Facing potential closure, PBC landmark Benny’s on the Beach to debate rent hike with the city
For nearly 40 years, Benny's on the Beach in Lake Worth Beach has been an institution, a hangout spot set on a picturesque 1,000-foot pier that's beloved by longtime locals and tourists alike.
But now the Palm Beach County community is facing the prospect of losing the iconic restaurant, with its owner saying a decision at a special meeting today could set its fate.
The restaurant operates on city-owned property and, after commissioners last month voted against a lease extension request, it has been facing the prospect of closure — which could lead to job losses and hit local tourism business.
Benny’s pays a lower rent rate than other nearby oceanfront businesses, a deal which was grandfathered in during a previous lease agreement. Although the business agreed to a rent hike, several Lake Worth Beach commissioners felt the increase did not go far enough – and the owner, in a fiery response, threatened to walk away.
With the mid-May end of the current lease fast approaching, the city’s attorney and Benny’s team will meet with commissioners to discuss lease terms and see if they can come to an agreement.
This city doesn’t plan to evict Benny’s, but owner Lee Lipton said he will close the restaurant if he and the city’s staff can’t come to an agreement.
Lipton has argued higher rent would increase food prices and that could spell the end of the restaurant. At a recent meeting, he bluntly told commissioners, “Benny’s on the Beach is arguably the best thing in the goddamn city of Lake Worth.” A closure could lead to more than 200 employees being laid off and could hurt local summer tourism, he said.
Community divided over the fate of Benny’s
The prospect of Benny’s closing has sparked a lively debate in the beach town.
More than 50 impassioned diners and workers recently protested the possible closure at City Hall, holding signs that read “Save our Bennys…Save our beach.” Demonstrators said the cultural and community value of Benny’s, and its ability to attract tourists, makes it worth paying a lower rent.
Jamie Perriello, a local, said she goes to Benny’s twice a week. She and her partner signed petitions and joined the protest, calling the restaurant a “staple of Lake Worth … you come here, you wanna go to Benny’s.”
“You know the first thing I thought of was, ‘I’ve got to go to Benny’s and have a last meal,’” said former commissioner Andy Amoroso, who helped lead the grassroots effort to support Benny’s. “And talking to some of the Benny’s employees, they’re seeing that, where people are like, ‘If Benny's is gonna close, I wanna go have one last meal, one go have one last picture on the pier next to Bennys.’”
Others, like resident Cliff Kohlmeyer, say the commissioners must make a cost-benefit analysis to determine the restaurant's value to the city and whether it's fair for it to pay a lower rate than businesses in the nearby Lake Worth Beach Casino Building and Beach Complex.
“The rate was not that much more than he had for the past that Benny’s had been paying for 10 years. Very favorable rate,” Kohlmeyer told WLRN after speaking during the public comment section at an April 18 meeting. "I agree with the commissioners, who overwhelmingly felt that they could get a much better deal for the city.”
The city is negotiating a new lease with Benny’s after commissioners last month voted 3-2 against the restaurant’s lease extension request.
Benny’s currently pays near $21,000 per month in rent, based on its soon-to-expire 10-year lease. Lipton, the Benny's owner, had gone to the city to extend his current lease with the same terms, but on the April 18 meeting the city proposed on a 10-year rent hike that nearly matches the businesses across the street.
In that proposal, the restaurant’s new monthly payment would have started at $25,000 per month, increasing each year and ending at $33,000 per month.
After initially fighting against the deal, Lipton agreed to it. But while both Mayor Betty Resch and Commissioner Sarah Malega supported it, other commissioners said they wanted time to gather more information and voted against it.
As critics demanded that the restaurant pay even more, Christopher McVoy, Kim Stokes and Reinaldo Diaz argued that the commission needs proper data to determine what it deems as a “fair rate” for the city-owned, prime oceanfront location.
According to an Anderson Carr report, Benny's pays just over $32 per square foot, which is significantly less than nearby oceanfront businesses such as the popular Mamma Mia's Pizzeria, which pays more than $47 per square foot. Benny's is the much larger establishment: over 7,300 square feet of space versus just over 1,300 for the other businesses.
Commissioners today are expected to either vote on a new proposed agreement from the city or agree to a 2-3 months negotiation extension. Alternatively, they could also develop a market study that will determine the average rent rate for nearby prime oceanfront businesses, which would also delay the negotiation process further.
City attorney Glen Torcivia said during a meeting last Wednesday that he and his staff have maintained negotiations with Benny’s.
“I believe we’re making progress,” Torcivia said.
The public special commission meeting regarding the lease with Benny’s on the Beach will take place Wednesday, May 20 inside the Lake Worth Beach City Hall chamber at 5pm. The meeting will be livestreamed on YouTube: (video link)