LOWELL – Walk into any entrance to City Hall during the week, and right away your nose will tell you that something delightful is going on in the building. Maybe it’s the smell of freshly baked cookies or the aroma of grilled chicken that wafts through the hallways.
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, NH, who prepare the many items on the breakfast and lunch menu from scratch every day.
This basement’s original cafe closed during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, and when restrictions were lifted, the city brought the concession back into competition. That’s when Vezina and Cameron, long-time colleagues in the restaurant business, decided to make the switch from corporate kitchens to running their own kitchens.
“I have worked in the healthcare restaurant industry for almost 30 years. During COVID, I was working 70 to 80 hours,” Vézina said. “I heard about this concession going up for auction through the vineyard. I called Chris and we decided to go. Our LLC name is Underground Chefs, which is a nod to our underground space.
The cafe’s footprint is just over 300 feet, but in this space, Vezina and Cameron prepare palate-pleasing offerings such as an egg and muffin sandwich or a breakfast burrito, sandwiches from charcuterie like chicken quesadilla, barbecue burger, grilled cheese. , a BLT and a roast turkey breast.
“We roast our own turkey because deli turkey is either really bad or really expensive, which helps us keep our prices low and control our waste,” Cameron said. “We shop locally for produce and other ingredients.”
While their main customers come from City Hall staff and visitors, chiefs say regulars also come from the adjacent police and fire departments, the Pollard Memorial Library and the high school. But they hope the general public will also make coffee a foodie destination.
“When City Hall is open, we are open to the public,” Vezina said. “And I think our menu is quite unique 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 over $6.
There were a few hiccups along the way, including supply chain issues due to ongoing complications from COVID-19 and rising cost of goods, which made chefs savvy. Since January, just as the cafe opened, the legislature passed a law 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 dishes.
“When we see some really good food deals, we’ll try to grab enough supplies to fit a special on the menu that could last a week or two,” Vezina said. “The price of everything changes constantly, so Chris is always on the computer looking for good quality products to replace items that might go up too high. We never sacrifice quality.
Cameron, a graduate of Newbury College School of Culinary Studies at Brookline, said the most popular dishes are their homemade pizza, buffalo chicken, Cuban turkey and Florentine ham.
“Everyone has to eat. My favorite is our homemade meatloaf Wellington sandwich on ciabatta bread,” Cameron said.
A city worker who declined to give her name ordered a take-out sandwich. She said the convenience of coffee was a factor for her.
“I can pick up and take home from work, especially when they’re open late on Tuesdays,” she said.
The garage-style rolling door above the counter goes up every weekday morning at 7:30 and doesn’t come 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.