Mackinac Island remembers Mr. B, its legendary gentleman, business partner

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MACKINAC ISLAND, MI – More than a million people will step off a ferry onto Mackinac Island this summer and spend time visiting places like Original Murdick’s Fudge shops, the famous Pink Pony bar, then motor past the Round Island Lighthouse as they head back to the mainland.

They’ll carry memories from each of those stops thanks to the years of hard work and handshake partnerships built by Robert James Benser. The business owner, dad and grandpa known affectionately to his many island friends as “Mr. B” died this month at the age of 95. He’d been a presence on Mackinac Island for nearly 70 years, and over the decades owned or co-owned some of the island’s most iconic businesses. And while Mackinac is Michigan’s biggest tourist destination, the island is also a small town at its heart. So the space left by Mr. Benser’s passing prompted a rush of fond memories, funny stories and sweet farewells offered in remembrance of one of the island’s legendary names.

“He was many things, but above all he was a kind and humble man,” his son, Bobby Benser, told MLive. “He had a curiosity for life and loved people.”

As family and friends prepare for his memorial service this Friday at Ste. Anne’s Catholic Church – followed by a celebration of his life on the Pink Pony’s patio – these are a handful of the memories being shared from his island heyday:

  • He loved running into his friends around town. Everyone was treated to his big smile.
  • Mr. Benser could often be found taking a seat at the Pink Pony bar in the morning and chatting with staff as they prepped for the day.
  • If he was enjoying a beer, there would probably be stuffed olives nearby.
  • Even after his children had graduated from school, you could find Mr. Benser sitting on a bench with a bag of popcorn, enjoying local kids’ sports games in his community.
  • His family’s Victorian downtown home, the Bonnie Doon, has a gorgeous waterfront view. But when Mr. Benser sat down at the head of the kitchen table with family and friends, he kept his back to the view so he could focus on the people around him.
The Pink Pony Restaurant on Mackinac Island

Beer taps at The Pink Pony restaurant on Mackinac Island on May 22, 2023 (Santino Mattioli | MLive.com)

“For our family, he is our Dad and GP (grandpa),” his family said in a memorial tribute on social media. “A man that loved his family and lit up when his grandchildren were around. He enjoyed cooking them big breakfasts in the summer.

“Our dad loved fishing and golfing at Wawashkamo and the Gaylord CC. In the spring he hunted for morels and in the fall he hunted for big bucks. He loved to relax on the deck at the Bonnie Doon and most of all he loved spending time with his family and his many friends in Gaylord, Mackinac and Naples.”

While Mr. Benser was not born to the island, his family’s name has since become synonymous with the old-school style business partnerships between friends that has allowed the charming downtown to cement its place as an evolving vacation destination for the last several decades.

A Gaylord native, Mr. Benser attended what was then called Davenport Business School before joining the U.S. Army and serving during the Korean War. His resume was built on a strong work ethic. He did maintenance work in his early years, sold linen and eventually cars at a Chevy dealership downstate. Mr. Benser’s Mackinac Island ventures started pretty humbly in 1955 with a tiny, seasonal ice cream shop he opened with borrowed cash and the help of his best friend, Frank Nephew. Mr. B’s Tastee Freeze was his first island business.

“For several years, Bob would sell cars in the winter and ice cream in the summer at the Tastee Freeze, while living in the back of the 400-square-foot building,” according to his obituary. “In 1966, Bob and Frank put their heads — and what little money they had — together to purchase the Chatterbox, which would later become the Pickle Barrel, Everybody’s Little Mexico and presently the Lilac Tree Hotel. This first deal together set in motion a lifelong partnership that all began with a handshake.”

Then came the sweet part of his growing book of island business. Under the tutelage of his business neighbors, Jerome and Grace Murdick, Mr. Benser learned the labor-intensive craft of fudge-making. In 1969, he bought the Original Murdick’s Fudge business from them. Original Murdick’s now has eight stores across four cities. To this day, the treat is one of the island’s signature exports.

Mackinac Island

Workers pour out chocolate as they make fudge at Original Murdick’s Fudge on Mackinac Island, Mich. on Thursday, May 16, 2024. Joel Bissell | MLive.com

In 1974, Mr. Benser was part of a small group that helped kickstart the renovation of the Round Island Lighthouse, which had fallen into disrepair just offshore of Mackinac Island.

And in 1984, his portfolio expanded again when he was part of a business quartet that purchased the Chippewa Hotel Waterfront on Main Street and its next-door Pink Pony bar.

“While Bob was an accomplished businessman, he was a quiet and thoughtful leader of a generation of local families who trusted each other and worked to be the best stewards of Mackinac’s magic and history,” his family wrote in his obituary. “They did business on the bustling sidewalks with a handshake and their word, and with hopes of making Mackinac Island a better place.”

“His praise was invaluable, and his reprimands legendary. Bob only saw the best in people and believed in second, third and fourth chances; he never fired a single employee.”

Mr. Benser is survived by his wife, Gigi, their four children, seven grandchildren, and many other friend and relatives.

Memorial contributions may be made to the University of Michigan Pediatric Cancer Research Gracie’s Fund, the Youth Fund in care of the Mackinac Island Community Foundation, and to the Robert Benser Memorial Fund of the Otsego Community Foundation online, or by mail to Otsego Community Foundation, PO Box 344, Gaylord, MI 49734 (please include Robert Benser Memorial Fund in the check memo).

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