Like many others, the husband-and-wife team of chef Mark Steele and Caroline Cote were forced to take a new approach to their restaurant concept during the turbulence of the last year. The co-owners of OCCO Kitchen & Bar, which has two locations in Orléans, Ont. and downtown Ottawa, pivoted to new revenue streams and used the restaurants’ position in the community as a platform to help support other local businesses in the process.
Originally launched in 2015 as a small takeout operation in Orléans, OCCO quickly gained local notoriety. Within the first week, he recalls, there was a lineup down St. Joseph Boulevard, where the shop was located, and the pair (then the only staff) were getting more orders than they could handle. The little “hole in the wall” even became Ottawa’s top restaurant on TripAdvisor.
“It was unbelievable the amount of business we did out of this tiny location,” says Cote. “After a few months, it was clear the community loved OCCO, so we started looking for a dine-in spot.”
The new 200-seat restaurant opened in 2016 and the Ottawa location opened in February 2019, with the original takeout closing shortly before this launch.
OCCO’s menu takes a gourmet, from-scratch approach to street-food favourites, focusing on local premium ingredients and craft products, such as a candied-bacon cheese burger, fish tacos, the chicken-club taco and fish and chips. Steele has also incorporated dishes that highlight his Newfoundland roots, such as cod cakes and a dish known as fries, dressing and gravy.
During the first days of the pandemic, Cote and Steele kept their restaurants open, offering takeout, but ultimately shutdown to give themselves time to get a better handle on the uncertain environment. However, they very quickly began exploring new options to keep the business going.
“We had a lot of inventory at our restaurants and didn’t know when we were going to be re-opening,” says Cote. They also realized that there would be people quarantining and many others who were simply avoiding grocery stores. “So, we decided to do a curbside [pickup] and delivery grocery service.”
Orders were initially taken through email, but Steele soon built a Shopify site “and it became this full-on grocery store with hundreds of items,” says Cote.
Offerings included items from the restaurants’ existing suppliers and, as it grew, featured offerings from a variety of local businesses that helped meet the community’s needs. The platform evolved further for Mother’s Day, offering floral arrangements and other gifts. “One of the core values of OCCO is to support local,” explains Cote. “We started bringing in all sorts of different products that would support these small businesses as well.”
When restrictions began loosening in the summer, OCCO Market was put on hold as Steele and Cote focused on re-opening their Orléans location and introducing a new patio, as well as takeout orders, which had been re-launched in April. This included family-style meals, sweets boxes, breakfast to-go and takeaway specials, such as Taco Tuesday, available for pre-order.
As restrictions tightened again this fall, Cote and Steele re-visited the online market, shifting the concept away from a grocery focus to a virtual holiday market. The vast OCCO Holiday Market featured items from more than 60 small businesses, ranging from unique pantry items and sweets to gifts, beauty products and even clothing.
Looking ahead, Cote says they plan to continue doing seasonal market offerings, similar to the holiday market, pointing to Easter and Mother’s Day as future occasions. And, Steele adds, they are considering creating a retail section in the restaurants featuring a selection of local craft products.