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Cafeteria chefs pivot as pandemic hollows out office towers

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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. 

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.” 

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When Ontario declared a COVID-19 health emergency last spring, the first instinct of Ottawa entrepreneur Peter O’Blenis was to preserve cash.

“We basically stopped our discretionary spending,” said O’Blenis, the co-founder and CEO of Evidence Partners, which makes software for accelerating the review of scientific and medical literature, using artificial intelligence. “We cut investments in things meant to help us grow.”

It was a defensive posture born of experience. O’Blenis had 12 years earlier nearly been crushed by the global financial crisis. Another looked to be on the way.

In 2008, O’Blenis and his colleagues, Jonathan Barker and Ian Stefanison, hit a brick wall with their first venture, TrialStat, which helped hospitals manage patients’ electronic data. While TrialStat had secured $5.5 million in venture financing just a couple of years earlier, the founders had burned through most of it during a rapid expansion. When the financial world collapsed, so did their firm.

The trio played things far more conservatively with Evidence Partners, which has relied almost exclusively on customer revenues to finance expansion.

The caution proved unnecessary. Like so many other businesses, O’Blenis underestimated the government’s willingness to keep the economy afloat with easy money. Nor did he anticipate that COVID-19 would prove a significant catalyst for the firm’s revenues so soon.

Evidence Partners is hardly the only local firm with technology particularly suited for the war against COVID-19. Spartan Bioscience and DNA Genotek adapted existing products to create technology for identifying the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Ottawa-based units of Abbott Laboratories and Siemens Healthineers make portable blood analyzers that diagnose patients afflicted by the virus.

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Shepherds of Good Hope wants to expand ByWard Market operation with eight-storey housing complex

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The Shepherds of Good Hope plans to build an eight-storey building near its current shelter for the homeless in the ByWard Market that would include supportive housing for up to 48 people, a soup kitchen and a drop-in centre.

The organization says it wants to be part of the solution to the housing crisis that has fuelled a rise in homelessness in Ottawa.

People would be moved out of the emergency shelters and into their own tiny apartments in the complex, which would include a communal dining hall and staff available to help with mental health, addiction and medical problems, said Caroline Cox, senior manager of communications for the Shepherds.

Some residents in the neighbourhood are opposed, saying services for the homeless and vulnerable should not be concentrated in one area of the city.

“I was flabbergasted,” said homeowner Brian Nolan, who lives one block from the development proposed for 216 Murray St., where currently a one-story building houses offices for the Shepherds of Good Hope.

Nolan said that, in the 15 years he’s lived in the area, it has become increasingly unsafe, with home and car thefts, drug dealing, loitering, aggressive and erratic behaviour, urinating, defecating and vomiting on sidewalks and yards and sexual acts conducted in public on his dead-end street. Before he lets his son play basketball in the yard, he checks the ground for needles and his home security camera to see who is nearby.

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Carleton University Hosts the Forum Lecture: Towards a Feminist Post-COVID City

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evehe Carleton University Forum Lecture: Towards a Feminist Post-COVID City given by Leslie Kern launches Ottawa Architecture Week. Urban geographer, author and academic, Kern will discuss how the pandemic has highlighted long-standing inequalities in the design, use and inclusivity of urban spaces. The talk will share some of the core principles behind a feminist urban vision to inform a wider vision of justice, equity and sustainability.

When
: Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 at 6:30 p.m.
Registration: https://alumni.carleton.ca/event-registration-architecture-forum-series-with-leslie-kern-2/.

About the Speaker

Kern holds a PhD in Women’s Studies from York University. She is currently an associate professor of Geography and Environment and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Mount Allison University.

Kern is the author of two books on gender and cities, including Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World (Verso). The book discusses how our cities have failed in terms of fear, motherhood, friendship, activism, the joy and perils of being alone, and also imagines what they could become.

Kern argues, “The pandemic has shown us that society can be radically reorganized if necessary. Let’s carry that lesson into creating the non-sexist city.”

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