Restaurant Revisited: Good Food, Bad Vices at Benner Street

by in Shows, July 28th, 2013

Benner StreetFaced with a mountain of debt, Dorothy and Thom Williams, husband-and-wife owners of Benner Street restaurant in Bethlehem, Pa., were unsure if they would see their retirement if the dire situation at their business didn’t improve. They looked to Robert Irvine and his Restaurant: Impossible team to give their eatery the second chance it deserves, and when Robert arrived, he soon realized the root of Benner Street’s problems: its bickering owners, to start, plus its drab interior and poorly stocked bar. With just two days to work and a budget of $10,000, Robert helped Dorothy and Thom learn how to effectively manage a staff while he overhauled the restaurant’s design and revamped its menu. FN Dish checked in with Dorothy a few months after Benner Street’s reopening to find out how her business is doing today.

“Business is up 40 percent,” Dorothy says. “All the employees and family are excited about our new beginning and all are working toward our success.”

In terms of the transformed interior, Dorothy tells FN Dish, “People are enjoying the new decor.”

The Benner Street menu is now a mix of Robert’s offerings and “some of the old favorites” from before the remodeling, according to Dorothy. This update came as a result of longtime customers missing particular dishes.

Dorothy now says, “I do delegate a lot more, but I still expect perfection.” She admits she and Thom still argue. But, she insists, “Arguing is part of our life — that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other.” Thom’s health has not improved since the show, and Dorothy tells us “he has taken some time away from work,” like Robert suggested.

Looking back on her Restaurant: Impossible journey, Dorothy explains, “This experience was one of the hardest things we ever experienced as … business owner[s] and for our family.” But she advises fellow restaurateurs who may be facing similar struggles: “Don’t be afraid of change.”

More from Restaurant Revisited:

Hurley’s American Grille (July 21)
Kalico Kitchen (July 14)
Angelo’s (June 23)
Pier West Restaurant (June 16)
Pinehurst Country Lodge (June 9)
Bryan’s Smokehouse (May 26)
Wagon Wheel Family Restaurant (May 19)
Mom & Dad’s Italian Restaurant (May 12)
Smitty’s Restaurant (April 28)
Old World Italian Restaurant (April 21)
Joe Willy’s Seafood House (April 14)
Sweet Tea’s Restaurant & Catering (March 24)
Soup to Nuts Diner (March 17)
Caseyville Cafe (March 13)
Maniaci’s Italian Restaurant (March 10)
Dinner Bell Restaurant (February 27)
Nanny Goat’s Cafe & Feed Bin (February 20)
Sapori D’Italia (January 23)
Windseeker Restaurant (January 16)
Whiskey Creek Steakhouse (January 2)
Rising Sun Bistro (December 19)
Boys & Girls Club of Southwest Missouri (December 9)
Bronk’s Bar and Grill (December 5)
Rohrer’s Tavern (November 28)
Poco’s on the Boulevard (November 21)
Oleander Bar and Grill (October 17)
Valley Inn (October 10)
Whistle Stop (October 3)
The Maple Tree Cafe (September 26)
Michele’s (September 19)
Paliani’s Restaurant (September 12)
Frankie’s (September 5)
Gusanoz (August 29)

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Comments (190)

  1. AceofTaste says:

    For me the renovation was like taking a white room and painting it eggshell.

  2. J.J. says:

    What's up with the hideous red shower curtain? I know next to nothing about design but that was just awful.

  3. DebM says:

    We've driven by Benner Street so often over the past several years, and I've always been intrigued. However, with no web presence, I refused to go in. It's ridiculous to think that they couldn't put up a website. I just checked again, and while there's now a brand new website, it still needs an awful lot of work. I finallly found my way to a menu, and I find myself fairly indifferent. The tapas portion needs some additional offerings. Glad to see the tournedos/polenta on there, although the pork belly BLT dish is gone. I'd love to try it for happy hour as an introduction to the restaurant and menu, but I see no reference to that, even though it was discussed in the show.

    • @PSUFan5 says:

      You know they have a website right? Its so easy, Ill even let you figure out what the URL is.

      • DebM says:

        *sigh* Please actually read my comment before you get all snarky.

        To wit: " I just checked again, and while there's now a brand new website, it still needs an awful lot of work."

