AUGUSTA, Maine – Richard Desjardins has stayed out of politics during his two decades running the Cross Cafe. But his mission of feeding lawmakers and the public will end this summer after two unusual years in Augusta 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 served the people who make Maine tick for 22 years. Like many businesses, the pandemic fundamentally changed his work.
Many state employees work remotely and may continue hybrid work schedules for the foreseeable future. The legislative sessions that drive the majority of his sales have been scaled back over the last two years. He estimates he is doing no more than 20 percent of the business he did pre-pandemic. It is time to move on.
“I’m just not having any fun,” he said.
It marks a turning point in State House culture. While the canteen is still a meeting place for lawmakers, the prepackaged, largely self-serve model now lacks 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 that provides people with visual impairments job opportunities through vending facilities. Originally from Lewiston, he started losing his sight in his 20s while working at a factory. He was not sure what kind of career would be available to him. It was a good fit.
Another vendor will replace Desjardins come June 1. Desjardins will still provide food for the Maine Department of Transportation, but he said he will miss talking with politicians of all stripes. He will also miss the busy days of serving hundreds of meals during rush hour with recipes that often came from the mind of his wife, Carol, his business partner.
The cafe is beloved for breakfast and lunch deals. In 2018, it was serving lobster rolls with fries and coleslaw for the bargain-basement rate of $9.95. (They can go for more than $30 now.) Staffers flock to the cafe on Thursday, when crispy chicken is served either as a main course or in a sandwich. The coffee was cheap, rugged and always available until closing time at 2 p.m.
He leaves behind a legacy of uplifting people with disabilities, an effort that led to him being recognized in 2013 as an employer of the year by Kennebec Behavioral Health. Amy Kirkpatrick, the executive director of Capitol Clubhouse, said Desjardins worked with her organization for several years to give jobs to people with disabilities. A job-placement program with the cafe ended a few years ago only because Desjardins hired the employees full-time.
“Him 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.”
After the pandemic, the cafe is a shadow of its former self, said former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat who also served in the Legislature during Desjardins’ time running the cafe.
But it is still a meeting place where you can meet interesting people or discuss business, such as a time when Dunlap was meeting with then-Gov. John Baldacci and Gov. Janet Mills when she was attorney general. A school group passed by and their teacher noticed.
“He said to 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 going on in the State House, talking with Cross Cafe workers provided a reprieve from the stress of life under the microscope, he said.
“You could just shoot the breeze with them,” Dunlap said. “You could be treated like real people. That’s one of the things you could get out of the cafeteria.”