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Benny’s Market witnesses century of change in Strathcona

New series looks at the people and places that make up Vancouver neighbourhoods

We’re always welcoming new neighbours, whether from across oceans or across town. The city welcomes new faces to old streets and old faces to new streets. Whether we’re the old-timers or newcomers, change can be scary.
This city is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If we all could peer into each other’s heads and hearts and have a look at how each of us thinks and feels, we’d be left with profoundly different views of Vancouver.
This is the first in a series of stories to introduce us to each other.

For the Benedettis, the family Strathcona corner store is where life happened.

Italian-born Alfonso Benedetti opened Benny’s Market in 1917. About two years later, he met his wife here, who lived across the street and would come over to buy candy. While her teachers didn’t approve due to the large age gap, her mother told her, “You marry Alfonso. He’s got a grocery store. You’ll never go hungry.”

Alfonso’s son Ramon Sr., 87 today, grew up sleeping in a bedroom where the deli is now.

Years later, Ramon Sr. goes into cardiac arrest at Benny’s Market. The firefighters next door are over instantly and Ramon Sr. says he owes his life to them. They know the man well and gave extra care — they’ve eaten many a Benny burger, the classic with cheese and mortadella.

Benny’s sold Italian goods in the early days — pasta, flour and the like — along with treats such as ice cream, soda, chocolate and tobacco. Ramon Sr. started importing and distributing European dry goods in the ’50s, a tradition that continues today with the family’s wholesale business run by son Ramon Jr. and his wife.

I sit with Ramon Sr., who’s mostly Mr. Benedetti nowadays, in the office behind the store that was once his mother’s kitchen. This is also where Ramon Jr. helped out when he was 10, burning cardboard in an old stove while watching TV.

Benny’s is still very much a family affair. A niece who works the deli pops in to bring Mr. Benedetti a coffee as we chat. His great-granddaughter runs around.

Benny’s didn’t used to be the only shop in the neighbourhood, but it’s the only one left from Mr. Benedetti’s childhood.

He remembers exactly where they all were. Even from inside the office, he knows the neighbourhood well enough that he points to the direction of their old spots as he names them. An Italian grocer who made his own sausage. An uncle who canned whole chicken and big tins of ravioli in brine. A Japanese toy store that sold balsa wood model planes and kites. Maron’s Jewish store. Benedetti remembers the owner sitting on the porch every summer evening with his wife, always a beanie on his head.

“So many little guys,” said Mr. Benedetti, “all gone.”

Running the wholesale business from the store helps Benny’s stick around in the neighbourhood, but it’s been increasingly difficult for the “little guys” after the warehouse club industry came out of America in the ’70s and ’80s with Price Club and now Costco.

“Corner stores have a stigma of being small stores, high prices, minimal amounts of product,” said Ramon Jr., Mr. Benedetti’s son.

The Benedettis fight that image by keeping prices close to those of supermarkets. They’ve also supplied specialty products to hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton and restaurants like CinCin and often save a little extra for the store. They’re still keeping it local, but the city is the new neighbourhood.

Ramon admits it can be a difficult lifestyle. Benny’s only closes Sundays and holidays today — as opposed to early days when it was only closed on Christmas — but Ramon often works around the clock to get product to a wholesale customer if they need it. Since he’s the one who knows everything, he hasn’t gone on a long vacation in 15 years.

With Alfonso Benedetti, Ramon Sr. and Ramon Jr., that’s three generations who’ve looked after Benny’s. Will there be a fourth?

Ramon has two sons who help out: one with delivery, one with the fridges. To them he says “no pressure,” as he knows it’s not for everyone. At one point, he thought he was going to be a mechanic. Even Mr. Benedetti avoided it for a time, working six years as a cook on a commercial fishing boat.

But there is a desire to keep it in the family.

“It’s our name,” said Ramon. “I can’t relinquish it and hand it off to somebody else.”

Though there is one thing about the future he is certain about.

“We’re gonna party,” he said. “We’re gonna turn 100 in two years.”

Most of that history and the people are still in Mr. Benedetti’s head.

He remembers how his father came to America through Ellis Island, wound up in B.C. and started Benny’s with a partner using card game winnings.

He remembers the many immigrants who called Strathcona home: Jews, Russians, Yugoslavs and the black community that lived around Main Street’s 200-block.

He remembers the Benny’s Market bowling team and their rivals from Chinatown restaurant Bamboo Terrace, who they treated to Italian supper at Puccini’s if they lost.

He remembers witnessing a Chinese neighbour’s extravagant funeral ceremony, held in front of her house with paid mourners and food and strong incense laid out on the street. One day more than 70 years later, he caught a man and two young women staring intently at the same house and asked what they were doing.

“That was our grandmother’s house,” they told Mr. Benedetti.

Even today, he still comes across others who remember the lives lived here.

I ask him whether he feels a lot of nostalgia being here in Strathcona. After all, he lives in a house behind the store, just metres from his childhood bedroom at the shop.

“Oh, you do think about it,” he said.

Mr. Benedetti tells me to look outside. There’s an alley by the yard. This is where he played bocce Friday nights in the summer with his old gang of 15 guys.

“There’s only three of us left,” he said. “Kinda chokes you up, but life’s been good to us.

“I always thank God for bringing me into the Benedetti family and marrying into my wife’s family. That’s been a highlight of my life.”

Mr. Benedetti recalls something his grandmother used to tell him. It’s along the lines of carpe diem but with more bite.

“Eat your steak while you still got teeth.”

He still visits the family store every day.

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