Walk into Benny’s Cafe in Kitsilano and you’re guaranteed to be met by a bustling atmosphere, a diverse and eclectic group of customers and distinctive furnishings consisting of hundreds of one-of-a-kind items collected over the years.
But only until Monday.
The neighbourhood staple at the corner of West Broadway and Larch Street is set to close its doors on April 30 after 30 years in business. Along with three connecting businesses, it will be making way for almost two dozen new luxury condos.
During the past three decades Benny’s established itself as a principal hangout in Kits, attracting customers from across many spectrums. The cafe became home to morning regulars, students taking part in study sessions, clubs looking for a hangout headquarters and every type of passerby in between.
Its interior even earned it a place in the upcoming Jason Reitman film Tully, starring Charlize Theron.
“This is part of the community. You’re not ever going to replicate a place like this,” said long-time customer Suzanne Soldan. “It really represents Kitsilano. It’s a great decor, great place to come to. They shouldn’t tear places like this down.”
Like many others at the cafe, Soldan had stopped in for a final goodbye. Many of the customers were also eager to say thanks to owner Harj S. Chahl. Together with his brother Parm, the pair has been in charge of the cafe for almost 20 years.
“We make ourselves unique by our environment, by our customer culture,” says Chahl. “We have a loyal following because everybody is welcome, and people can be themselves.”
Chahl learned last year that the property Benny’s sits on had been sold to a development company. Shortly after he was informed that the four corner businesses would be demolished.
Chahl realizes that real estate is a competitive business, but wishes more could be done to help small businesses like Benny’s compete in such a highly competitive market like Vancouver’s. Benny’s had a buy-back option in its existing lease but the prospect of doing so proved far too expensive to be a viable option.
“There should be some type of program to help smaller businesses to thrive when they’re trying to compete with bigger corporations,” said Chahl.
Since learning the news, customers have been ensuring they make time to get out to Benny’s as often as possible. This includes a local women’s senior exercise group that frequents the cafe after morning classes at the Kitsilano recreation centre.
“They said they’ve celebrated 157 birthdays here,” Chahl said. “[Closing] was pretty emotional for some of them.”
Every regular patron is eager to relay a similar story. Relationships have been forged, patrons who are now parents bring their children along, and countless milestones have been celebrated.
“That’s why people are hurt, because customers feel they have ownership. They have a sense of belonging,” explained Chahl.
Mark Ingram stopped in for one final Tex Mex, open faced on a poppy seed bun. An employee with Benny’s in the early 1990s, he believes the transition from neighborhood cafe to luxury condos speaks to a broader issue in Vancouver.
“It’s a shame but it’s part of the Van-hattan-ization that’s happening all over, so we can’t really be surprised,” Ingram said. “The property tax rates being set so that the only logical use for the land is to tear down and redevelop is absurd.”
Chahl is hopeful that the cafe may be able to return in some capacity in the future, perhaps in partnership with another cafe.
For now though, customers are left with just a few final days before the Benny’s Cafe as they know it is gone forever.