Back in 2005, Dawn Lennie was looking for something interesting to do when her eye fell on a tiny neighbourhood grocery store.
“It was called Hillside Grocery and it had been there for 50 plus years as a grocery or convenience store,” said Lennie. At that time, she had just relocated to Penticton after selling her business in Victoria.
It was for sale, and Lennie was intrigued by the idea of creating a store that would specialize in local products.
“We purchased the property in July of 2005, and we reopened as The Bench in September,” she said.
Originally, she said, she was trying to create the feel of the boutique stores she loved in larger cities, but at the same time keeping it very Okanagan.
“We focus on a lot of locally made products and that sort of thing on our shelves. Dressings and sauces; local honey; anything we can get our hands on that is a good locally made product,” said Lennie.
Over the six years The Bench has been operating, the focus of the business has changed somewhat. Lennie still stocks local products, but The Bench has now gained a reputation as highly rated café and deli, both locally and with visitors.
“When we first opened, the concept was to be more specialty grocery and coffee and have the deli be more of a true deli. The menu itself and the demand for breakfast and lunch became the real growth area for us,” said Lennie. “On the weekends, we do eggs benedict and a few other breakfast items, and during the week, we have a pretty basic breakfast menu.”
Lennie has also added catering to her list of growth areas.
“Mostly breakfast and lunch catering, we don’t do a lot of dinner — it’s mostly people coming and picking stuff up from us,” said Lennie. “We’re not a big full-service catering company.”
While the amount of employees varies, The Bench also retains a comparatively large staff given the small size of the premises.
“Maximum, we would be up to about 16 people, and this winter we had 10 people on staff,” said Lennie.
That means the kitchen and store can be crowded, and Lennie’s solution was to apply for a variance from the City of Penticton that would allow her to move the kitchen into a house at the rear of the store, that is part of the property.
“It’s a pretty small kitchen and in order to attract talented chefs and people that are excited about working there, you need to provide a space that they can function and do their job properly,” said Lennie. “We’ve really outgrown that little kitchen.”
Success hasn’t come without problems. While many neighbours visit The Bench regularly, some are uneasy about the expansion and at a public hearing, aired concerns about parking in the area, as well as worries that the expansion might result in increased noise and reduced privacy.
Lennie admits street parking for the little shop can be a problem, especially during the summer months, but said they took the neighbours into account while planning.
“I didn’t want any deliveries or any big trucks coming down there. We are very aware that it is a residential area. Right from the get go, we had decided that everything would remain the same regarding deliveries,” she said. “We want to be good neighbours. It bothers me that people were there and upset with what we were doing, because that defeats the purpose of what we try to do everyday, and that’s be a positive influence in the community and provide a nice little community place for people to have coffee and say hi.”
City council agreed that the expansion would cause little disruption, and granted the variance Monday evening.
Lennie plans to have plans prepared and apply for her building permit in hopes of being able to complete the expansion by early summer.