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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014
Joe Henderson

Henderson: Losing Ben’s restaurant takes a piece of Brandon’s soul

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Published:   |   Updated: May 21, 2014 at 09:48 AM

Brandon wasn’t always awash in chain restaurants, big-box stores and drivers in a hurry to be someplace else. There were places with a distinctly hometown feel, like Campbell’s Dairyland, Babe’s Pizza or Jesse’s Steak and Seafood.

And there was Ben’s Family Restaurant. As Brandon has sprawled and growth never seemed to stop, residents like Karen Rodriguez will tell you that Ben’s was a landmark.

“It was rare that you could go to Ben’s and not find someone you knew,” she said.

Rodriguez helped plan some of the 100th anniversary celebration for Brandon High School earlier this year at Ben’s. Service clubs held meetings there. Deals were made over cups of coffee and Ben’s incomparable breakfasts.

“You’d feel like family when you went in there,” Brandon resident Jim Powell said.

Friends would gather there. Families would head there after soccer games or church. Rodriguez admitted a guilty pleasure was Ben’s chicken livers. You could get a good steak there, or a French dip sandwich, or a BLT, or ... well, whatever you got had that home-cooked feel and flavor.

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But what will those people do now?

That was the question on a lot of people’s minds following Monday’s fire that destroyed this little slice of home for so many. Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman Ronnie Rivera pegged the damage at $900,000.

“It’s pretty much a total loss,” he said.

The cause of the fire hasn’t been determined, Rivera said, although investigators believe it started in the attic. Flames could be clearly seen shooting through the roof. Word of the fire spread quickly through phone calls and social media.

The restaurant’s Facebook page quickly filled with messages of support. A loss like this touches all parts of the community, both for the well-known, like state Sen. Tom Lee, or others who just call Brandon home.

“There’s a lot of history in that place,” Lee said. “I’ve been there hundreds of times. My mother liked going there because they knew how to fix a poached egg the way she liked. If you could do that and you had good coffee, that was the litmus test.

“It had that real hometown feel. Let’s face it, when you go out now, most of the time you’re going to one of the national chains. I guess that’s another reason I liked Ben’s. It was Brandon.”

The history Lee alluded to covers 33 years. Owner Manny Mohammed bought the restaurant about nine years ago and has run it with his family since.

They posted the following note on Facebook, thanking the community for the kind words:

“Thank you everyone for the concern for our family and business. We did have an electrical fire originating in the attic space. Thankfully, no one was injured. We are moved by all of the love and concerns you have shown us. We will keep you all updated as we receive word of what happens next in the road to recovery. We love our customers and thank everyone for being a part of our family.”

As far as saying anything else just now, though, a family member said Tuesday it will have to wait. The emotions are too raw.

That’s true for a lot of people, including members of the Brandon Kiwanis Club. They have been holding meetings at the iconic restaurant along State Road 60 for years.

“Ben’s is very, very important to us,” club president Clarika Dennis said. “This is like losing a family member. When I’m down, I go to Ben’s. I go there for comfort food. I take my grandkids there. They know it as grandma’s place.

“Ben’s took me back to my childhood. I remember going to a similar place about 50 years ago; I can still taste the hamburger from there. It’s the same way with Ben’s.”

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Here’s a story you don’t hear every day about restaurants.

Steve Altier of Valrico, an aspiring children’s book author, told Jeff Houck of the Tribune that he and his family have been eating at Ben’s for about seven years.

Manny, the owner, once asked Altier’s opinion of the chicken-fried steak. Altier was honest. “I thought it was a little gummy.”

The next time he ate at Ben’s, the recipe had been changed so that fresh ingredients were used to make the dish from scratch. That’s the kind of touch people will miss.

Jill Paules knows what the owners are going through. In 2002, her family-owned business — Campbell’s Dairyland — was destroyed by fire. It took about 8½ months to rebuild, but the business thrives today.

“It was extremely difficult,” she said. “We learned a lot. I was just talking about that today with a customer. I hope they do rebuild. I hope they don’t get discouraged. We’ll do whatever we can to help them recover.”

I asked how long it took after reopening before business returned to normal.

“Immediately,” she said. “From the first day it was a grand slam.”

That’s something for the owners of Ben’s to hold on to as they contemplate the long road back. All anyone else can do is wait and, like Clarika Dennis, hope for the day when they can meet there again.

“The food was wonderful,” she said. “The people were great. It was the perfect place.”

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