It was chartered in 1883 as Canada Railway News Company selling newspapers, magazines and confectionaries at railway stations. The company's roots go back to the mid-1850s when Thomas Patrick Phelan was selling fruit and newspapers to train passengers between Hamilton and Buffalo. Canada Railway News soon moved into the food business, catering to a boom in passenger rail traffic in Canada.
In the 1930s, Cara began offering catering services to the airlines. By 1951 it was serving about 1,500 meals a day.
In 1961 the company changed its name to Cara Operations Limited.
Cara was owned solely by the Phelan family from its inception in 1883 until it went public in 1968. At the time, its primary business was catering to the transportation sector (airline and rail meals), but it did operate a few 'no-name' restaurants and coffee shops in various office towers and airport terminals in Canada. Total sales of all the various operations was C$30 million in 1968.