These are emotional times for Penny Elliott.
The longtime owner-operator of Café Pichilingue and Velvet Olive is preparing to bid farewell to her downtown businesses and the countless people she’s served there. And “sweet sorrow” is an apt description for the parting.
“So many good friends; so many good customers,” she reflected on Monday. “That’s what’s kept me here over the years.”
Sept. 24 will be the final day for Café Pichilingue, the assets of which have been sold to another restaurant operator. Elliott’s involvement with Velvet Olive will end three days later, although that business will continue under the ownership of Peter McGee, who has worked there the past 2 1/2 years.
“Pete’s going to continue it the same — supporting the artists, supporting the musicians.”
Elliott opened Café Pichilingue in August 2000 and added Velvet Olive 4 1/2 years later. Her husband Juan Villa has been her partner in the businesses for the last two years.
The decision to step away was motivated by rising rent and other costs, which meant working harder to keep pace.
“I don’t want to work any harder than I do. I already work 80 hours a week.”
However, it’s going to be tough to leave downtown Red Deer and the tight-knit group of business owners there, Elliott acknowledged.
“That’s the hardest part,” she said. “I love downtown.”
Elliott has even developed an affinity for the street people who frequent downtown Red Deer.
“When I came down here, I was afraid of them,” she admitted.
That changed as she became familiar with this subculture.
“Some of them are just so amazing to sit and talk to. To hear their stories, it blows your mind.”
Elliott describes how one of her customers recently brought a homeless man into Café Pichilingue and bought him breakfast.
“He ate half of it, and took the other half out and gave it to this (other) homeless fellow.”
Elliott plans to remain in Red Deer, although she expects to make up for years of missed holidays by taking her father to Cuba to visit a brother who’s been a missionary there for more than 60 years.
She also wants to spend time in Villa’s home country of Chile.
As for work, Elliott has no immediate plans.
“Right now, I just want to take a few weeks to settle my head and my body. I don’t want to commit to anything at this point in case I commit to the wrong thing.”
That said, she would like to work with the homeless and help train workers in the hospitality industry.
An open house at Velvet Olive is planned for Sept. 24, giving Elliott a chance to bid farewell to customers and friends.
“I feel very grateful, very blessed that I’ve been able to spend this time here, meet the people that I have, do what I’ve been doing for 14 years.”