AUGUSTA, Maine — Richard Desjardins stayed out of politics during his two decades at the helm of the Cross Cafe. But his mission to nurture lawmakers and the public will come to an end this summer after two unusual years in Augusta that disconnected him from those he serves.
Desjardins, 64, of Augusta is not happy to leave the cafeteria on the ground floor of the Burton M. Cross Building adjacent to the State House, where he has been serving the people who have rocked Maine for 22 years. Like many companies, the pandemic has fundamentally changed its work.
Many state employees are working remotely and may continue hybrid work schedules for the foreseeable future. The legislative sessions that generate the majority of its sales have been reduced over the past two years. He estimates that he does no more than 20% of the business he did before the pandemic. It’s time to turn the page.
“I’m just not having fun,” he said.
It marks a turning point in State House culture. While the canteen is still a meeting place for legislators, the prepackaged and largely self-service model no longer has the personal connection over a lunch counter that Desjardins says makes the Cross Cafe a unique place to work in Augusta. .
Desjardins is self-employed and runs the cafe through a federal program adopted in Maine which offers people with visual impairments employment opportunities through vending machines. Originally from Lewiston, he began losing his sight in his twenties while working in a factory. He wasn’t sure what kind of career would come his way. It was a good fit.
Another provider will replace Desjardins on June 1. Desjardins will still provide food to the Maine Department of Transportation, but he said he would miss talking to politicians on all sides. He will also miss the busy days of serving hundreds of meals at peak times with recipes that often came from the mind of his wife, Carol, his business partner.
The cafe is popular for breakfast and lunch offerings. In 2018 it was serve lobster rolls with fries and coleslaw for the low rate of $9.95. (They can go for over $30 now.) Employees flock to the cafe on Thursdays, when the crispy chicken is served either as a main dish or in a sandwich. The cafe was cheap, robust and always available until closing time at 2pm.
He leaves behind an uplifting legacy of people with disabilities, an effort that led him to be recognized in 2013 as a employer of the year by Kennebec Behavioral Health. Amy Kirkpatrick, general manager of the Capitol Clubhouse, said Desjardins had worked with her organization for several years to provide jobs for people with disabilities. A job placement program with coffee ended a few years ago only because Desjardins hired full-time employees.
“The fact that he’s giving our people a chance, it’s very meaningful,” she said. “Some people may have never had a job or just need the confidence to know they can work again.”
Post-pandemic, coffee is a shadow of its former self, said former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat who also served in the Legislative Assembly when Desjardins led the coffee.
But it’s still a meeting place where you can meet interesting people or discuss business, just like when Dunlap met the government then. John Baldacci and Governor Janet Mills when she was Attorney General. A school group passed by and their teacher noticed it.
“He told the group, ‘Only in Maine can you see the secretary of state, the attorney general, and the governor meeting in a cafeteria,'” Dunlap said.
But no matter your title or what was happening at the State House, talking with the employees of Cross Cafe provided respite from the stresses of life under the microscope, he said.
“You could just shoot the breeze with them,” Dunlap said. “You could be treated like real people. It’s one of the things you could get from the cafeteria.