PORT TOWNSEND – This couple came to Port Townsend to start a very different life.
“We were both fired from our jobs during COVID,” said Eric Wennberg, who took a step back from his urban career with his partner Jessica Jennings — then jumped into a new field in this rural county.
Jennings and Wennberg bought the historic Bishop Hotel at 714 Washington St. six months after 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 late last year they sold their other property, the Swan Hotel, to the Northwest Maritime Center for $2 million.
Now that Wennberg and Jennings have endured more than a year of hospitality in challenging circumstances, they have expanded their business. The new Bishop Block Bottle Shop is a wine bar-restaurant with indoor service and garden dining – with fire tables for warmth.
“This was an opportunity to think outside the box and re-imagine what we were doing,” Jennings said of their past occupations. Originally from Detroit, she ran Seattle music venues and restaurants for years.
Wennberg, a hairstylist and educator, traveled extensively. He had some hospitality experience as a hotel clerk when he was 18 — but just about everything about this new venture was “a surprise and a learning curve,” he said.
COVID safety mandates add another layer to the company, the couple acknowledged, while Jennings emphasized that they fully support Jefferson County’s rules.
“Everyone who works here is fully vaccinated. We take it seriously,” she added.
Still, as in industries across the country, staffing has been a major problem.
“Last summer was interesting,” Jennings said, “and luckily we had a reliable staff of four people, including us,” to run the 16-suite hotel.
Ensuring a structure built in 1890 offers yet another learning experience, Wennberg said. The Bishop Block has lived many lives, including as a living room during World War II and as the Owl Cigar Co. at the beginning of the 20th century.
Running a hotel and restaurant at this point in history “has been absolutely difficult,” Jennings said.
Still, she and Wennberg feel strongly that they have found their place. Expanding the payroll, they hire executive chef Cameron Irving-Mills and wine steward Kristen Skeel to serve home-cooked appetizers, 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 wasn’t at its peak. Making menus was “challenging, but not in a bad way,” he said.
“So far the produce here has been absolutely incredible,” said the chef, adding that he’s linked up with Red Dog Farm, Soft Step Farm and other nearby growers to prepare fresh produce in the Bishop’s small kitchen.
Among the dishes Irving-Mills has prepared: steamed Alaskan salmon with black onion puree; local vegetables dressed with fermented horseradish in a fortified salmon stock; fermented carrots with olive pearls; duck liver mousse; roasted beet tartare; caramelized carrot dip.
“I’m looking forward to spring. It will be fun to go to the farms and meet everyone,” 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 fare and advice on things to do.
Even as the pandemic and winter continue, “we’re doing our best to make everyone’s experience joyful,” Wennberg said.
“In the climate we find ourselves in, there is still happiness to be had.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]