(Above: left to right, the owners of the Grounds include Robert Kinsman, Donna Kinsman, Patrick Caicco, and Marlene Caicco (absent). Photo by Barry Gray.)
When StittsvilleCentral.ca dropped in at The Grounds Cafe on Friday, they were dealing with a broken coffee grinder and an unruly (and expensive) espresso machine… just a few of minor issues in the final few days before the grand opening.
Pending permit approvals and some last minute touch-ups, the spacious restaurant next to the Food Basics in the Fairwinds Plaza (Huntmar at Hazeldean) will have a soft launch on Sunday for family and friends, and then officially open on Monday or Tuesday morning. We spoke to two of the owners, Patrick Caicco and Robert Kinsman, who call themselves “The Groundskeepers”. All photos by Barry Gray.
UPDATE (MARCH 13): Caicco says they’re planning to be fully open on Tuesday this week.
GLEN GOWER: How close are you to opening?
ROBERT KINSMAN: The construction is complete, we’ve had the city in for what we need to do for a permit and business license. We had building inspectors in, engineering in, architect in, health and safety. It’s a question of getting all those ducks lined up, then the City says we can go and we can start inviting customers in.
GG: Tell me about your background. Ever run a cafe before?
PATRICK CAICCO: I have been in the financial services industry for 35 years and I have absolutely zero experience in the food services industry directly. This is a brand new adventure for me. I bring some business mentality to the table and also marketing and sales. Neither of us have any direct food services experience.
RK: I have a family history in the food history from deep in my ancestry. My grandmother was born in her father’s pub in Wales. Both my grandparents have run cooking schools and guest houses. My father was involved in the food industry at a young age, but then the war happened and that changed. He always educated me on how a restaurant works: the quality of service, quality of food, are they paying attention to what they’re delivering to the customer, all those aspects. It was instilled in me the level of the food and the ability to create an environment that’s enjoyable. I come from a high tech background, but have always had an interest in food.
GG: Where did the idea come up to open a coffee shop?
PC: It was kind of spontaneous. Robert is a client of mine, so we’ve done a lot of business meetings in cafes and coffee shops. We were always comfortable doing business in a coffee shop. One time, last November 2014, I was having coffee with one of my partners and he mentioned there was an excellent property to look at.
RK: At the time we were considering a shop similar to Gaia Java. Patrick sent me a text. I thought ‘Really Patrick?’, and then we started analyzing the opportunity and saw the ability to create jobs, and serve the community.
PC: We love serving people, love the entrepreneurial spirit, love the fact that it’s not a heavy-duty menu. A cafe is a bit more simple to operate in terms of menu. It’s more community-based as opposed to a downtown restaurant. I always wanted to do that and when I met Robert the chemistry kicked in. And Robert had the sense of humour to respond to my text!
RK: We can be in control of the whole thing, doing the analysis, and working with the community to find out what they want.
GG: Tell me what “community-based” means to you.
PC: Robert and Donna are very community-minded. I know they’re going to be extremely community-minded in the Fairwinds area. The whole idea is serving the community that we live in… enjoying the community, giving back to the community, having fun with the community, doing some special projects with the community, supporting community events. We enjoy it, and it’s going to be a benefit to both.
RK: There many examples of local businesses in the area, they’re meeting local demand and able to respond to local issues, local desires. It’s about being plugged into what’s going on.
PC: I live in Fairwinds, so obviously it’s a natural extension for me, living the community and having local community ownership and being plugged in.
GG: We’ve talked before about how you want it to become a hub, or a meeting spot for the community. How are you doing that?
RK: We’ve been watching what other cafes do across town in terms of drawing people in, making it interesting for the Stittsville community. My daughter and son are in their 20’s. I’m recognizing that young people have limited options. They can get on the bus and go downtown, that’s it. We’ve got young staff and I’ve tasked them to tell me what they need to draw the 20-year-olds in the evening, so they have a place to go, a place to hang out and socialize. We’ll keep an eye on what’s going on in Fairwinds, Granite Ridge, Fringewood. They have their own events so we can plug into those. And across the street – still coming this way – is the whole development on the east side of Iber Road.
PC: On the other side of the coin, the cafe that we’ve designed is conducive to people wanting to come and spend time just to chat, socialize, just stay and enjoy. The seating, the atmosphere is going to be a great experience for the local community. People who’ve been in here so far love it. They love the colour scheme, the seating, the look of the cafe… it’s warm, appealing.
We also have a plan to do an outdoor patio. so the summertime will be another great offer for the community. Have a coffee, have a smoothie, have a cold drink out on the patio.
RK: Look at the food trucks in and around Stittsville. There’s clearly a demand for good food, not overly-expensive or high-end food. We have to compete with these trucks. We need to make sure we’re doing the same kind of product: a quality sandwich, and quality coffee. soups and salads locally sourced when we can, made fresh, on-site.
GG: The most important thing at a cafe is the coffee. Tell me what’s planned.
RK: Right now we’re starting out with Equator, a local roaster in Almonte. They serve the community and Ottawa Valley, lots of restaurants in the area, and they’re also at Brown’s Independent. It’s all sourced fair trade. In our conversations with cafe owners people really like their coffee. It was important to get a reliable and reputable coffee.
GG: Tell me about the competitive marketplace for coffee in Stittsville.
RK: If you go to the Glebe there are six coffee shops in three blocks. First off, count the number of independent cafes in Kanata – I don’t know of any! Stittsville has two great ones, so now we’ll have a third, even better one! One of the things we have over Gaia and Quitters is we started by saying ‘we needed a kitchen’. Often the food is an afterthought. It’s something we’ve invested in up-front. We can serve good food, not just the coffee. The range of things people like is all over the map. We want to be not too broad but sufficiently diverse to pull those crowds in.
In terms of Timothy’s, Tim Hortons, they’re lower in terms of price point and quality. The quality is not there, there’s no comparison to what we can put into it. At the high end there’s a Starbucks, but although their sandwiches are higher end, they’re still mass-produced somewhere in a factory. We can have better quality food to Tim Hortons. There are dozens of hockey tournaments, soccer tournaments, skating tournaments, et cetera. They come from out of town, they’re tired of Tim Hortons, so here’s something local, here’s something else.
One other point. On the actual plaza where we are, there are no quick-service restaurants. Next door where the Lowe’s is – it’s all over the map – shawarma, fusion, smoothies, Timothy’s. But there’s a shortage in our particular corner.
PC: When we did our research to determine how to go about doing this, one of the things was to control our own menu, control the level of service, the environment. When you do a franchise you don’t have any control over that. We’ll be able to react, change, move direction to where the demand is coming.
GG: What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced in getting ready?
RK: The biggest frustration is the length of time to get things done. Identifying the location, negotiating with the landlord, the time to get possession, the delays you encounter from construction. Like when the floor was laid down and somebody is bringing in a boring device to get into the floor because there’s a blockage in the drain.
PC: In our next location we’ll have more experience and will be able to do it faster!
GG: How are you feeling with just a few days before opening?
RK: I’m excited to get it open, to validate everything that we’ve done. People are staring in our windows and I call them in to take a look. I’m looking forward to welcoming them to our cafe.
PC: I’m excited to get things going and making connections over the counter – smiles and hellos.