LOWELL — Walk in any entrance to City Hall during the week, and right away your nose will tell you that something delicious is happening in the building. Maybe it’s the smell of fresh-baked cookies or the aroma of grilled chicken wafting through the halls.
The aptly named City Hall Cafe opened in January. It is owned and operated by professional chefs Ed Vezina of Tyngsboro and Chris Cameron of Lee, N.H., who prepare the extensive breakfast and lunch menu items each day from scratch.
The original cafe at this basement location closed during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, and when restrictions were lifted, the city put the concession back out to bid. That’s when Vezina and Cameron, longtime coworkers in the food service business, decided to make the leap from corporate cooking to running their own kitchen.
“I worked in the health care food service industry for close to 30 years. During COVID, I was working 70 to 80 hours,” Vezina said. “I heard about this concession going up to bid through the grapevine. I called Chris, and we decided to go for it. Our LLC name is Underground Chefs, which is a nod to our subterranean space.”
The footprint of the cafe is just more than 300 feet, but in that space, Vezina and Cameron craft palate-pleasing offerings such as an egg and muffin sandwich or a breakfast burrito, to deli sandwiches like the chicken quesadilla, barbecue burger, grilled cheese, a BLT and roasted turkey breast.
“We roast our own turkey because deli turkey is either really bad or really expensive — so that helps us keep our prices low and we control our waste,” Cameron said. “We shop around locally for produce and other ingredients.”
Although their main customers come from City Hall staff and visitors, the chefs say regulars also come from the adjacent police and fire departments, the Pollard Memorial Library and the high school. But they hope that the general public makes the cafe a food destination, too.
“When City Hall is open, we’re open to the public,” Vezina said. “And I think our menu is unique enough compared to what you see in other cafes, and we have lower prices.”
With the exception of the veggie burger, none of the menu items are priced above $6.
There have been some hiccups along the way, including supply-chain issues due to ongoing complications related to COVID-19, and the rising cost of goods, which have made the chefs savvy consumers. Since January, just when the cafe opened, the Legislature passed an act requiring restaurants to use cage-free eggs in their products, which, in some cases, doubled the price of eggs. The price of chicken has also increased, an ingredient that makes up many of their menu offerings.
“When we see really good deals on foods, we’ll try to grab enough supplies to work a special into the menu that might last a week or two,” Vezina said. “The price of everything keeps changing, so Chris is always on the computer looking for good quality products to replace items that might be going up way too high. We never sacrifice quality.”
Cameron, who graduated from the Newbury College School of Culinary Studies in Brookline, said the most popular items are their homemade pizza, buffalo chicken, turkey Cuban and the ham Florentine.
“Everybody has to eat. My personal favorite is our homemade meatloaf Wellington sandwich on ciabatta bread,” Cameron said.
A city employee who declined to give her name ordered a sandwich to go. She said the convenience of the cafe was a factor for her.
“I can grab-and-go on my way home from work, especially when they are open late on Tuesdays,” she said.
The garage-style roll top door above the counter goes up every weekday morning at 7:30 and doesn’t roll back down until 3:30 in the afternoon. The cafe is open until 6:30 p.m. on City Council meeting nights, and closes at noon on Fridays. Customers can order online for pickup at bit.ly/3a6v6UW.