The United States government is shutting down Polly’s Pantry Restaurant and Tearoom, its owners claim. The popular Wildwood eatery must close Saturday, after a decade of operation due to work visa problems of English owners Polly and John Bennett.
They will lose their business, their home and adopted country.
“On Good Friday (April 14) we received notice from the Department of Homeland Security that we had two weeks to close because our work visas would not be renewed,” said a crestfallen Tricia “Polly” Bennett.
She and her husband are from England and renovated the building at 819 S. Main St. (near U.S. 301 and State Road 44) in Wildwood, about 10 years ago. Over that time thousands of Villagers have been served there.
“I want to stay in America, but I can’t,” Bennett added, near tears. “I don’t want to be an illegal immigrant. I love America. My husband and I have had an American flag in our house all our married lives.”
Villager Hazel Kaufman, among the dozens of visitors to Polly in the past 10 days since the closing was announced, is incensed over the government’s treatment of the Bennetts.
“I’m ashamed of my country; it’s appalling and this is not the way America treats people,” Kaufman said. “Polly and John Bennett are hardworking, caring people who ran a business here for 10 years. Everybody in The Villages loves them.
“These are not illegal immigrants trying to sneak into America. These are business owners who employ people in Florida. These are good people.”
The Bennetts might be called pillars of the community. The couple lives in Leesburg, and John Bennett volunteers to help others in a drug rehabilitation program for the Leesburg Baptist Church. Polly — an author who has published four books — said the Bennetts sponsor two orphanages in India. Also, she said, her son Reuben, served two tours of duty with the British armed forces in Afghanistan and was wounded.
“He was going to come and visit us in America until all this happened,” Polly said. “This whole thing is just so sad.”
She added a steady parade of Villagers have been coming in over the past few days. “Most of them are in tears – they love this place,” Polly said. “I’m getting swamped with telephone calls from people in The Villages asking what they can do to help.”
She urges anyone wanting to visit in the final days to call 352-330-4002 for reservations or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Many Villagers are angry about the closing. Some have talked about starting a petition and contacting U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Others wanted to hold a protest march, Polly said.
“I think Polly and John Bennett represent what is best about America,” Villager Donna Kagin said. She is a naturalized U.S. citizen who came from England. “I know what it means to come to America from another country.
“You see the Statue of Liberty, and I think that statue represents what America is all about. I just can’t believe the way this country is treating Polly and John. You don’t expect that to happen in America.”
Polly’s Tearoom has become a sanctuary for members of the many tea clubs in The Villages. It has the atmosphere, food and drinks that capture the essence of a quaint, cozy, old-fashioned tearoom.
“John and Polly run a business, but everything they do is from the heart,” added Kagin, who has been volunteering to help in the restaurant this week.
The Bennetts have been selling at cut-rate prices many of the objects and memorabilia that gives Polly’s Tearoom its’ English atmosphere. Customers were buying everything from pictures, to dollhouses to teapots and cups.
“It’s hard to give all this up and see it go,” Polly said.
Villager Nancy Crossan is chairperson of the Virginia Trace Ladies Luncheon Club. She said the club and its 110 members were planning to have its luncheon catered by Poly’s in the first week of May.
“Even though they are closing and have to leave; Polly and John said they would make arrangements to help us,” Crossan said. “That’s the kind of people they are, and that’s why we’ve been coming here for years.”
Crossan, like so many others, is in a state of disbelief over the government’s treatment of the Bennetts and the closing.
“I’m devastated,” Crossan said. “This is a wonderful place and an asset to The Villages and to Florida. I don’t understand why the government would do this. It’s a shame.”
Villager Jean Carter walked in Polly’s on Tuesday and found out about the forced closing.
“Why?” she said. “I can’t believe the government is acting this way. I will do anything I can to help them keep this wonderful place open.”
It appears too late to change things. Polly said she and her husband have already booked a flight back to England. They are selling everything, and hope they can find a buyer for the building, and their house.
“We’re going to be homeless,” she said.
“I’m trying to understand this,” Polly added. “Maybe it’s the way people feel about immigrants these days. I don’t know. But I do know that for 10 years, we have paid taxes, worked for charities, hired employees and never asked this country for anything. I just hope we can get through this.”
John Bennett, like his wife, is dumbfounded by what is happening.
“They say everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I guess there is a reason for this and all we can do is trust God that everything will be all right.”
Then he added a final thought.
“I still love America,” John Bennett said.