Three of the sweetest and most underappreciated things in life are:
- Receiving a card in the mail. (I mean a REAL handwritten birthday or Christmas card! How awesome is that?!)
- BREAKFAST (What an honor to be THE most important meal of the day!)
- A visit with Benny & Sara Bateh (Keep reading and you’ll see why!)
The Batehs own Benny’s Sandwich Shop underneath downtown Jacksonville. That’s right, underneath it. They own one of the four businesses that are located beneath the streets in the River City.
Beneath Jacksonville’s ‘banking’ district that is nestled between Hemming Plaza and the Landing, there are a series of tunnels that were once utilized by banks to safely transport money. These tunnels are now mostly closed off to the public with exceptions being educational tours for school children on field trips or for the community during events like One Spark.
After hearing rumors of Jacksonville’s underground, I took a trip to see what I could discover. Entering into the Atlantic Place Building at 121 West Forsyth Street, I was welcomed by Miss Versie Ree Campbell, the prayerful and talkative security guard for the building since May 2011. I took a left after Miss Versie and walked down the flight of stairs heading west which led to a section of the tunnels that is still open. The hallway I found was well lit, decorated with modern photography on the walls, and eventually ends at the Northwest corner of Bay Street and Hogan Street. I didn’t make it far before running directly into Benny and Sara Bateh.
“Good morning!” Sara greeted me warmly and Benny was perched in his usual seat: in the back, behind the counter, reading the newspaper. They’re sort of like Jacksonville’s resident grandparents that just happen to reside underground. I halfway expected Sara to hug me and sneak me $5 for gas money and for Benny to reach in his pocket to find me a butterscotch hard candy buried beneath coins and lint.
You can tell by their accents that they are from Brooklyn, New York. They told me they met at a young age and have been married for 59 years; Benny winked and told me this was only because of “negotiation”. The couple has 5 daughters and came to Jacksonville in 1961.
“We were actually on our way to live in Miami but we just got stuck in Jacksonville… We had friends here, you know?” recounted Benny.
They spent a few years in Jacksonville before they ‘got bored’ Sara said, and Benny agrees, “We got tired of sitting around the house all day and doing nothing… We didn’t want to be bored anymore!”
The Bateh’s had a friend in real estate who showed them the tunnel property and in 1985 they decided to open up Benny’s Sandwich Shop. Sara, who has a genuinely kind and motherly tone, tells me she was volunteering at Assumption Catholic School tutoring children before they opened up the shop.
I asked Sara what the specialty was and she told me “Everything!” So I ordered a #5 (A DELICIOUS ‘Breakfast in a Sack’ consisting of 2 eggs, sausage, ham or bacon and cheese in a pita.) and continued asking her about her life. She wrote my order on a ticket and handed it to Michael, the cook in the back. Sara continued to give details about Benny’s and my order was up within no time.
Bank of America employee David Barton came in for a to-go order. Sara greeted him as if she were expecting him. Barton said his favorite thing to order at Benny’s is the #5 too. “The first time I ever came here was probably over 18 years ago and it looks exactly the same now as it did then. I love that.”
At lunchtime, Benny told me there is a thick crowd of business men and women. Several other customers standing in line to order shook their heads in agreement when Barton insisted that Benny’s had the “best breakfast in town.”
At Benny’s, you can order anything from biscuits and gravy to burgers, a taco salad to hummus and tabouli. Sara proudly repeated several times that all the food is fresh and she buys it in town every week and prepares it in the kitchen.
Sara makes all the food along with help from 32 year old cook Michael Page, who works at a car wash on the side. Page works to provide for his 5 year old son and he’s been working at Benny’s for over 4 years.
Jacksonville attorney Eric Roper, 35, frequently visits Benny, Sara, and Michael at the sandwich shop. Sometimes he even comes in two or three times a day. As he paid Sara for his breakfast and a newspaper at the counter, he told me that the Batehs have been here ever since he can remember. “They’re really such great people and they take care of everybody around here.” When Roper said this, Sara patted his hand on the counter and thanked him with a sincere nod.
Reminiscent of a Hallmark store, Benny’s also sells cards (complete with envelopes and stamps that are perfect for sending in the mail), stuffed animals, balloons, and more recently Peterbrooke Chocolate.
Sara noticed my observation of all the items for sale, “We have anything you need! Yes! We have it!”
The telephone rang and Benny answered to inform the caller that they’re open every Monday to Friday from 7:30 AM to 3 PM.
She refilled my coffee before I left and, just as a grandmother would, told me to be safe and come back and see her. I thanked her and she leaned across the counter and covered my hand with both of hers, “God Bless You.” she said, and I know she meant it.