SHOREWOOD — It’s been a tough year for restaurants.
Many throughout the state have closed in the face of COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions, and overall impact of the pandemic on business.
Luckily, Benji’s, a local mainstay and a favorite haunt for many Jewish diners, has been able to weather the storm, thanks in large part to the loyalty of its customers.
Started in Shorewood in 1963 by Warner Benjamin, the eatery now has two locations. Neither is kosher. Benji’s flagship deli at 4156 N. Oakland Ave., and the location at 8683 N. Port Washington Road in Fox Point, were both forced to close their dining rooms in mid-March following the state’s Safer at Home order.
The locations did not reopen to in-person dining until June.
“The day after they announced the shutdown we had 30 employees, the very next day we were down to 10. It cut our revenue in half,” said Mike Price, who co-owns the business with his brother Chris.
The Shorewood location remains under a municipal mask mandate, so diners not seated at their table must wear a mask as they move about the restaurant.
The shutdown was tough, Price said, but the business has slowly been rebuilding as it continues to take precautions for its staff and customers and utilizes of all the different avenues available for serving patrons.
In turn, the restaurant’s customers have been more than supportive.
“We are very, very grateful for all the support. We have had customers donate to us. One lady even sent us a check. It’s very sweet,” Price said. “We weren’t really sure how this was going to play out, but our customers were there for us.”
The restaurant was also lucky to receive a federal Paycheck Protection Program or PPP grant in May, which Price calls a lifesaver.
Today, the business is slowly rehiring. They now have about 15 employees, but business remains at about 65 percent of where it was this time last year, Price said.
In addition to rearranging the dining room of its Shorewood location to accommodate social distancing, and heavily utilizing the outdoor seating available at the Fox Point location, the business has been doing a lot of take-out orders and has been working with Door Dash and Postmates to provide home delivery to its customers.
It also has been leaning into its deli business, where it sells to-go sandwiches and variety of meats and cheeses, as well as its famous lox.
“Luckily when this all occurred, two-thirds of our business was in the restaurant and one-third was in the deli, now it’s the other way around,” Price noted. “We’ve been selling a lot corned beef, lox and those things.”
Popular take-out orders lately have included burgers, Reubens, the restaurant’s roast beef sandwich called The Big Dipper, and its Hopple Popple, a hash of browned potatoes, fried salami and scrambled eggs.
“I have taken Hopple Popple home and just reheated, and it’s great,” Price said.