        They didn't have a website before July 6, 2013.

    • Jan says:

      I think you are shortchanging yourself by not trying any restaurant without a website. There are a lot of small businesses who cannot afford a website yet. That doesn't mean they aren't worth a try. You are missing out on a lot!

      • DebM says:

        Jan, we do actually often visit small ethnic restaurants without websites. I am hesitant to put out fine dining money though without some advance idea of the menu.

        That leads me to another reason for our earlier choice to not visit the restaurant. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the Lehigh Valley; it's a fairly large, spread-out metropolitan area (3rd largest in the state of Pennsylvania), but with a decidedly smaller town persona. By that, I mean that word-of-mouth and reputation are critical. I have a fairly extensive exposure to various social circles and have NEVER heard one thing, good or bad, about Benner Street. In our area, that's virtually impossible. Someone somewhere that we know here has an opinion, again good or bad, about a restaurant. Benner Street has never come up in conversation.

      • DebM says:

        I will say, however, that those people who think this is in a "bad" area are mistaken. This area is absolutely fine. Yes, you probably have to deal with street parking, but this really is not a sketchy area, unless you consider anything not in a high end neighborhood or mall a sketchy area. I would not have one concern at all about parking on the street and walking to this restaurant.

        Will I try it? Maybe. Still not thrilled with the menu, honestly. I'm more of a fusion girl myself as opposed to a more traditional French approach. But, I'll never say never.

    • Daneen says:

      You seriously won't eat at a place that doesn't have a website? Where the hell did you eat before the internet?

    • ClarkeinAK says:

      When originally reading your comments, I thought you sounded pretty stupid…no internet presence, no interest by you…wow!!! Dominos has an internet presence but that doesn't make their pizza any better. Same with lots of other places I can think of. Saying you're a fusion girl yourself tipped me off to who you are: a young person who is really into herself and way too good to be eating at restaurants she feels are below her. You probably drive a Subaru, hug trees and vote Democratic. Fusion? That's a flippin' joke!!!

      Many restaurants I've seen have had the menu's out front…kinda cool – you ought to try it. I don't give a flying rat's butt if they have a menu on the web…

    • David Kaye says:

      The most successful businesses do NOT have websites or if they do the websites aren't usually very interesting. Why not? Because they rely on word of mouth to build a successful business in the long term. I can think of many successful businesses here in San Francisco (pretty much the heart of the Internet) which simply don't have websites. Many of them are restaurants and bars.

  4. dana says:

    FYI – The owners didn't like the curtain either…lol! They took it down, but Dorothy went back to lace – she hung a lace curtain. I do also know that some of the chefs have left and some wait staff also. Apparently the daughter is just as controlling when Dorothy isn't around!!! (I used to work there)

  5. Mrs. Klein says:

    I don't understand why all these restaurant owners give in to old customers who think the new food is too expensive and the owners keep adding bac original dishes for them when that is part of why they are on the verge of going under/closing when they call for help.

    • GiveARat's says:

      Mrs. Klein, I think you are oversimplifying. Assuming that the old menu items were not horrible food, which in this case seems to be true, then there are only three reasons for removing an item from the menu: 1) it wasn't profitable/priced appropriately; 2) it wasn't attractive to the desired clientele; 3) The menu was too large to manage, and something had to be removed.
      In any case, these restaurants are going through a big reorganization after R/I. During that readjustment period, a smaller menu is much easier to manage. As things settle down, the menu can gradually, and within reason, grow a little.
      The old dishes are only a problem if they were causing the restaurant to lose money from waste, underpricing, or being too time-consuming for the staff to prepare. All three of those issues can be overcome by pricing the item correctly, and if the clientele is willing to pay the new price for them, why not offer them again? The bottom line is the bottom line, and profit is profit, whether it's made in old menu items or new items.

      • kb kber says:

        And this show was the rare exception. She's right… on all of the other renovations, the owners put back items that were disgusting and lost money, to try and appease a few old customers. Once they did that, you know that they did not learn a thing from Robert and will be back in the same mess as before.

  6. Ima says:

    Given the fact that no monies were needed for cleaning the kitchen or major repair work; it seems that the decor would have benefited a lot more from the $10,000. The design seemed very disjointed; nothing like any French Bistro I've ever seen, and those atrocious curtains really added insult to injury.

