Not ‘worth the public headache’: Why Lake Worth Beach restaurant icon Benny’s on the Beach nearly closed amid rent dispute hullabaloo

For the past month, some Lake Worth Beach residents hoisted picket signs, signed a petition, shouted down city commissioners — even mounted a double-sided billboard on Interstate 95 — all to preserve the landmark Benny’s on the Beach, a 37-year-old restaurant perched on the city’s taxpayer-owned pier.

This “Save Benny’s” movement grew after months of back-and-forth between city leaders and the restaurant’s owner, Lee Lipton — four rounds of rent-hike negotiations that came to a head at an April 18 meeting when an exasperated Lipton threatened to shut down Benny’s for good.

Commissioners, who said Benny’s paid less rent compared with neighboring businesses, voted against renewing the oceanfront restaurant’s new 10-year lease agreement. Then on May 2, as dozens of Benny’s supporters crowded the chambers waving “Save Benny’s” signs, the commission called for a special meeting on May 10.

Finally, this week, many residents got their wish: Benny’s can stay.

City commissioners voted 4-1 on a new lease agreement that brings Benny’s base rent “more in alignment with a fair market rate,” commissioner Kim Stokes said Wednesday night. Vice Mayor Christopher McVoy cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he needed more market research to make an informed decision about a prime city asset.

Lipton, who for weeks argued that higher rent might increase food prices and hurt the business, said he eventually agreed to the increase because it saved the jobs of 200 Benny’s employees.

“I was hesitant to pay 65 percent more than we’re paying right now, but I believe in Benny’s, and I believe in this city,” Lipton told commissioners after the vote, his voice cracking with emotion. “If you believed in Benny’s for the first 30 to 40 years, you can believe in Benny’s for the next 30 to 40 years.”

Since 1986, Benny’s on the Beach has served seafood classics and brunch on Lake Worth Beach’s 1,000-foot-long pier, courting locals, tourists and celebrities from Jon Bon Jovi to Gordon Ramsay. According to city documents, Benny’s maintains, repairs and staffs the pier and its bait shop.

For that reason, Benny’s paid a lower base rent — about $32 per square foot — and no maintenance fees, compared with other oceanfront businesses at the city-run beach complex where the restaurant sits. That deal was grandfathered in during its last lease agreement in 2013, according to an independent study by West Palm Beach appraiser Anderson Carr.

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Under the new 10-year agreement that passed Wednesday, Benny’s will pay $44 per square foot for the main restaurant, starting May 12, and continue running the bait shop and pier. That base rent will jump to $47 per square foot in year two and $50.35 in year three, increasing by 3.5 percent every year thereafter. The new rates mark the restaurant’s first increase in a decade.

“I’m so proud of this city for standing up,” Lake Worth Beach resident and Benny’s supporter Debra Robert told the dais on Wednesday. “I was wondering how long we would have gone on putting the squeeze on this business owner, not to mention the cost of our reputation we’re losing day by day across the state.”

‘It wasn’t worth the public headache’

Three weeks earlier, on April 18, the Lake Worth Beach commission had voted down a lease renewal that would have hiked Benny’s rent to $42 per square foot. That number came after several months of negotiations, but it was still lower compared with nearby tenants, like Mamma Mia’s on the Beach and Lake Worth Beach Tee Shirt Co. It was a concern for the three commissioners — Stokes, McVoy and Reinaldo Diaz — who shot it down.

And that stalemate intensified when Lipton, that night, delivered a fiery ultimatum to the dais.

“What would happen if we left? Who would you get?” Lipton told commissioners. “If you vote no, you know that’s the end for me. I’m not renegotiating the lease at this point. I’m telling you that’s it. If you want to evict us, evict us.”

The impasse set off a bitter firestorm of Internet comments from both Benny’s fans and critics and drew heavy media attention. Supporters took to social media to complain of government overreach; they signed a Change.org petition (8,020 votes to “Save Benny’s,” as of Friday afternoon) and mounted a bilingual, double-sided “Save Benny’s” billboard near the water tower on I-95.

Detractors on social media griped that Benny’s should pay higher rent and wondered why its owner couldn’t afford it after a decade of paying lower rent.

For Mayor Betty Resch, a monthslong rent dispute may have bruised the city’s reputation, sending a signal to new restaurants that Lake Worth Beach isn’t business-friendly.

“It wasn’t worth the public headache for the extra $10,000 a year,” Resch told the South Florida Sun Sentinel this week, referring to Benny’s new lease agreement. “I’m concerned about the image Lake Worth Beach now has. It might affect new business owners who might want to do business in a city that’s apparently hard to deal with.”

Resch said the city passed an ordinance in 2022 that commercial landlords in Lake Worth Beach must give notice to tenants if they raise rents more than 5%.

“But when it came to us being the landlords, it’s OK to raise it higher?” she said. “The restaurant landlord next door can’t do more than 5%, but we can charge 35%?”

Benny’s needs repairs

Benny’s on the Beach operates inside an aging pier building not up to modern building codes — and it needs repairs, according to the city’s engineering survey.

During the May 10 meeting, commissioner Diaz suggested that future agenda items address funneling a portion of Benny’s base rent toward the “maintenance of the building.”

“I don’t want to lose this landmark building on the pier,” Diaz said. Nearby, “the casino is in tip-top shape. I want to talk about us setting up a portion of the rent to go into an investment account and to accrue interest, and go into the building.”

Lake Worth Beach resident Ryan Miller, who staged a “Save Benny’s” protest with 100 supporters outside City Hall in early May, said he frequents the restaurant for the chocolate-chip pancakes and weekends-only Spanish paella. He wonders if it wouldn’t have cost the city more to replace the tenant — and upgrade the old building — than to simply renew the lease.

“It’s unfair what’s been going on,” Miller said. “I think (Benny’s) just brings a ton of money to Lake Worth.”

Resch said the entire rent dispute was avoidable, because the city never intended to evict Benny’s.

“There’s always been a high level of emotion and drama invested in Lake Worth Beach,” Resch said. “But we never thought [Lipton ] was going to walk away. He’s agreed to everything we brought him, and I’m happy it’s done.”