Cambridge Bay entrepreneurs strive not just to stay afloat, but to thrive with Kuugaq Cafe

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Five people summoned the courage and the money to take the plunge and launch an eatery in Cambridge Bay almost six months ago.

photo courtesy of Ovi Evans
The jubilant shareholders in the Kuugaq Cafe are, from left, Amanda Doiron, Stuart Rostant, Mason Greenley, Ovi Evans and Joel Evans. Also pictured are Luca Rostant, Amanda and Stuart’s son, and Harlem Evans, son of Joel and Ovi Evans.

The Kuugaq Cafe opened on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, with a mission to become a community meeting place.
“I felt it was a wonderful idea. I don’t know how many times growing up here in Cambridge Bay that I wish I had a cafe to go to, or just someplace to go be, or someplace to eat that’s different,” said Ovi Evans, one of the five shareholders along with her husband Joel, Mason Greenley and spouses Stuart Rostant and Amanda Doiron.
All five partners put equity into the business. They also took out a loan through Kitikmeot Community Futures Incorporated and they qualified for a grant through the Department of Economic Development & Transportation to help complete the financing of the cafe.
Rostant and Doiron also own the building that houses the cafe along with a small inn and some commercial office space.
With the cafe, there were challenges in establishing a food supply chain, hiring and training staff, figuring out the accounting, and various other logistical and troubleshooting hurdles.
“You just get more confidence, I guess, when the next problem might arise. It’s, for all of us, our first experience in this field, but it does help having this group to talk it through and make a decision on how we’ll move forward,” Doiron said.
The owners meet once a week to brainstorm ways to further grow the business.
“The first year is going to be tough, but we’re dedicated to make sure it’s a success,” said Doiron, who added that all the shareholders have other full-time jobs, but each of them commits a couple of additional hours a day to Kuugaq business. Because Doiron and Rostant work in the same building, if there’s a large crowd during the lunch rush, one or both of them will dart in and lend a hand, for example.
The cafe now has nine workers on payroll, eight of them local, and they’ve learned the ropes.
“We have really good staff that have been helping out a lot,” Doiron said.
“Overall, we’ve had really wonderful support from the community,” Ovi Evans said.
It gets easier to have confidence as knowledge is gained and momentum builds, she suggested.
“I think we’ve been flourishing more and more each month,” said Evans. “We know what our peak hours are, what people are liking from our menu, what people want to see – we’re incorporating that to make the next month even better.”
At approximately 1,600 square feet, the open-concept cafe is arranged to seat 30, although it can accommodate up to 50 customers. It can be rented for private functions but also hosts fun events and activities targeted at the public. In the fall, for example, a teacher who is also an artist will hold an arts workshop on Thursday evenings.
“We’ll have canvases, paint and brushes,” Doiron said, adding that games nights and kids movie nights are also on the schedule. “It will just get the community out to meet new people. We have a lot of transient people and a lot of new people moving to town with CHARS (Canadian High Arctic Research Station), so we want to have a space where people can meet and hang out.”
The decor is modern and the “vibe” is like an urban oasis in the North, said Evans. Paintings by local artists adorn the walls to promote their work and assist them with sales, Rostant added.
The menu features healthy options that are often associated with hip eateries in the south such as quinoa salad, salads with kale and beets, vegetarian fare, gluten-free and nut-free options.
“Everything we cook, I consider it home-cooking. It’s not something coming out of a package or in a deep fryer,” Rostant said.
Poutine and the Kuugaq burger are other popular orders. There’s a selection of homemade baked goods and a variety of specialty coffees, as well.
Supplies were initially coming from a distributor in Yellowknife but the cafe owners gradually came to realize some prices were actually better in town. They now get close to 75 per cent of their supplies locally, Doiron estimated. There are some ingredients that still have to be flown in from Yellowknife or Edmonton, however, because they’re not available in Cambridge Bay, she added.