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Benny’s on the Beach survives Lake Worth Beach rent fight, but needs repairs

Benny's on the Beach owner Lee Lipton with many of his 200+ celebrate their lease renewal in front of City Hall in Lake Worth Beach.
Wilkine Brutus
Benny's on the Beach owner Lee Lipton with many of his 200+ celebrate their lease renewal in front of City Hall in Lake Worth Beach.

Benny’s on the Beach — a waterfront Palm Beach County staple — is here to stay.

Lake Worth Beach had faced the prospect of losing the landmark restaurant, which has for almost 40 years operated on a picturesque 1,000-foot beach pier that is owned by the city.

But after a months-long lease negotiation that sparked protests and debates between commissioners and residents, the city commission approved a new lease for the restaurant at a late meeting Wednesday evening.

Commissioners voted 4-1 over a new deal that would bring Benny's rent, which had been considerably more favorable than that of a neighboring oceanfront businesses, more in line with market rates.

Vice Mayor Christopher McVoy was the sole dissenting vote, arguing that the commission needs more market research to better negotiate for the city’s “prime asset."

Commissioners Kim Stokes and Reinaldo Diaz, who previously voted against Benny’s initial lease renewal request, said they were somewhat satisfied with the new lease agreement.

Benny’s operates their business on an aging, city-owned building that requires many repairs, according to the city’s engineering report. Diaz, who echoed some of McVoys points, suggested that in future agenda meetings the commission should also address the “deferred maintenance” on the pier building and discuss using a portion of Benny’s monthly rent to invest in restoration.

The city never planned to evict Benny’s after commissioners last month voted against a lease extension that included a more modest rent hike. But the owner Lee Lipton said he would close the restaurant if he and the city’s staff couldn’t come to an agreement.

READ MORE:Facing potential closure, PBC landmark Benny’s on the Beach to debate rent hike with the city

Lipton had argued that a higher rent that wasn't reasonable to him would increase food prices and doom the business, threatening to take the beloved restaurant from its location.

With the mid-May end of the lease fast approaching, the city’s staff and Benny’s team met with commissioners on Wednesday to try to come up with an agreement and to tie loose ends.

Benny's new agreement, workers respond

In the 10-year lease that is about to expire, Benny's had been paying around $32 per square foot.

City attorney Glen Torcivi said that in the new deal Benny's rent, for the next nine months, will increase by about 35%, going to $44 per square foot. In the second year, starting in February, it will jump to $47, while it will go to just over $50 in the third year. After that, the rent will gradually increases by 3.5% each year over the next decade.

Torcivi said that final rate hike creates a rent that is "more reflective of fair market value" by looking at other similar oceanfront locations, such as Dune Deck Cafe in Lantana and Rafiki Tiki Restaurant in Riviera Beach.

The increase in rent, according to city staff, will produce about "a quarter million dollars more to the city over the 10-year term of the lease."

Vice Mayor McVoy voted against the deal, saying Benny’s new rates will still be lower than nearby businesses. He demanded “fair and equitable rent, fair to the city, fair to the tenant."

The Lake Worth Beach city commission approved a new lease for the decades-old restaurant yesterday. Commissioners voted 4-1 over a 10-year lease that would bring Benny's rent a little more in line with neighboring oceanfront businesses. Top right/left: Lee Lipton, owner of Benny's on the Beach, makes a statement praising the commission and the city. Bottom left: Signs supporting Bennys on the Beach. Bottom Right: Northside entrance to Bennys on the Beach in Lake Worth Beach.
Wilkine Brutus
Top right/left: Lee Lipton, owner of Benny's on the Beach, makes a statement praising the commission and the city. Bottom left: Signs supporting Bennys on the Beach. Bottom Right: Northside entrance to Bennys on the Beach in Lake Worth Beach.

But Commissioner Stokes said the agreement, after a "messy" process, was a good compromise and "a fair deal for the city."

“This lease is a considerable improvement over what was originally presented to us the very first time, by about one-and-a-half million dollars,” she added.

Lipton said he was satisfied with the new lease. "We believe in this city,” he had said during public comment.

But he was still afraid about a contract that could be "65% more than we’re paying right now” in 10 years. He said he's concerned about rent increases threatening nearby business, citing how layoffs affect families more than businesses.

"It's more important for me that 200 people keep their jobs and that everything keep moving forward," Lipton told WLRN after the meeting. "And that hopefully together we can work with the commission and reinvest into the community and the building."

In the past few weeks, residents and tourists alike were showing up to Benny's to have, what they believe, their last meal. Despite that, worker's continued to keep up regular pace.

Angie Gutierrez, the Director of Operations at Benny's, said the "doubt, and the fear of the unknown" is over.

Gutierrez, who started as a server at Benny's over 14 years ago, said the new lease will boost morale and allowing employees to "move with a little more confidence."

"We contribute to the city, not just the beach itself," she added.

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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