B U F F A L O N E W S
It’s a long, long way from what Dr. John calls the “wacknosity” of New Orleans to the bucolic byways of Grand Island. And, if you’re in the restaurant business, it may seem longer yet.
But Dick and Jennifer Becker Benz have made the journey, leaving a successful Uptown restaurant in the Big Easy as well as a demolished home in Ocean Springs, Miss., courtesy of Hurricane Katrina.
Jennifer Becker Benz, 39, grew up on Grand Island, and she and her husband moved back after the hurricane. “We landed on our feet,” she said. The proof is in the casual breakfast and lunch place called Dick and Jenny’s that they now own at Love and Baseline roads on Grand Island.
And, yes, the corner probably sounds familiar. Dick and Jenny’s occupies the old house that even non-Islanders will recognize as the site of the late Del & Herb’s Grand Island Grill, which closed in 2003, and several other short-lived restaurants after that. The building is over 100 years old.
“Jennifer does the books and the baking,” explained Benz, “while I handle lunch.”
The restaurant has been spruced up beautifully, with handsome dark red walls and attractive paintings, not to mention a menu offering treats like Sticky Toffee Pudding and other pastries and desserts, innovative soups, salads and various coffees and paninis.
Everything is made in-house from scratch, and the calm, welcoming ambience gives no hint of the work and worry that went before.
Becker Benz attended Grand Island schools and Nardin Academy before going on to Notre Dame and then meeting her husband in New Orleans after a short stint of teaching in Estonia.
Benz, 45, grew up in Los Angeles, graduated as a history major from UCLA and later attended the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park. He worked in well-known New Orleans kitchens, including Upperline and Commander’s Palace (called “the monster,” by the way, to culinary people in the know). He was sous chef at Gautreau’s.
After the couple married, they opened Dick and Jennie’s, a small restaurant in the Uptown area that served a mixture of what Zagat calls sumptuous “Creole-Eclectic comfort food.” They moved with their two daughters to Ocean Springs, about an hour away.
They had lived there exactly three weeks when Katrina hit.
Benz was on Long Island at a fishing tournament and when news of Katrina’s approach started flooding the news channels, he immediately called his wife in Mississippi and told her to drive north.
Get out of town
And so she did. After packing up her mother, Carol Becker, the children, and two dogs, she took the back roads and ended up in Oxford, Miss., where they stayed in a hotel, which immediately lost power.
“Keep coming,” Benz said when they finally reached him by phone. It took the family almost a week to get home to Grand Island.
And when they finally got back to Mississippi months later, they discovered that the house was a total loss. It was sitting on 20 feet of debris, in fact. The Benzes packed up some papers, not to mention their pet python named Monty, who inexplicably was found, still in his glass case floating on 15 feet of water. (Monty now resides on Grand Island.)
The restaurant, however, had sustained only minor damage. The couple hired a crew and started to clean up. “It was pretty much a nightmare,” Benz says. They were dealing with food that had been stored in over 100-degree heat for 40 days.
The restaurant did reopen, although, Benz said, “It was tortuous. It was pieced together. I couldn’t find a cook or a dishwasher.” Eventually, they sold it to employees.
Meanwhile, Becker Benz and the children were living with family on Grand Island (where their third child, a son now 14 months old, was born). Luckily, they had both flood insurance and business interruption insurance, but it took almost nine months for claims to be settled.
Since they felt that Grand Island is a good place to live, they bought an old farmhouse and, of course, the restaurant, a popular hangout that had been known through the years as Schulerman’s, Ziggy’s, Del & Herbs and Cathy & Jim’s. The couple did the restoration work themselves, removing carpeting from the floor and even the ceiling and lowering some interior walls.
But they left a few charming touches, like the bells on the walls that had once been used to summon service in the restaurant’s heydey. (The bells no longer work.)
And what’s it been like for them to live here?
“Well, it was an adjustment,” said Becker Benz, who is glad she made the change. “I guess we’re eccentric for Grand Island, but I try to blend in.
“Grand Island is a great place for kids,” she goes on. “I love New Orleans, but you know, it really is a city of vice.”
Benz is happy, too — he and his wife actually turned down an offer to open a Dick and Jenny’s in Chicago. “I don’t want to live in a big, crowded city,” he said. “I don’t want to work under such pressure. It would be great if I were a beginning chef in my late 20s, maybe, but I’ve done it all by now. I want to control my own destiny.
“I’ve had it with commuting. I ride my bike to work.”
Dick & Jenny’s, the couple says, is doing well, although they do feel the need to generate sales a bit in a location where fast food is more the norm.
“I don’t like the shoveling and the plowing,” admits Benz, the California boy. “But I don’t dislike it as much as a hurricane.”
For now, Dick and Jenny’s is open from 7 a. m. to 5 pm, Tuesday through Friday and 8 to 5 on Saturday.