March 16, 2010

Benny's owner finds, fills niche

— Q: Have you done other jobs?

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Benny's owner Ben Sawyer and granddaughter and Benny's manager Kim Morrison serves Dave Dibiase and his son Nick their haddock sandwiches at Benny's on 199 West Commercial Street in Portland on June 3, 2008.

Tim Greenway

click image to enlarge

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Benny's on 199 West Commercial Street in Portland on June 3, 2008.

Tim Greenway

A: I sold auto parts for 20-plus years, for Fuller's Inc., which is out of business now, in Portland. And then after that, I've always liked working with wood and doing carpentry projects, so I was in the remodeling business for another 20 years (Yankee Remodeling Co.) Which helped when I took this over, because you wouldn't believe what it looked like when I got here.

When the remodeling business slowed down in the '90s, I decided I had to make a job for myself. I had been doing the Cumberland Fair, as a vendor, fried clams, French fries and so on, since about 1978, and I saw that this place was vacant and inquired about it, and here we are. That was May 21, 1992.

Q: What used to be at the location?

A: Well, it was a gas station, a Chevron station, and a truck stop, for years and years ... The bridge going to South Portland was down at the end of the street, the old Vaughn Bridge that went over the river. That was the way to get to South Portland, before the Veterans Bridge came in. You can still see, on both sides of the river, where the the approaches, the big granite blocks, are left.

This end of the street used to be the China clay, Jarka corporation docks. The big cleats, the capstans they used to tie the lines, are still there. There used to be steps going all up and down (the hill), and when I was a kid I'd see the longshoremen marching down to work. It was a Polish and Irish community.

Q: So you had a little work to do on the place --

A: A lot of work, a complete remodeling job. It was wide open here when they left it. I also put the deck on.

But it's great to have people come back year after year and say, well, you haven't done a lot to the place. I don't go around fancying it up. I tell them not to worry. They like the clam shack character, I guess. A lot of people come back; there's a family from New York that's been coming since I opened it.

Q: How long after you bought the place did you open?

A: Well, I actually rent this property, and have a lease with the railroad (Portland Terminal). I worked on it all winter, before opening. It was Benny's Landing. That's still the real name, but we've shortened it up.

Oh, and I had a lobster pound in Florida. I went down there in '89 and '90, and that, things weren't really that good all over the country. Nobody was buying any lobster, that's for sure. Especially in Florida. I started cooking up lobster and putting it in the freezer down there.

So I quit that one and came back here, and the construction business was slow there. And after I opened this place there was a big boom in construction, and here I am. Guys used to kid me and tell me I got out at the wrong time. Well, I'm happy. This place has been good to me.

Q: How much land is included?

A: I'm on a little less than an acre. There's plenty of parking; it can hold 50-75 cars here, that's one good thing about it. We can seat 32 people on the deck, and then we have two picnic tables, and tables under the tent. About four dozen, probably, eating capacity. But a lot of times it's standing room only, if we get the good weather.

Q: Is there anything you don't like about the job?

A: The weather is the only thing I really don't like. Because it can be beautiful one day and the next day, there's rain and wind, and sometimes we've had to close down. We don't have inside seating, so if it changes a few degrees, that really changes the business.

Q: You're from Portland?

A: My family's been in Portland since it was Falmouth, Mass. My grandfather and namesake, Benjamin L. Sawyer, posed for that fireman statue down at Central Station. That was in 1898. My father, Benjamin Harrison Sawyer, was born in the old fire station. My grandfather retired in 1912, I think; that was after 53 years, and he was in the fire department during the big fire of 1866.

People say 'you mean ''great-grandfather,' '' but it's as if there's a lost generation in the family. He died in 1927, June, I believe, at age 87.

I asked my father how come they had picked my grandfather as a model for the statue, and he said, well, 'he had a brand new overcoat and he looked good.' I said, 'that's it?' He said 'yeah.'

Q: Do you draw many local people?

A: A lot of locals. In the summer it's tourists, but I don't know how it's going to be this year. We have a lot of customers on fixed incomes, so we try to keep the prices down, you know. But I just got a bill on the dumpster out here, with a $22 fuel charge on it, for a pickup.

So I may have to make that stuff up somewhere. I may stay open a little later ... The first two years, I stayed open year-round. I made the rent and got a paycheck, but I'm getting old for that now. I'd rather be down South, you know.

Q: How long is your season?

A: We open when it warms up. Usually like, May; we opened up, I think, the seventh of May this year. And we close when it gets cold. If it's cold in October, I'm out of here. I go south for three months, down in Sarasota.

Q: What's your best-seller?

A: Without a doubt, the lobster roll. A quarter-pounder lobster roll for $11.95. We haven't gone up on the price. Good quality meat, with a pickle and a bag of chips, on a slight bed of lettuce with a little mayonnaise. Actually it's a tossup, between that and the haddock sandwich. It's pretty close, you know.

Q: What would you be doing in another life?

A: Well, I've always liked working with wood and stuff. I've built some

dooend boads, I'd still be doing things like that. But it's almost like I'm semi-retired now. I have two grandchildren working here, one graduating from college this semester and another one who has two years to go.

I've got all college kids working here, usually about 10 when it gets really busy. I have six now.

I almost opened on Chebeague at one time, in a spot a guy had, where there's no longer a restaurant. They told me I could have it really reasonable, but nah, I don't need any more. I've got a full plate.

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