Jo Benson

Gladstone’s Old Lodge Gallery Emporium & By the River Café has been part of the creative fabric of the town for 32 years – a fact that is not lost on owner Jo Benson and her partner, David. Since taking over the business in 2011, the couple have preserved the aspects of the café that were loved by long-time customers. With a resume that includes teaching and customer service, Jo is passionate about nurturing connections between people – a value she believes is sadly lacking in modern society. For Jo, the Old Lodge is a place where people can put down their phones, have real conversations and soak up the healing beauty of the river.

Growing up in Sydney, Jo treasured school holidays spent visiting her grandparents in the Macleay Valley. She fondly recalls stories of her grandfather, a “smart bushy” who worked on the city railways during the depression and used his six-week break to go fishing at Hat Head.

“He’d catch as many fish as he could, then smoke them and come home with enough fish to feed his family for weeks. Eventually, my grandparents retired and moved back to the valley and we loved coming up to visit them. I remember Kempsey as a town where men tipped their hats and people were always courteous, and I still find that people here to be very real and unpretentious.”

After Jo’s own parents retired in Hat Head, she moved up to be closer to them, rediscovering the charms of Gladstone.

“It felt like a place with creative energy that was building,” she says. “I could picture markets with jazz playing in the park and lots of artists, makers and cafes,” Jo says. “To see this actually happen has been wonderful.”

Jo was also drawn to the fascinating history of The Old Lodge. Originally owned by Shan and John Blake, the café began as Shan’s pottery studio and Riverbank Café – a convivial place frequented by friends, local artists and visitors who shared endless cups of coffee, meals and long conversations by the river. It was then sold to John and Jenny Barry, who expanded upon the much-loved café and gallery.

Inspired by an article on the vanishing cafes of Paris (the 45,000 cafes that existed in the 1800’s have decreased to the 7000 that remain today – many of them franchises) Jo took over the café with a sense of the urgent need to create a space that celebrated local culture and provided a place where people could enjoy delicious food and genuinely connect with each other in a beautiful setting.

“Service is an underrated thing,” Jo says. “Life is so busy and people are getting more disconnected from each other.”

“During the Christmas holidays I always say to my staff, ‘don’t take anything personally’,” she says. “People come in – particularly men – looking stressed and complaining but after half an hour of sitting outside and looking at the view, the river starts to work its magic on them and their faces change. They’ll come in over the next few days and we’ll watch them melt into the pace of life here. This is what I love to see.

“People also love to learn about the history of Gladstone. Not many people know that it was once an important port that supported seafaring families so I like to make time to chat about it.”

The Old Lodge also attracts plenty of day visitors who come from Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour to enjoy the village atmosphere of Gladstone and relax by the river with tea and scones.

“The new highway has been great for business,” Jo says. “We have so many more people driving up for the day for the change in pace they find in Gladstone. There’s really no where like it.”

Jo’s highest priority is honouring her local clientele; her gallery emporium is beautifully stocked with local artists as well as pieces that are loved by regular customers.

“I could have done the gallery differently based on my own tastes but I chose to honour the people who loved it as it was,” she says. “I’ve never been to a trade show and like to showcase local artists as much as I can. The locals are our most important customers and the holidays are just the cream on top! There’s so much more to this than money.

The Old Lodge Gallery and Emporium is open seven days from 9.30am – 3.30pm. The newly opened Little Italian Kitchen is also open for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights from 6-9pm.

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