This is a big week for Leah Bennewate and her colleagues at the Del Rey Cafe, as Wednesday will mark the one year anniversary since Bennewate reopened the cafe after taking ownership.
Bennewate was a 9-year veteran of the restaurant when former owner Robin Shoufler called to ask if she wanted to purchase the business. Ironically, Bennewate said, she had just been talking to her boyfriend about owning her own business.
“She called and said she was interested in selling the restaurant but only really wanted to sell it to me,” Bennewate said. “She’s like another mother to me and I think for her it was special to keep it in the family, per se.”
It was a total leap of faith, she said, but every door she came up against kept opening. Clearly, it was meant to be. After she took official ownership, she closed for a few days, then reopened Aug. 17, 2021.
She has only made a few changes, such as updating the bar area to more fit her style. The downstairs bathrooms were also recently remodeled, but Bennewate really wanted to keep with the feel so many have known and loved over the years.
“It was built in 1934 and it’s been the Del Rey Cafe since 1937 and I think a lot of the draw for people is nostalgia. They’ve been coming here for 50, 60, 70 years, depending, and I think a lot of them wanted to see what I did,” she said.
Her biggest goal was to learn every job in the building, so that she could always fill in when needed.
“Because I worked here for so long, I pretty much knew all the ins and outs,” she said. “I was just wearing a different hat one day. I already had a built in rapport with the employees and knew them all for a long time. It wasn’t like I changed my attitude when I went from coworker to boss.”
Only recently was she able to achieve that goal, when she finally had the opportunity to help in the kitchens. The hardest part over the past year has been employee turnover, but now she says she has the best staff she could ever hope for. When Bennewate took ownership, the restaurant employed three people. Now she has a staff of 15.
“Staffing was hard for a long time, cooks especially. And every restaurant in this town has felt it,” she said. “A lot of days it was overwhelming and I would go home and cry about it. But eventually, after ups and downs and trying to get the right mesh, I have an awesome staff. I am very pleased and very blessed. I couldn’t do this without them.”
Many of the cafe’s dishes are homemade. Bennewate said she took a few things off the menu and added a few new ideas to it, but for the most part she wanted to keep everything the same. The cafe’s biscuits and gravy, which won second place in The News-Review Reader’s Choice category, is still the best selling breakfast item.
Nothing has been scheduled to commemorate the date, the cafe is open for regular business hours and, as always, all are welcome. She said she isn’t sure what her next goal is, but she hopes to make the Del Rey Cafe a destination stop rather than a stop along the way.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I took over and it was incredibly humbling. It just kept getting busier and busier and busier, just booming. The support from the community from buying it was just so overwhelming, but in a good way. I feel very blessed,” Bennewate said.