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Read The Love Stories Behind Some Of Your Favorite Chicago Restaurants

By Ariel Cheung | February 14, 2017 8:20am
 For Valentine's Day, four couples who own businesses together discuss the pros and cons of working with a partner.
Couples Who Live And Work Together Share Secrets To Success
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CHICAGO — Workplace romances are popular sitcom fodder and water cooler gossip, — but these Chicago couples are in it for life.

Couples who work together enjoy benefits like amped-up productivity and feeling better understood, some studies have found. Of the 66 percent of businesses in the United States that are family owned, one-third are run by couples.

Is there a common key to success in both business and relationships? DNAinfo asked four couples who own businesses in Lakeview, Lincoln Square, Avondale and West Loop to share their stories, and for their favorite spots for a Valentine's Day date.


It takes two to tango

Like a perfectly choreographed dance, Maria Alferov and Sebastian Casanova meld their individual passions at Artango, an Argentinean steakhouse in Lincoln Square. Sebastian's artwork evokes the vibrant nightlife of Buenos Aires, where he was born. Maria's love of great food and tango mix to create an ideal date night environment. The two live in Lincoln Square and have a son, and Maria's adult daughter also works at Artango.

Maria Alferov hugs husband Sebastian Casanova in front of his artwork displayed at their Lincoln Square restaurant, Artango. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Q: How did you meet?

Sebastian Casanova: I went to her milonga, a place where people come to dance tango, a month after she opened it eight years ago. She was dancing, and one of my friends showed me a picture of the teacher, and I got interested.

Maria Alferov: I remember what picture he saw: A picture when I was, you know, on the beach in Mexico. Somebody showed him, "That's her, dancing."

Sebastian: It didn't happen right away. At the time, she had a boyfriend, actually, and I had a girlfriend. And then I was going through a hard time with my girlfriend, same thing with [Maria]. We started dancing together, taking classes from her, laughing together more often ... and you know how it happens.

Maria: I broke up with my boyfriend. It was a long-term relationship, eight years. I explained to [Casanova] that I need to have a break, I just need some freedom. He was like, "No, forget it."

Sebastian: I got rid of someone who wasn't good for me. So it was a relief.

Maria: We got together. I think it was meant to be. My personality and his personality are, like, melded together. The relationship I had before, the guy was trying to dominate me, and I'm a Leo. I need freedom, and I need support from the person next to me. I need him to say, "Just go and do it." He was kind of jealous when I opened my business. And Sebastian was just like, "Yeah, let's do it. Let's go." He gives me this energy of "life is beautiful." That's why we're still together, I guess.

Sebastian: We don't compete with each other, that's No. 1. I know who I am, so I don't need to prove it to her or to somebody. That helps a lot.

Maria: He's a Libra. Libra and Leo are great together. My daughter is a Libra, so I know Libra is good for me.

Sebastian: We don't get offended with each other. Sometimes you have a partner who asks, "Why are you saying that?" and it starts a huge discussion that takes a whole day. For me, it was a relief to say whatever I have to say.

Artango's decor evokes 1920s Buenos Aires. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

Q: When did you start working together?

Sebastian: A month after I met her, I started going to her [tango] place, and I didn't like it. It was all white, and it needed some unique touch.

Maria: He didn't mention he was an artist. So that was like a bonus.

Sebastian: I started painting the walls, making it different. People started noticing that.

Maria: Food is my passion. I have a culinary degree, and for 10 years, it was my dream to open a restaurant. When I met Sebastian, he started pushing me to open a restaurant. We thought that since we had clients for dance in Ravenswood, why don't we bring food for additional income? That's how we grew into a business and opened the bistro.

RELATED: Artango Blends Passions For Food, Dance Music And Art

Q: When did you start to think they could be "the one"?

Maria: I felt that he was the one maybe one month after we started dating. I'm very quick with my decisions. If I feel good with a guy, why waste my time? Also, we got our son right away. He's almost seven years old.

Sebastian: That was how I made the decision. (Both laugh). He came with the decision.

Q: Did you feel the same way quickly?

Sebastian: I wanted some peace, and she gave me peace. Being so straightforward [with her] for the first time in my life helped me so much. This is who I am, you like it? If yes, OK, let's go. If you don't like it, I can leave. That was the key to our relationship and still is: To be free.

Maria: He moved in one month after we'd been together, and that was it. He never moved out.

Maria Alferov and Sebastian Casanova opened Artango together, combining their shared loves of art, tango and food. [Provided/Maria Alferov]

Q: What's your favorite part about working with your partner?

Maria: We're not stepping on each other's foot — we complement each other. If somebody takes him away from me, or me away from him, this restaurant would be totally different. It's a combination of us together: our souls, our ideas, our hard work. Even the name, Artango, is art and tango together.

