NOT LONG AFTER Hurricane Ian slammed into southwest Florida in late September, the owners of Benny’s on the Beach in Lake Worth Beach decided it was time to have a serious talk about the weather.
Perched above the Atlantic Ocean shoreline on the west end of the Lake Worth Beach pier, Benny’s has been a popular oceanfront dining destination for locals and visitors since 1986.
It has weathered several tropical storms over the years, too, including hurricanes that severely damaged the pier in 2004 and 2005, forcing the restaurant to temporarily close for repairs.
But the catastrophic damage Ian did to Fort Myers Beach Sept. 28, destroying or damaging most of the town’s structures and wiping out the pier, forced a reckoning of sorts for the partners who have owned Benny’s on the Beach since 2013.
“To see what can happen when something like that hits, what it did to Fort Myers, it’s eye opening,’’ chef Jeremy Hanlon, whose partners include Lee Lipton and Lipton’s sons Max and Dylan.
Fort Myers Beach pier before and after Hurricane Ian.
As a result, the partners decided to expand Benny’s on the Beach by adding a second restaurant at the city-owned casino and beach complex, just a 2 minute walk from the original Benny’s on the pier.
The newest Benny’s — called Benny’s on the Beach Oceanwalk — opened Dec. 23 at 10 S. Ocean Blvd. in a spot previously occupied by Viva La Playa, a Latin-themed restaurant operated by Lee Lipton and his partners since 2020. (Before 2020, the space housed Mulligan's Beach House Bar and Grill since October 2012.)
“One location is over the Atlantic Ocean. The other one is looking at the Atlantic Ocean, one being a little safer (from a hurricane) than the other obviously,’’ Hanlon said.
Considering what Ian did to the southwest coast and how scientists say Atlantic hurricanes are intensifying faster than they did 40 years ago, the decision to essentially transform Viva La Playa into another Benny’s was not a difficult one for the partners.
If the original Benny’s location on the pier is ever destroyed by a hurricane, those employees can move to the Oceanwalk site (assuming, of course, the expanded Benny’s survives the storm).
Benny's on the Beach Oceanwalk opened Dec. 23, 2022, replacing Viva La Playa. (Joe Capozzi, Benny's on the Beach)
“God forbid if something happened, it gives them a little bit more job security and allows us to be a little bit more adaptable to Mother Nature,’’ Hanlon said.
Benny’s employs just under 100 workers at its original pier site and 54 at the new Oceanwalk site.
Another driving factor in the expansion is the popularity and demand at the pier restaurant, which rivals the beach and the fishing pier as the go-to destination for many casino complex visitors.
“We have truly worked over the last 10 years to build up not only an amazing team and guest experience, but also an incredible vibe,” Hanlon said, emphasizing the restaurant’s “where every day is a vacation” motto.
“You don’t realize how important that is to people until you experience a real busy day at the pier.”
Benny's on the Beach has operated at the west end of the Lake Worth Beach pier since 1986. (Courtesy Benny's on the Beach)
And the partners don’t want to take any more chances on a hurricane wiping out that experience.
Owning a home or business along the ocean is always a gamble in Florida, where for six months each year the risk of hurricanes is as much a part of life as palm trees and Publix.
The original Lake Worth pier, first built in the 1920s and replaced by a longer one in 1954, was damaged during storms in the 1960s and 1970s, including Hurricane David in 1979.
A 1989 storm caused $99,000 worth of damage, and storm surge from a 1991 storm wiped away 210 feet of the pier at a cost of $1.2 million. The pier was torn apart again by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004 and Wilma in 2005.
The current pier opened in 2009 after being closed for five years and rebuilt for $3.4 million.
Benny’s hasn’t had any major storm damage since the current owners took over in 2013. But they can’t help but wonder how much longer luck will be on their side.
“Just like with anything in hurricane season, it’s like rolling the dice. You never really can plan for it outside of insurance. We’ve been very fortunate,’’ Hanlon said with a nervous laugh, “but it only lasts so long.’’
Night view of the original Benny's on the Beach at the Lake Worth beach pier (Photo courtesy of Pete Cross)
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.