Worthington’s BenLee’s café changes hands

WORTHINGTON -- The ownership has changed at BenLee's Caf? in downtown Worthington, but for the time being, not much else will be different. David Hartzler is the new owner of the enterprise, but former owner Deb Petersen will stay on and continue...

Deb Petersen and new owner David Hartzler stand behind a freshly baked pan of almond bars Friday at BenLee’s Café in downtown Worthington. (BETH RICKERS/DAILY GLOBE)


WORTHINGTON - The ownership has changed at BenLee’s Café in downtown Worthington, but for the time being, not much else will be different.
David Hartzler is the new owner of the enterprise, but former owner Deb Petersen will stay on and continue to cook up a menu of healthier lunch fare along with some tempting sweets. It’s an arrangement that suits both parties -and something they say seemed meant to be.
After more than six years as manager of the local Pizza Ranch, Hartzler tendered his resignation late last fall.
“It was time to make a change, time to move on,” he said. “But I figured, ‘Now what do I do?’”
Although some opportunities were presented to him, none seemed like a good fit to Hartzler. While attending a Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF)-sponsored event at BenLee’s, he struck up a conversation with Petersen, who was contemplating selling her business and had a prospective buyer. That deal didn’t materialize, however, so she called Hartzler. It took only a month and a half to put the deal together, and the papers were finalized last week.
“I was quietly waiting for the right time and the right person,” said Petersen on Friday, shortly after all the paperwork was signed. “You don’t go listing a business without freaking out your customers, and I was OK if it wasn’t the time yet, but I knew if the door opened, I had to walk through it. … The timing was perfect, and you can tell by how it’s all worked out -that’s a sign.”
“She’s going to do her favorite part - cooking and baking,” said Hartzler.
“I did that for the first time yesterday as an employee, not an owner,” said Petersen. “I think it tastes better because there’s no stress anymore.”
The building that houses BenLee’s is actually owned by the local Journey Ministries, which meets there on Sundays. The space for the café is leased, and a translation service leases office space as well. It’s an arrangement that suits all the parties, Hartzler said.
The café is also available for special events, with seating for up to 250 people, and Petersen operates a catering a service out of it. A wine and beer license was added last year.
“The catering thing is huge,” said Hartzler. “I want to keep Deb around as long as possible. We want to do more of that.”
“Most people sell because they want to quit working,” explained Petersen, who commutes from her home in Slayton. “I’m selling because it got to be too much, too busy, more than I can handle while living 30 miles away and being an only child and having parents who need me. This business has grown every year. Worthington has been very good to me.”
Petersen bills the fare that BenLee’s offers as “the healthy choice,” featuring a menu of wrap sandwiches, salads and soups. Customer favorites are the apple-walnut-craisin salad and the turkey-bacon-cheddar panini.
“We sell a lot of Reubens, too,” Petersen said, “and tomato-basil soup. When we don’t have tomato-basil soup, people get mad. I made homemade chicken noodle the other day, and I hope to have more time to make homemade soup.”
“She gets the fun job, and I get the paperwork,” added Hartzler with a smile.
Petersen seems content to hand the day-to-day details of ownership over to Hartzler, but isn’t about to totally abandon the business.
“Somebody already told me I smile more,” she said. “But it’s like sending your kid off to college. I just can’t abandon Dave, and we want it to be good for everyone - the staff, the customers, Journey, because they’re a part of this, too.”
The only change that Hartzler plans to implement soon is an expansion of the café’s hours, possibly opening earlier to facilitate people getting a cup of coffee on their way to work. Current hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
BenLee’s is located at 212 10th St.; phone 343-3400.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers may be reached at 376-7327.

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