By Ray Culos
Scores of well-wishers flocked to the 500-block Union Street last Sunday, August 26th to party at the 100th birthday of Vancouver’s oldest operating Italian food market. Shoppers, friends and relatives of the Benedetti family voiced delight in celebrating one-hundred years of operation at 598 Union Street. In speaking to Janice Benedetti, the family historian, I obtained some interesting historical data regarding the founding of Benny’s Market by her grandfather Alfonso Benedetti in 1919 and the eventual expansion of the business under her father Ramon’s tutelage. “My grandfather and his partner Francesco Fazu operated an ice cream parlour at this address in early 1919. However, within a few months the partnership was dissolved and Alfonso Benedetti became sole proprietor. During the next several decades he expedited his marketing plan first by adding dry goods and then grocery products. “He met and married Violet Teti who lived across the street from the store. Together they had two children, Dora and Ramon. Alfonso and Violet made a wonderful team in terms of building their neighbourhood confectionary. It’s true to say that Mrs. Benny – as she was known to her patrons – was an ideal partner as she possessed spirited skills that won the respect of those who shopped at Benny’s store. Janice who joined the business in 1975 continued to speak of the family’s commitment to expand the business, “In 1956 – the same year my parents married – my father, who had extensive commercial fishing experience, joined his parents tending to the grocery business on a full-time basis. With the support of my mom (Irma), he soon added a fish chandler quotient to the enterprise. “In the mid-seventies and eighties my sisters Sandra and Francesca joined the family business as part-time employees doing a myriad of tasks completing the family roster. “There have been many changes to Benny’s over the years including those introduced by Ramon Jr. Since he took over the helm in 2008, he and his wife Janet – with the assistance of their children Rheis and Quinten – have continued to grow the business.”
“I’m quick to add, of course, the fact that our successes could only have been achieved with the full support of our friends and neighbours in the Strathcona neighbourhood, all of whom we thank dearly,” Janice concluded.
The Clan Benedetti of Strathcona: A Memoir by Ray Culos
There’s never been a time during the last one-hundred years when a Benedetti hasn’t lived and prospered in Strathcona’s Italian enclave. The Vancouver district, once proudly known as ‘Little Italy’, has survived an incredible transformation since Alfonso Benedetti became sole owner of the original soda fountain outlet on August 26, 1919. Since then, the family has transitioned Alfonso’s acquisition from a quasi ice cream parlour to a robust and bustling family grocery food-market. I was eight years old when my mother first took me for a treat at Benny’s Soda Fountain. That was seventy-five years ago – whew that’s a long time ago. Prior to being married, my mother Felecetta lived right across the street from the Benedettis where her parents, Sam and Artemisia Minichiello operated the Union Grocery Store. She would have been eight years old in 1919 when ‘Fonse became sole proprietor of the ice cream parlour.
My mom and her sister Mary, who was born on Union Street in 1912, often spoke of their years at Strathcona School with the ‘Tait girls’, – the Anglicized pronunciation of the surname ‘Teti’ – and events which occurred during her life-long friendship with Ramon’s mother Violet Teti Benedetti. Ramon (Ray), who passed away in April of this year, virtually encapsulated the story, struggle and success of those living in Strathcona, past and present. As such, he occupies an unique place in local folklore. A scripted title might well have referred to him as “Citizen Emeritus of Strathcona”. Such a reference would have been totally appropriate given that he lived the scene for his entire ninety years during which he actively participated in the community’s growth and prosperity. During a span of nine decades as an observer and participant, Ramon absorbed the rich and colourful history of the area and its unique connection with the Italian residents mostly gained through the process of osmosis.
The synthesis of Strathcona’s history and the community’s Italian legacy ran through his veins, no question. A year following Ramon’s birth in 1928, the world trembled as the Great Depression began a decade of financial instability and ruin on a grand scale. In the Strathcona area, the Italian labour force was hit hard by the prevailing winds of unemployment which brought hardship to many families. The Italian immigrant factor, however, hunkered down and did its best to meet the challenge by taking on work of any kind while cultivating at-home mini husbandry industries. They planted vegetable gardens, raised sheep, coats, cows, rabbits, chickens and horses – for barter and/or personal use. The cows and horses were stabled in barns along many of the district’s unpaved and narrow laneways, rabbit hutches rapidly festooned bocce courts and gardens flourished in back and front yards of single dwelling homes and on empty lots most of which were located in the immediate neighbourhood. The area in question comprised a geographic section of Strathcona largely Union Street east of Main Street to Vernon Drive and north of Atlantic and Prior to Hastings Street. Not included, however, were a couple of square blocks in the north-west corner which formed part of Chinatown. It is to be noted that little or no domestic property encroachment or theft was evident in those days. Often residents casually left the doors to their homes unlocked as they prepared to retire for the evening.
During the time Ramon was a student at Van Tech High School the family’s business became predominately a family grocery store; virtually the only one in the immediate area of Strathcona. It became known as Benny’s Market. However, it must be said that there is another iconic enterprise which belongs in a special category unto itself. And that would be the P. Tosi Company, importers of fine Italian food products including quality virgin olive oil and superior brands of cheese, which was established on Main Street in the early 1930’s.
It is presently managed by the founder’s son Angelo who, it is rumoured, is ready to sell. Ramon’s life truly became synonymous with the history and people of Strathcona, especially those of Italian heritage who proudly associate themselves with Vancouver’s oldest community. As the third and fourth generations of the Benedetti family take their positions at the helm, Benny’s Market is set to remain a living treasure for as long as there is a Clan Benedetti in Strathcona.