Cancer just another item on the agenda

Stu Ducklow/The
Published on March 25, 2010
Marilyn MacKay and Scott Geddes, of Cocoa Pesto

Scott Geddes doesn’t have the powerful, handshake you’d expect from one of Windsor’s most successful businessman. Instead, he offers his left hand and holds his right away from contact.

Even a modest squeeze hurts his right hand. That’s because he has a rare type of cancer called Ewing Sarcoma, a condition he’s dealing with the way he deals with everything else: a huge application of energy and optimism.

“It’s the top of my priority list right now, but it’s just one more thing that has to be done this year.” Geddes, who owns Coca Pesto Catering and Bistro with his wife Marilyn McKay, says the cancer will be a memory in a year. Meanwhile he’ll go bald and suffer through chemotherapy treatments that leave him feeling “hungover and stupid, like I’d drunk a 40-ounce bottle of rum.”

Originally from Windsor,  Ont., Geddes came to the catering business as a dishwasher at the age of 15. “The first night I knew this was where I wanted to be. I enjoyed the energy of it.”

He enrolled at the University of Windsor, he dropped out at the last minute and used his tuition refund to make a down payment on a five-room house which he rented to students.

He went to work at the Windsor Hilton, working up to first chef, then was hired by the exclusive Minto Place Hotel, in Ottawa, meeting ground for power brokers including Brian Mulroney.  By the age of 24 he was executive chef. 

There he met his partner Marilyn McKay, a design graduate from NSCAD University, working as a waitress. 

The couple moved to Toronto seeking other opportunities. Both worked at swank restaurants where waiters can make $140,000 a year.

Cocoa Pesto was born when a client asked him about catering a private party. The couple began organizing corporate cocktail parties. The money was good and the work  creative.  For the anniversary of a paper company, they turned a warehouse into a carnival with unicycles, fire breathers, a barbershop quartet, food stations and girls serving champagne.  

Geddes fell in love with the Maritimes when the couple visited  Marilyn’s family. “I loved it here. I love the ocean and the space. This is a piece of heaven.” 

They moved to Halifax and ran their catering business for two years before a client asked them about opening a coffee shop in the stately building at 494 King St., Windsor. They bought it, with the help of several backers, all Windsor natives.

In September, Cocoa Pesto will have been open for four years. Built in 1850 for the Payzant family, it has served as a hotel and bank headquarters. Visitors have included an entire NHL hockey team and the legendary Alexander Keith.

Changes to come include finishing the hotel rooms that make up the Woodshire Inn on the second floor, a new lounge, a take-out restaurant and a laundromat. 

All of which is taking second place to his main battle with cancer. His symptoms began last summer with numbness in his right forearm and diminished strength. “I was dropping spoons and tongs in the kitchen.”

After several missed diagnoses, doctors in Halifax found a lump the size of a sweet potato in his armpit.

A course of radiation followed by chemotherapy has shrunk the tumour to half its size. By the end of the 42-week course of treatment, a surgeon in St. John, NB is scheduled to remove it.

Understandably Geddes has a lot of respect for the Canadian health care system and the 20 or so  people fighting cancer that he has met in the last three months in his restaurant. 

His prognosis might not be so good had it not been for the huge amount of research funded by charity over the years. “The treatment of cancer has changed immensely. We are starting to reap the benefits of all that charity work.”

To some extent Geddes is reaping what he sowed. For the past three years Cocoa Pesto has held fundraising galas for cancer research, raising $30,000-$40,000 a year. This April 10, they will hold their first Mad Hatter’s Tea Party for cancer research.