Cafeteria chefs pivot as pandemic hollows out office towers

·2 min read

When Ottawa's office buildings quickly emptied out near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cafeterias reliant on throngs of nine-to-five workers were left behind.

But while many shut down, some have found ways to stay afloat, in part through creativity and in part through loyal customers.

"It was a big shock for us," Juan Dominguez, chef at the cafeteria for Canadian Blood Services' corporate office, told CBC Radio's All In A Day on Friday.

"One day you're working and the next day you're out of there."

Before the pandemic, Dominguez would send weekly menus out directly to his customers.

Then, when the office tower's employees started working from home, they began using that channel to reach out directly to tell him how much they missed his food.

"I was really shocked and surprised and happy at the same time," he said.

'Grateful' for loyal customers

Dominguez continued to send out menus — adding some combos to better accommodate entire families stuck together at home — and now people who place orders can pick them up from the corporate office's backdoor.

It's important to be able to reinvent oneself, he said, and never give up.

"Honestly, like, I'm so grateful for all the support that we receive from our customers and for all the relationships that we create with them since day one, [even before] the pandemic," he said.

Submitted by Juan Dominguez
Submitted by Juan Dominguez

Decided to grow side business

Resa Solomon-St. Lewis also lost her steady stream of customers when the pandemic hit — and unlike Dominguez, didn't have a way to reach them by email.

So the owner of Capital Fare Cafe, located inside a medical building along Montreal Road, chose to focus more on her side gig: a Caribbean-influenced catering business called Baccanalle

"It really didn't have a sign or a shingle on the door," she said. "It had more of an internet presence."

While Solomon-St. Lewis would like to return to the cafeteria, that can only happen when foot traffic is back to normal, she said.

For now, she hopes to expand Baccanalle, which allows her to focus on her love of Caribbean food.

"I have a lot of gratitude, especially to my team because we wouldn't be here without them," she said. "And they've been resilient and adaptable. And I'm really appreciative of the customers that have stayed with us… and the new customers that we've acquired."