Jacksonville’s Underground Grandparents

 By Amy E. Pittman, DVI Intern
This post adapted from a published college assignment.

Sara Bateh is seen smiling behind the counter at Benny's.
Sara Bateh sitting behind the counter at Benny’s.

Underneath Jacksonville’s banking district nestled between Hemming Plaza and The Jacksonville Landing, there are a series of tunnels once utilized by banks to safely transport money. These tunnels are mostly closed off to the public, with exceptions for educational tours and special community events like Art Walk and One Spark.

After hearing about Jacksonville’s underground tunnels, I set off on a mission to see what I could find. I was pointed in the right direction by one of the Downtown Ambassadors and walked into the Atlantic Place Building at 121 W. Forsyth St. and was welcomed by Miss Versie Ree Campbell, the security guard for the building. Miss Versie told me to go down the carpet staircase and “Just keep on walkin.” The hallway at the bottom of the staircase eventually ends at the corner of Bay and Hogan streets, but I didn’t make it far before running into Benny’s Sandwich Shop, owned by Benny and Sara Bateh.

“Gooot mourneeng,” Sara sung her greeting to me while Benny, perched in his usual seat behind the counter, looked up from his newspaper and smiled. Anyone who walks by gets a warm greeting from the Batehs; they’re like Jacksonville’s resident grandparents. I halfway expected Sara to hug me and sneak me $5 for gas money or for Benny to reach in his pocket to find me a butterscotch hard candy buried beneath coins and lint.

I could tell by their accents they are Brooklyn natives. They told me they met at a young age and married 59 years ago; Benny winked and told me this was only because of “persistent negotiation.” The couple has five daughters and moved to Jacksonville in 1961. “We were actually on our way to live in Miami, but we just got stuck in Jacksonville.” Said Benny. “We had friends here, you know?” In 1985, the Batehs invested in the underground property that is now Benny’s Sandwich Shop.

A photo of Benny and Sara Bateh and Michael Page
Benny Bateh, Michael Page, and Sara Bateh

Sara makes all the food along with help from 32-year-old cook Michael Page, who’s worked at Benny’s for more than four years.

Jacksonville attorney Eric Roper, 35, frequently visits Benny, Sara and Michael at the sandwich shop. Sometimes, he comes in two or three times a day. As he paid Sara for his breakfast and a newspaper at the counter, he said “They’re really such great people and they take care of everybody around here.” When Roper said this, Sara patted his arm and thanked him with a smile.

Benny’s also sells cards (complete with envelopes and stamps), stuffed animals, balloons and more recently Peterbrooke Chocolatier sweets. Before I left, Sara refilled my coffee cup and, just as a grandmother would, told me to be safe and come back to see her soon. I thanked her, and she leaned across the counter and covered my hand with both of hers, “God bless you,” she said, and I knew she meant it.

Benny’s is just one of the dozens of local businesses you’ll find in Downtown’s core that make customers feel like the urban core is their home away from home. What is your favorite feel-good hangout Downtown? Share with us why you love it by submitting your DT testimonial or commenting on the post below.