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A Day in the Life of Zest Café and Catering

By Jessica Simms on March 28, 2012

A day in the life, a series cooked up by Jessica, offers a glimpse behind the scenes of some of the National Capital Region’s favourite food related businesses.

Gil and Janet Roberge are the husband and wife team behind Zest Café and Catering, a business they started in their house doing a few orders here and there for friends. Now in their fourth year of operation, the catering business grew simply by word of mouth. They regularly get asked to cater for French and Swedish embassy parties, at one point serving close to 400 people for a French embassy film festival. In September 2010 they opened a café location on rue Laval in Gatineau (Hull) to serve hungry government workers at lunch.

Gil does most of the cooking (he’s the creative one or “idea man,” as Janet explains) and Janet coordinates everything. They have four employees to help with baking, some of the food prep, social media, and deliveries.

On this particular Friday morning, they are working to feed just over 70 people for lunch (a group of 21 at the University of Ottawa, a pharmaceutical group of 45, and a private order of 6), not including the 60 or so they expect to come through the café. Janet explains that often after finishing the catering orders they only have 30 minutes to prepare everything for the café before it opens for lunch.

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For a typical day, Gil comes in between 4:30 and 5 a.m. By 9 a.m. Janet starts to pack the bins for their catering orders. In about two hours she has made up all the platters of sandwiches and desserts, filled boxes with cutlery, plates and drinks, and somehow managed to pack it so it will remain intact until its final destination. “Packing becomes a fine art,” she says. “It’s like this moment where there’s nothing done, then it all just falls together.”

Gil is completely self-taught. “I’m a visual person, so I learn by looking,” he says. He was working at a winery before going into catering with Janet. Both of them have been in the food industry for over 20 years. “We’ve been in the industry awhile; we’ve seen a lot of failures,” Gil says. “We knew it was going to be long hours, it was going to be hard.”

“I still get nervous but I don’t want to lose that,” Janet tells me while packing up platters of Portobello mushroom sandwiches with olive pesto and goat cheese and grilled steak sandwiches with chipotle aioli, aged cheddar and caramelized onions. “I think if you lose the butterflies, you lose your edge.”

She slips off a lot while we’re talking and I hear her counting, “1, 2, 3…” under her breath, whether it’s putting together a plate of brownies or rolling cutlery. She explains, “For catering, there’s a lot of counting.” She is constantly double-checking the production sheet of what needs to be brought where. Just before 10:30 a.m. Haidee Mackevic, who helps with deliveries, comes in as a second set of eyes to go over the orders. Since starting the business Janet says they have only ever forgotten two things.

With catering you get a lot of regulars, Janet says. Slipping returning customers free desserts and remembering people’s names are just as important as the food (which Zest makes entirely from scratch. Their bread is from Art-Is-In). Janet follows up with every client the same day they received their catering order.

The keys to a successful catering business are the abilities to “multitask like crazy” and be organized – “you’ll die if you’re not organized” – explains Janet. You also have to be very flexible with customers. It’s not unusual to get last minute special requests with an order.

Like many people in the food industry, Gil and Janet work long hours. Often his days at the café won’t end until 4 or 5 p.m., then he goes food shopping, and finally gets home at 6 or 7 p.m. “just in time to have a glass of wine and go to bed.” He explains the hardest part of owning your own business in the food industry is balancing family life. He and Janet have two children, both in their teens. But would he ever consider doing anything else? No. “It’s our passion.” Janet agrees. “It’s what we love to do.”

Zest Café and Catering is located at Suite 100, 45 rue laval in Gatineau. The Cafe is opened Monday to Friday from 11:30am to 2:00 pm, while catering requests can be made from Monday to Friday from 9:00am to 4:00pm.