Benny’s and Strathcona
Benny’s Italian Foods Ltd. has served the Strathcona neighbourhood for almost 100 years, selling everything from European dry goods to T-shirts. It is an important surviving and thriving example of a family enterprise once common in Vancouver.
From Italy to Ellis Island to Strathcona
The founder and family patriarch, Alfonso Benedetti, immigrated from Italy in 1909 at the age of 17. After landing at Ellis Island, he made his way west, working on the railroads until he arrived in Spokane Washington. From there he went to Osoyoos, then to Vancouver. In 1917, he used the money from the winnings of a card game to open an ice cream parlour at 598 Union with his friend Francesco Fresu. They sold cigars, fancy chocolates and parlour treats. In 1919, Alfonso bought Fresu out and set up Benny’s Market. In 1921, Alfonso married Violet Teti, who lived across the street and came in to buy candy. Her mother apparently said to her, “Look, you marry Alfonso, he’s got a grocery store, you’ll never go hungry.” Alfonso and Violet lived at the back of the grocery store when they were married and expanded the business to sell dry goods.
Expanding into Wholesale Goods
Working hard through the tough times of the Depression and the post-war good times, they made a life for themselves and their family. Alfonso’s son Ramon Sr. grew up sleeping in a bedroom where the deli is now. He started work in the business in 1956, and helped propel it into a new era by importing Spanish, Portuguese and Italian products. Ramon and his wife Irma also began supplying many Italian stores from Vancouver to Prince Rupert as well as fishing and tugboats working at the port. Running the wholesale business from the store helped Benny’s to survive, while many similar shops went out of business, victims of the big-box chain supermarkets.
Surviving the Freeway Threat
The Italian community migrated farther east as immigration increased in the postwar years, first to Commercial Drive, then Burnaby. In the 1960s, with the threat of a freeway that was planned to run right through the store, and the edges of the neighbourhood being chipped away by urban renewal projects, business began to suffer. At times there was just one customer per hour. After Alfonso died in 1970, Ramon concentrated on supplying hotels like the Devonshire and restaurants like Nick’s Spaghetti House and Primo’s. Meanwhile, Ramon’s eldest daughter Janice, began working full time in the store. Ramon took care of the deliveries, buying, selling, and book-keeping, and invented the famous “Benny Burger” – mortadella and cheese on a bun. “He saw many children from Strathcona Elementary coming and spending money on junk food at lunchtime and wanted to create an affordable simple sandwich,” explains Francesca Benedetti. Ramon, his wife and children, and their families continue to run the store behind the original Italian marble countertop. Everyone works – like Alfonso used to say, “No Work No Eat!”. Though much has changed in the neighbourhood Benny’s still stands.
We celebrated Benny’s Market on June 3, 2012 during VHF’s Heritage House Tour. See facebook album.
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