PORT TOWNSEND — This couple came to Port Townsend to begin an entirely different life.
“We were both furloughed from our jobs during COVID,” said Eric Wennberg who, with his partner Jessica Jennings, took a step back from his urban career — and then a leap into a new field in this rural county.
Jennings and Wennberg bought the landmark Bishop Hotel at 714 Washington St. six months into the pandemic. The former owners, Cindy and Joe Finnie, were ready to retire; they sold the 132-year-old building for $1,950,000 and, at the end of last year, sold their other property, the Swan Hotel, to the Northwest Maritime Center for $2 million.
Now that Wennberg and Jennings have weathered over a year of hospitality in challenging conditions, they’ve expanded their enterprise. The new Bishop Block Bottle Shop is a wine bar-restaurant with counter service indoors and dining out in the garden — with fire tables for heat.
“This was an opportunity to think outside the box, and re-envision what we were doing,” Jennings said of their previous occupations. Originally from Detroit, she spent years managing music venues and restaurants in Seattle.
Wennberg, a hairstylist and educator, traveled a lot. He did have some hospitality experience as a hotel valet when he was 18 — but just about everything about this new venture has been “a surprise and a learning curve,” he said.
COVID safety mandates add another layer to the business, the pair acknowledged, while Jennings emphasized they are in full support of Jefferson County’s rules.
“Everyone that works here is fully vaccinated. We take it seriously,” she added.
Still, as in industries across the country, staffing has been a big issue.
“Last summer was interesting,” Jennings said, “and thankfully we had a trusty staff of four people, including us,” to run the 16-suite hotel.
Caring for a structure built in 1890 presents yet another learning experience, Wennberg said. The Bishop Block has led many lives, including as a rooming house during World War II and as the Owl Cigar Co. at the turn of the 20th century.
Running a hotel and a restaurant at this point in history “has definitely been difficult,” Jennings said.
Yet she and Wennberg feel strongly that they’ve found their place. They’re expanding the payroll, hiring chef Cameron Irving-Mills and wine steward Kristen Skeel, to serve house-made snacks, drinks and, Thursday through Sunday, dinner in the garden.
Irving-Mills, who has cooked in restaurants from San Francisco to Chicago to Seattle, arrived last fall, when local produce was not at its peak. Creating menus was “challenging, but not in a bad way,” he said.
“So far, the products here have been absolutely incredible,” the chef said, adding he’s connected with Red Dog Farm, Soft Step Farm and other nearby growers for fresh produce to prepare in the Bishop’s tiny kitchen.
Among the dishes Irving-Mills has cooked up: steamed Alaskan salmon with a black onion puree; local greens dressed with fermented horseradish in a fortified salmon broth; fermented carrots with olive pearls; duck liver mousse; roasted beet tartare; caramelized carrot dip.
“I’m looking forward to spring. It will be neat to go to the farms and meet everybody,” he added.
With these additions, the Bishop’s new owners hope to provide a curated experience of Port Townsend and the North Olympic Peninsula, with farm-to-table cuisine and advice about things to do.
Even as the pandemic and winter linger, “we’re doing our best to make everybody’s experience joyful,” Wennberg said.
“In the climate we’re in, there’s still happiness to be had.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or firstname.lastname@example.org.