and it shows in our business. It shows our staff cares for our customers, and we care for each other.

Why Uptown?

I went to school here and I just always loved UC and I always loved the area. What drew me to Uptown and what keeps me here is the diversity and the mixture of students as well as hospital workers, doctors, the local businesses, the professors, the teachers. I get people that are the nicest and really the best customers.


Q&A with Tony Engel, owner of Top Cats, a Short Vine live music and entertainment venue.

What is the most rewarding aspect of reviving Top Cats?

Bringing this back, the feedback we’ve gotten from a lot of the older crowd was "Oh man, it was awesome!" The experiences that they had, and all the experiences that anybody's had since, are positive. We've created a place that people enjoy coming to. I think that's pretty rewarding.

Why Uptown?

I think Top Cats has filled a need that was missing on Short Vine, which is an entertainment district. It really didn't have any entertainment other than Bogart's. When their stuff ends, people come right down the street, and get more live music, and so we’ve created that entertainment district that Uptown needs.

What’s next for Top Cats?

We're working through establishing who we are and how we're going to program the space. I think we've finally dialed in. Now it's time to execute. We do have a five thousand square foot patio. We don’t have access to this patio yet, but we’re hoping to have it for next spring so that we can do some really fun things there.