Sebastian: She does the other half that I hate doing. It's a perfect partnership.

Favorite date night restaurants: Tanta (River North) and Davanti (Little Italy).

Valentine's Day at Artango: Three-course prix fixe menu for $55, with options including a lobster bisque soup, oysters with caviar, king salmon, steak with chimichurri and a malbec sauce, flan and gelato. Entertainment includes a pair of tango dancers accompanied by an Argentinean singer and bandoneon player.


Tola's Tale

Victoria Salamanca may have lent her family nickname to her Cafe Tola restaurants, but the venture wouldn't be the same without her husband, Gerardo Salamanca. Together, the two plan out every aspect of the famed Lakeview empanada stand and its expanded loncheria in Avondale. The two met through Gerardo's sister, and their blended family of eight has never been happier.

Snapshots from their family are kept in a stack in Victoria Salamanca's purse; she and husband Gerardo Salamanca can be seen in the top left photo. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Q: How did you two meet?

Gerardo Salamanca: Victoria was training for the Chicago Marathon, and I was on my way back from a game of beach volleyball at North Avenue Beach. I usually ignore my sister, but I saw her with Victoria and turned and said, "Who is that?"

Victoria Salamanca: It was 2005, [I remember] because we were both [recently] legally divorced.

Gerardo: I had been separated a little longer than that. For our first date, we went to Mirai Sushi on Damen and Division. We only had like three really nice dates. 

Victoria: Really, we couldn't date. I had my first restaurant called Caliente at Sheridan and Irving. I was busy with work, I was single and by myself. I could see my kids, and that was it.

Gerardo: So I decided to stay and start washing dishes. I just made myself useful, and I've been the gopher ever since — except now we're married, and I get benefits: I get free food, and I get to hang out with her.

Q: How did things progress from there?

Victoria: It was fast. We literally moved in two months later.

Gerardo: I had a bachelor pad on Sheridan and Foster, and all our kids started hanging out because we had a pool in the building. Then we just decided to dump the bachelor pad, and I moved in with her above a restaurant she was building.

Shortly after that, we were expecting, and we decided to get married. We invited all our close friends and family to the baby's baptism and decided to surprise everyone with a surprise wedding.

Victoria: They get two shows for one.

Victoria and Gerardo Salamanca opened their second Cafe Tola location in the former Hot Doug's, 3324 N. California Ave. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

What's your relationship like?

Victoria: He's super thoughtful. When we started dating, he bought me a pair of gym shoes and flowers. I think I had those shoes forever. When I get home, my clothes are everywhere, and he's picking up, making sure the dishes get done. And the best part is, he expects all the boys in my family to be like that, considerate and very attentive. If we were to call it anything, I'd be the man asking, "Where's my cocktail?"

Gerardo: I'm definitely more of the homebody. I like to be at home, I like to clean. I like to make sure that we have everything we need at home, so when we do get home tired from working a 12-hour shift, the house is clean.

Like any marriage, we have peaks and valleys, but the peaks are very high. We have a lot of similarities. We love to eat together, we take some nice trips. I like to drive, and she likes to snore.

What's it like to own a business together?

Victoria: I know I can count on him. If I f--- up a lot and make mistakes and say stupid stuff and get heated and tired, he'll still be there asking, "Are you OK?" We can be mad at each other, but in the middle of the night, he'll reach out and grab my hand.

Gerardo: We get to spend a lot of time together. She say sometimes she wishes we were more separate, but there's never a time she wants to actually drive to work separate. The nicest part is when we get to sit down and start picking our brains about what we're going to put out as far as the restaurant, the food.

Victoria: Our 8-year-old daughter has that entrepreneurial spirit already. [She] has it in her head she's going to take over all the Cafe Tolas and open one in Paris. And it's like, wow, we did that to her. We at least exposed her to that.

Victoria and Gerardo Salamanca say they couldn't be prouder of their blended family of eight, and love taking road trips together. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

What advice do you have for young couples?

Victoria: Some advice my mom had given me [that] I should have taken a long time ago is don't ever disrespect each other by swearing at each other or just going somewhere that it's going to be difficult for you to come back from, or is going to be easy for you to do again. There's been ugly words to fly between us, and I really regret that, because that hurts.

Gerardo: Be yourself. And if you can't be yourself, you're not with the right person.

Favorite date night spots: Mirai Sushi (Wicker Park), Coast (Bucktown), the Art Institute of Chicago's modern wing.

Love that's fit to print

A meet-cute made in public relations heaven led to love for Lisa Ripson, 46, and Christopher Comes, 45. Married for 11 years living in West Loop, the pair runs Ripson Communications, a boutique communications and marketing firm, from home. Their clients include La Buona Vita, Artango and The Spanish Square. They first met when the bubbly Lisa was a news producer for NBC 5 and Christopher, a no-nonsense executive, worked in public relations.

