First look inside Sunderland's new Betsy Jenny Wellbeing cafe as it transforms former Elizabeth's site
A unique cafe, which offers healthy meals as well as a listening ear for those in need, is set to open its doors after completely transforming a landmark city centre site.
Betsy Jenny Wellbeing Cafe will open on Monday, December 13, with an official opening by the Mayor on December 18, after breathing new life into the former, much-loved, Elizabeth’s restaurant in Bridge Street.
As well as operating as a 60-seat cafe, serving up healthy eating options, it also features four counselling rooms and one large meeting room with the aim of making counselling accessible to all and putting people struggling with their mental health on a pathway of support.
It’s been brought to the city by Sunderland businessman Steve Lynn who knows all too well the importance of counselling.
In 2018 he suffered unimaginable grief when his 25-year-old son Steve Jnr died after contracting the flu, and it was counselling that helped him to live with the trauma.
Now, the memory of the popular 25-year-old, who was known affectionately as Betsy since his primary school days, will live on in Betsy Jenny’s, which is also named after an amalgamation of Steve’s parents’ names, Jean and Kenny, who died shortly before their grandson.
It’s been a real labour of love for Steve who is keen to break the stigma surrounding mental health, particularly for men who sometimes find it difficult to reach out for help.
Work began a year ago on the site, which had stood empty since 2017, with major structural works including the creation of a new, more open, front entrance using special ashlar stone to complement the existing Victorian masonry.
Much of the works were completed by Steve’s team from his company, SJL Brickwork Ltd, which is based at the BIC, while artists from Arts 4 Wellbeing in South Shields have decorated the existing Elizabeth’s furniture left behind at the site.
Local artist Lauren Young has also created a Tree of Life mural on one wall, while Steve purchased prints from the family of Dean Matthews to create a gallery wall of stunning images taken by the late Sunderland photographer who died from Covid.
Speaking about seeing his vision come to life after a long journey of renovation, Steve said: “I’m so proud, and the fact that my son’s and parents’ names are in the name of the cafe makes me proudest of all.
"Many people handle break downs and difficulties in different ways. For me, I’ve always been a positive person and I wanted to do something to give something back to Sunderland. The stigma around mental health is huge and I wanted to do my bit to break it down.
"It’s been a stressful journey, but we’re really looking forward to opening, I think people are going to get a shock when they see how much it’s changed.
"It was an iconic building as Elizabeth’s where people would meet and chat, and we want it to be iconic again, as a wellbeing hub. There’s certainly not anywhere else like this in Sunderland, and I don’t know of anywhere in the country offering this. There’s places you can call in for a cup of tea and a chat, but not a cafe of this size with dedicated counselling rooms.”
The cafe side, which has created four new jobs so far, will open first, with all proceeds from the cafe going back into the site to help its valuable work. It’s aimed at everyone, not just those in need of support. Meanwhile, the four counselling rooms will open next, offering all sorts of counselling, from drug abuse counselling to grief.
A multi-purpose meeting room will be available for all manner of wellbeing groups, from yoga and arts to mens’ mental health groups.
"There’s been lots of interest from groups and organisations as I think they often struggle to find premises, especially in the city centre,” Steve explained. “It will act as a one-stop shop for anyone in need in support. But also, it’s a regular cafe for everybody where you can come in for meal. We’ll be doing lots of options, but we’ll be making them in a healthy way, such as healthy kebabs.”
Famed for its Sunday dinners and mince & dumplings, Elizabeth’s had kept Wearsiders well fed for decades before closing in 2017 after custom dwindled.
It remained untouched until Steve brought the building, opening up the space, installing a new roof, rewiring and other major works.
It’s one in a number of old buildings at this side of the city centre which have been given some much-needed TLC. In recent months, major restoration works have taken place at the nearby Mackie’s Corner to create a hub of independent businesses. Meanwhile, Pop Recs and the Sunshine Co-operative have transformed once dilapidated buildings at the far end of High Street West.
On the nearby former Vaux site, buildings such as the new City Hall are rising into the skyline as part of the major £500million Riverside development which is transforming both sides of the river with a mix of offices, housing and leisure.
Steve said: “There’s so much happening in this little quarter of the city. Once, it was mostly just an area where you saw match day traffic with people walking over the bridge, but now there’s so much more footfall and it’s great to see all the old buildings being given new life, as well as the new developments on Riverside. It's about time.”
:: A crowdfunding page has been set up to support Betsy Jenny’s counselling work. To donate visit www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/BetsyJennyCounsellingandWellbeingCafe. Any groups wanting to use the space are welcome to visit the Betsy Jenny social media pages or email [email protected]