Ottawa’s OCCO pivots to grocery marketplace amid COVID-19 challenges

OCCO
Mark Steele co-owns OCCO Kitchen with his wife, Caroline Cote. (File photo)

Caroline Cote has had trouble sleeping ever since COVID-19 forced her to lay off 99 staff in the two OCCO Kitchen restaurants she and husband Mark Steele own in downtown Ottawa and Orléans.

"It was crushing," Cote says. "One of the hardest things I've had to do as a business owner, just an awful feeling."

Cote and Steele saw the writing on the wall when large groups began cancelling St. Patrick's Day reservations. Neither restaurant, of course, saw St. Patrick's Day. The couple closed their downtown location and temporarily shut the Orléans restaurant on March 17.

"Right away we started thinking: 'What can we do to keep our business going?"' she says.

The global pandemic has been a disaster for the restaurant industry, costing about 800,000 jobs across the country in March, according to Restaurants Canada. The industry organization released a survey Friday that found 75 per cent of owners are either very or extremely concerned about their level of debt. If conditions don't improve over the next three months, it's estimated one of every two independent restaurants will survive.

OCCO launched a grocery marketplace. Customers can purchase everything from a "box of sweets" – Nanaimo bars and blondies – to caramelized onion and pepper breakfast sausages, to almond milk and staples including eggs and cheese.

A kids selection offers DIY craft and cooking projects.

"It's not comparable to if we were running our businesses like we normally do," Cote says. "But it's money in the bank account ... and at the end of the day, it's helping the community, and that's OK."

OCCO Kitchen, which grew from a small takeout business to a 200-seat restaurant featured on Guy Fieri's Food Network series Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, is known for making pickles, buns, ketchup and more from scratch, and sourcing its food locally.

"(The grocery marketplace) was really a win all-around in that there were a lot of people coming back from travels that were going to be in quarantine, a lot of people at risk, who were unable to go out," Cote says. "It also allowed us to maintain one of our core values in that we buy from local farms, we buy from local craft breweries ... we just use as local as possible."

Cote reflects on the positives. The restaurant reintroduced its takeout menu earlier this month. That's allowed her to hire back 15 employees. And the community connection warms her heart.

"It's a curbside contactless pickup process, but people will put their window down and they'll talk to us from a safe distance," she says. "I was telling Mark the other night I'm going to be really sad to close the marketplace down when things go back."

How have Ottawa's restaurants been affected by COVID-19? How are they adapting? Earlier this month, OBJ spoke with three restaurateurs who have very different business concepts but have all been severely affected by the pandemic. Watch the interview with Marc Lepine from Atelier, Joelle Parenteau from Wolf Down and Elias Theodossiou from EVOO and Mati below or listen to the conversation on SoundCloud.