Christopher Comes and Lisa Ripson pose with their four-year-old golden retriever, Tucker. [Provided/Christopher Comes]

Q: How did you two meet?

Christopher Comes: I had a philanthropic event right outside of Tribune Tower in 2000, and there wasn't much media interest in covering the event. I went down to NBC Tower to try and get a camera crew to go cover the story, and Art Norman said, "Well, why don't you go talk to Ripson?" I looked across the newsroom, and she looked at me, and it was one of those magical Disney moments.

Lisa Ripson: It was.

Christopher: I beelined it toward her and introduced myself. As I was talking to her, she was reaching into the top of her blue recycling bin to pull out my event's press kit that she had just thrown away. I'll never forget that vision.

Lisa: I was trying to be subtle, but he caught me. (Laughs)

Christopher: She felt a little bit of guilt and decided to book my vice president of sales on an upcoming weekend morning show. Three nights later, I saw her at a Sister Hazel concert at the House of Blues. I gave her a hug, and she wouldn't let go. 

Lisa: I thought he was going to kiss me.

Q: When did things get serious between you?

Lisa: For me, it was probably just a couple months. He took a little longer.

Christopher: There was a moment in time, and this happened to a lot of people. When 9/11 happened, my office was next to Sears Tower, and our building was being evacuated. I knew she was at NBC, and I called her and told her I loved her. That was the first time.

It brought clarity to my feelings, and I wanted to express them.

Q: How did you end up working together?

Lisa: Three years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I ended up having four surgeries, so I didn't have to do chemotherapy. But I couldn't work.

Christopher: I was at Clearwire, which was sold at the time. So I had a rare opportunity to manage her company, and I haven't looked back. 

Q: Was it hard to adjust to that new dynamic?

Lisa: It did change, but not changed for the worse. It was for the better. He's a very strategic thinker. I'm not a sales person, and he's excellent at that. It's hard to stop talking about work.

Christopher: Vacations are important.

Lisa: We're really good at what we do, and we're really good with each other. Like anything, you figure it out when times can be difficult.

Q: What's some advice you have for couples who work together?

Christopher: You've got to make time for the marriage. You can't work 24/7 all the time. And it doesn't have to be going on a week-long vacation, but make a date night.

Lisa: When you're done working for the day, try to turn it off. I'm not good at that, but I'm trying.

Christopher: I also recommend a golden retriever for every couple. Taking a walk with your dog as a couple, taking time, you've got to do it.


Sushi and sneakers

Anyone in the restaurant business knows they've signed up for a 24/7 lifestyle, and Dana Ferm and Pan Hompluem are no different. Together, the two have been running Lowcountry since it opened in Wrigleyville in late 2015, around the time they got married in Thailand. The two met working together, and what began as a work crush grew into something deeper. Ferm, 29, and Hompluem, 40, live in Lincoln Park.

Dana Ferm, 29, glances over at husband Pan Hompluem, 40, who first met her on a work project. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Q: How did you meet?

Pan Hompluem: I used to own sneaker stores, and one of my concepts was an underground, exclusive, membership-only store. We did a lot of events for my clients, and Dana helped host. We worked together a lot over time, starting in 2009.

Dana Ferm: There was a sushi place across the street, so I'd always ask him to go to sushi, but he always turned me down. He'd always be in a suit and all professional. He had this aura about him, I guess. So business-like.

Pan: We always had a connection. I think it was pretty obvious. But one day, I decided to ask her for sushi. And she said yeah.

Dana: I was so excited. Finally.

Q: Do you think starting with a work relationship makes dating easier or harder?

Pan: It helped us learn how to deal with each other in a lot of different ways. We spent 24/7 together. Communication is everything in a relationship, but it's also knowing how to give each other space when we need space.

Q: What's the hardest part of working together?

Dana: Sometimes I want to see things done now, and he is taking his time and being thorough. I'm more hot-headed.

Pan: She's very into instant gratification and taking action now. I'm more about doing everything the right way, but she also keeps me motivated. Sometimes I come off as being too lax.

Q: What would you say is the best part of working together?

Pan: She's my best friend, so it's having that confidence in somebody next to you, knowing she has Lowcountry in her heart. She has my back and Lowcountry's back, and I think that's a big advantage.

Dana: Developing everything [for Lowcountry] and being creative and going through the menu. Bouncing ideas off each other, that was the best part.

Favorite romantic spot:  Maison Parisienne (Wrigleyville)

Valentine's Day at Lowcountry: Bubbles and a boil, with prosecco and heart-shaped beignets.