By Donald Wittkowski
The call came out of the blue one day more than 20 years ago. On the other end of the phone was a legendary figure who Jimmy Bennett had first seen when he was growing up in his hometown of Gloucester Township, Camden County.
“Jimmy, my man!” said the effusive caller. “You own the LaCosta down there, and I think the two of us could do some business together.”
Without hesitation, Bennett responded, “Jerry, I would love to do business with you. My mother used to take me to your record parties in Gloucester Township. I’d love to do business with you now.”
With that, Jimmy Bennett and Jerry Blavat began a friendship and business relationship that continues today. Blavat, the iconic Philadelphia disc jockey known as the “Geator with the Heater” and “Boss with the Hot Sauce,” takes up residence entertaining the crowds every Sunday between Memorial Day and Labor Day at Bennett’s LaCosta Lounge in Sea Isle City.
For Bennett, the surprise phone call from Blavat was another extraordinary twist in the life of a man who has become one of Sea Isle’s most influential business owners and confidant of Mayor Leonard Desiderio.
Bennett considers Blavat and Desiderio two of the biggest inspirations in his life. When speaking of Blavat, he says he is amazed by the 76-year-old DJ’s energy level and work ethic.
“He’s a very gracious entertainer,” Bennett said. “He has more energy than an 18-year-old. He is the hardest-working man in show business.”
Blavat, explaining their close friendship, said he admires Bennett’s devotion to his customers as well as his contributions to Sea Isle.
“Jimmy Bennett is the real deal,” Blavat said. “He loves what he does. He enjoys seeing people happy. He is a doer. He actually loves the people in that community. He gives to the community.”
What separates Bennett from some other nightclub operators, Blavat said, is that he relishes mingling with the customers instead of acting like some haughty owner.
“He’s a good guy. He’s the same as his customers,” Blavat said. “He never forgot where he came from.”
Bennett, 55, wasn’t always the owner of the LaCosta Lounge, the venerable entertainment complex at the corner of John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Landis Avenue, in the heart of Sea Isle’s downtown business district. He began modestly at LaCosta, working there as a summer bartender when he was a student at York College of Pennsylvania.
At one point, he had a job lined up as the food and beverage manager at an Atlantic city casino, but instead of entering the gaming business, he bought the LaCosta in 1993. In 2006, he acquired the Lobster Loft restaurant to add another Sea Isle landmark to his business portfolio.
By the 1990s, he had established himself as one of Sea Isle’s most prominent businessman. His purchase of the LaCosta came only 13 years after he had graduated from Ocean City High School in 1980.
Bennett’s family includes his wife of 20 years, Jennifer, his daughter, Barbara Jean, 17, and sons Anthony, 29, James, 21, and Luke, 8.
Prior to moving to Sea Isle in 1990, Bennett had lived in Ocean City for 10 years. At Ocean City High School, he was a star athlete, serving as captain of the football and wrestling teams. In football, he earned all-star honors playing middle guard. He also won the district championship as a 158-pound wrestler, compiling a 21-4 record.
Standing 5-foot-9, he was small for a middle guard. But Bennett noted that his mental toughness helped him overcome any physical limitations he may have had as an athlete.
“You set goals, and you reach them,” he stressed. “I also believe that if you want to reach long-term goals, you need to reach a series of short-term goals along the way.”
Bennett said that philosophy has guided him as a businessman. Reflecting his prominence in the liquor industry, he serves as the president of the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association, a state lobbying group that represents bar and tavern owners.
One of Bennett’s closest friends is a fellow bar operator, Mayor Leonard Desiderio, who owns the Kix McNutley’s entertainment and nightclub complex in Sea Isle. Despite the intense competition of the bar business, Desiderio emphasized there is no rivalry between the two men.
“He’s a good person and a good friend,” Desiderio said. “I’m glad that he chose Sea Isle as his place to live and for his business.”
Bennett and Desiderio’s rise as businessmen and community leaders in Sea Isle roughly shadowed each other. When Desiderio got married in 1996, Bennett served in his wedding. Bennett was also a close friend of Gerard Desiderio, the mayor’s late brother.
“Len Desiderio is the most giving person I know,” Bennett said. “I’m proud to be associated with him. I go to him for advice quite often.”
Bennett said he was particularly impressed with Desiderio when the mayor led efforts to re-energize tourism at the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy’s devastating blow in 2012. He credited Desiderio for creating the “We Are Ready” campaign to draw tourists back to Sea Isle and other parts of the shore.
As part of his mayoral powers, Desiderio appointed Bennett as chairman of the Sea Isle City Tourism Commission, a group that is responsible for marketing the beach town to vacationers. Underscoring his confidence in Bennett’s leadership on the Tourism Commission, Desiderio called him “Super Bennett.”
“The Tourism Commission is very important. Jimmy understands the importance of tourism to our community,” Desiderio said.
Bennett’s commitment to local tourism, Desiderio noted, will be in full view during Sea Isle’s 23rd annual Polar Bear Weekend celebration on Feb. 17-19. Bennett’s LaCosta Lounge will serve as the social and entertainment epicenter for the Polar Bear festivities, traditionally a blockbuster event that draws tens of thousands of visitors to town for a weekend of shopping, dining and partying.
“He’s not afraid to get involved or to put his resources where they are needed,” Desiderio said. “He’s someone who acts in the best interest of Sea Isle. That’s important to me, as mayor, to have someone who acts in the best interest of Sea Isle.”