COVID boosted business for award-winning NOTL food entrepreneur
Entrepreneurship runs in Justin Pepe’s blood, and now, he’s come into his calling, serving gourmet Italian meals patrons can enjoy at home.
Born and raised in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Pepe moved back home from British Columbia in 2018, joined by his wife, Ashely Robertson-Pepe.
After settling in, their plan was simple – to start their own catering business.
That was when Cacio Pepe was born. The name is a play on Justin’s family name and is derived from the Italian dish cacio e pepe, which translates to cheese and pepper.
Operating out of a brick-and-mortar establishment and kitchen in town, the couple sells prepared dishes such as ravioli, gnocchi, braised meats, soups, seafood and more. These come in frozen packets that can be cooked and plated at home.
“We like to do things that you might not necessarily have the time to do at home,” Robertson-Pepe said.
Pepe’s family has always been a part of NOTL commerce: his father, Gerald, ran a painting and decorating business while his grandparents, Tephi and Joseph, ran Pepe’s Corner at the intersection of Mississagua and Mary streets (where Willow Cakes & Pastries is now located).
Now, it’s Pepe’s turn.
“We planned on catering for the first couple years, just to get the name out there because nobody knew my food,” he said.
After providing food for a couple of special events in Niagara, the demand for the NOTL native’s culinary skills took off and the couple soon found themselves needing a place to hang out their shingle – or spatula, as it were.
That’s when they set up their physical establishment in an industrial strip mall on Stewart Road in the shadow of the Garden City Skyway.
It was there that the pair began to prepare frozen takeout meals for a growing customer base. Pepe, for one, was surprised at how receptive people were to the concept.
“We weren’t sure that Niagara-on-the-Lake was going to take to this method of cooking but they took to us right away and we got extremely busy,” he said. “Everything else is history.”
The couple’s initial concerns over whether their way of doing business would be accepted proved unfounded.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Restaurants were forced to switch to takeout business only, severely hitting their bottom line.
That wasn’t the case for Cacio Pepe: its way of doing business was tailor-made for this situation.
“Once COVID hit, we were just through the roof (for demand). It helped us,” Pepe said.
The business began drawing customers from beyond Niagara with orders coming in from the Greater Toronto Area.
“It helped us expand the market in Burlington and Oakville,” Pepe said.
“Maybe they would have turned their nose up at a frozen product before, but they were kind of forced to try it and now we have customers for life out there.”
Business is booming and Cacio Pepe has won several Readers’ Choice Awards, including one for Pepe as “Best Chef.”
While he crafts all sorts of different meals typically found in fine dining establishments, he’s learned that classic dishes are the most popular and keep people coming back for more.
One of them is the Cabernet braised beef, which Pepe described as “a beautiful piece of beef brisket” that’s braised in Cabernet and beef stock then served with garlic mashed potatoes and glazed baby carrots.
“It’s kind of a crowd-pleaser,” Pepe said.
Meals featuring beef are most people’s go-to, he added.
“It’s not out of their comfort zone, whereas maybe a piece of salmon or something like that is,” Pepe said.
All dishes are made from scratch, using fresh ingredients. Meals are vacuum-packed before they are frozen to preserve flavours and freshness, Pepe said.
Word-of-mouth has proven to be a friend of the business, with existing customers introducing others to Cacio Pepe’s fare.
“People like to bring people in that haven’t been here before,” Pepe said.
For example, one customer who first came to the business a few weeks ago has already been back several times and has brought new customers into the shop with him.
It’s the food, however, that keeps people coming back, Pepe added. And offerings go beyond just beef. There’s a host of chicken, fish and pasta items that customers can choose from.
Meals are not simply tossed in your average freezer or even flash-frozen. Instead, Pepe uses a ULT freezer, which will freeze items in five minutes.
“It’s only used in biochemistry to freeze cellular structures and stuff that needs to maintain pristine condition,” Pepe said.
That method, he said, preserves the freshness of the food.
In a region chock full of wineries, it makes sense to offer up advice on what vino to pair with Cacio Pepe’s meals, said Pepe, who worked as a sommelier before he was a chef.
“I’m always thinking of wine first and food second,” Pepe said. “So, whenever I’m creating a dish, it’s always to pair with the wine.”
Cacio Pepe is located at 65 Stewart Rd. in Niagara-on-the-Lake and is open Tuesday to Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A complete menu can be found online at caciopepemeals.com. Meals can be ordered online, in person or by phone at 905-358-4275.