  7. @PSUFan5 says:

    So to all of the people here whining about certain things without actually eating there… why don't you actually go support a local business instead of commenting on a message board? The food is excellent, as is the service and the atmosphere. The prices are NOT too high. They range from 16-25 dollars per entree. That is below a lot of other restaurants in the area with similar food. You aren't going to eat here every night, so whining about the price of good food is pretty irrational.

    Go Check it out! The food is great!

  8. TBS says:

    The wife needs to go to Alanon. She will get help for her control issues & truly get support and learn to love and let go.

    • Glorylynn says:

      Amen to that. I feel bad for the husband who didn't feel loved. I don't care if she was right or not. He's darling. I don't care for cryers for sympathy. Not real fond of her. Sorry.

  9. Heather says:

    OK, so I was there last night: 7/30/13. I sat at the bar with my boyfriend. Everyone who worked there wanted to talk about the experience of having Robert Irvine come in. So here's my review, then I will tell you what I learned post-RI visit from the employees themselves.

    We had two specials. My boyfriend wasn't too hungry, so he got a Tapas special of Thai Chicken. It was served with a habanero hot and sweet sauce. Wow, that sauce was very spicy, yet out of this world. I had an entree of Tilapia served over thai rice with shrimp, and there was a creamy mushroom sauce with it. All of it was amazing!

    When sitting at the bar, I tested one of our commenter's theories about the little squares falling off and tried to actually pull it off. Those squares are NOT coming off any time soon. The service was great, the people were great, and it was an inviting atmosphere. The bar has one type of wallpaper (the green and white one) and the main dining room has two types, but it goes well together. The red curtains ARE GONE!!!! The employees didn't like them either! Also the bar choices have expanded, they have four beers on tap, a good selection of bottled beer, an even bigger selection of wine, and now have flavored vodkas. As a bartender, I checked out all of their selection and I came to the conclusion that you can pretty much make 300 plus drinks with what they have.

    My boyfriend also ordered the crab bisque. Here is when we got the story…. apparently the crab bisque that my boyfriend had was Robert Irvine's recipe. However, the recipes was never written down and given to them. The owner had to actually call RI to get it. Thank God he gave it to her. It's pretty rude not to share recipes permanently if you are going to share them for the relaunch….so I am glad to hear RI is reasonable.

    I met the bartender, Jason, a few servers, and Dorothy, the one owner. Yes, Dorothy is REALLY awesome. She is so kind, and there was a change. I think they did depict her like a bad guy on the show (for ratings concerns), her husband went to the hospital for heat exhaustion (because it was the first time he cooked in awhile that day), and she doesn't hover around the employees too much. She actually stood and had a long conversation with us (we were at the bar). Before I noticed she was in the dining room sitting and talking with guests. She is really proud of her newly decorated business, and I really feel that if this restaurant wasn't BORDERING a bad section of town (which is actually not that bad compared to a mile east of where it is and center city Allentown, which is a ten to fifteen minute drive away), this restaurant would be amazingly successful.

    And to comment on the person who made a comment to get a younger crowd in the restaurant, that simply wasn't true. They don't want Lehigh University students (because most are underage to drink), they want the professionals, the professors, the employees, and get people from St. Lukes Hospital in there! There is a casino with nightlife not even two miles away, which will always attract the younger crowd more than a restaurant like this. Trying to get professionals (younger or older) in the restaurant really is the key! It's also a great place to take a date!

    • Curt says:

      I like your update here and thank GOODNESS they got rid of those RED and What ever BLINDS.. YESSs!

    • Irene says:

      Love your insightful review.

    • GiveARat's says:

      In spite of the thought of "Thai chicken" with habanero sauce, which made me cringe a little bit, it sounds like your experience was very good, and that is really nice to hear.
      I must say that this was one of the episodes that left me feeling very pessimistic about the restaurant's chance of surviving, mostly because there seemed to be so much negative energy between the owners. I do hope they can continue to work their way through that.
      Thanks for the excellent update and review, Heather.

  10. Earl Roethke says:

    I agree about the curtain. Glad to hear that it is already gone. I live a long way from the restaurant, so I doubt I'll ever get to visit it. I very much hope they make it.

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