Ben’s In the News
A sign on the wall in Ben’s of Boca Raton reads: “If you don’t eat, it will kill me.”
So I ate, and ate, and … well, you get the picture.
After all. I would have felt like a real schlemiel if I hadn’t noshed on a little bit of everything.
Like many South Floridians, Ben’s roots are in New York. Since its six other locations are all in the Big Apple, I thought it only fitting that the mural in its Boca Raton restaurant is of Broadway.
My family and I started with the nicoise salad, a generous helping of tuna topped [on] a bed of bit-sized bits of crisp romaine surrounded by tomatoes, eggs, black olives, green beans, potatoes and mushrooms.
The tuna was a little dry, but the sweet poppy seed dressing more than made up for the lack of mayo. There was enough for two with plenty to spare.
You can’t go to a deli without ordering a knish.
A spinach lover, I opted for the spinach version. This Eastern European treat was scrumptious and quite filling.
I am a big fan of chicken in the pot, so I had to try Ben’s. It lived up to all my expectations. This truly was chicken soup for my soul. The kosher half-chicken was so tender it fell away from the bones. Too often, matzo balls are leaden, stick-to-your-gut balls of dough. The softball-sized matzo ball was light and airy. A kreplach, noodles, peas and carrots filled out the pot. My kids are big soup eater and this was a real hit with them.
After all of this food, it was hard to think of dessert, but I forced myself to order one of Ben’s jumbo cookies. It was a crunchy sugar cookie with a quarter-size chunk of chocolate in the center and definitely big enough to share. It was a big ending to a big meal that was a big hit for my family!
Is there such a thing as Jewish “soul food”?
It’s a question I found myself asking again and again during the course of a satisfying meal at Ben’s Deli in Boca Raton the other night. After all, what is soul food but a cuisine rooted in a working-class ethos, making use of whatever bits and scraps are available and turning them into something filling — not just in a gastronomic sense, but in a cultural one as well?
But in the end, it’s still about soul. And Ben’s has it in abundance.
In many ways, the New York-based kosher chain — the Boca eatery is its sole Florida out post — represents the last vestiges of an era when delis thrived in almost every neighborhood where Jewish culture thrived. During this pre-gourmet epoch, it wasn’t about knowing if your corned beef was lean and tender.
Now, deli has become a euphemism for any place, kosher or not, that sells sliced meats and sandwiches, and lighter, healthier and more sophisticated fare has found its way into current-day palaces of pastrami. Consider that at the TooJay’s chain, you can sup on vegetable lasagna or a Mandarin chicken salad. Then again, at least TooJay’s is around. In New York, one of the last of the old-school delis, the non-kosher Katz’s, may soon be shutting down.
Fortunately, Ben’s is also thriving — during the season, be prepared for lines that typically extend out the door at the 3-year-old location — but it’s doing so with a menu firmly rooted in tradition. At the same time, what makes Ben’s so appealing is that, in stark contrast to the old-school delis, the restaurant is stylishly designed, with clean lines, comfortable seating and such classy details as renderings of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge in etched glass and vintage posters from the Yiddish theater.
And don’t forget the amusing aphorisms — they’re called “Ron-ifications” since they come courtesy of Ben’s founder Ronnie Dragoon — that are posted everywhere. One example. “For five thousand years, we were a wandering people. Then we found Boca Raton.”
Still, food is the big draw. You know you’ve entered a Jewish comfort-food zone as soon as your server brings by the complimentary bowls of crunchy (and yes, galick-y) pickles and lightly dressed, house-made cole slaw. (The service, by the way, is first-rate in terms of courtesy and efficiency, another noteworthy contrast to the delis of old.)
The offerings set the stage for some terrific appetizers. Try the chopped liver, thick and rich in all its artery-clogging glory, or that Jewish snack food known as the potato knish, as good an excuse for carbohydrate overloading as any I've found. ( By the way, Ben's bakes it own densely delicious round knishes, though it also sells the popular commercially made square ones.) If you insist on something light, the Israeli salad — a Mediterranean-style chopped salad — will suffice.
With entrees, Ben’s has all the classics: chicken fricassee, stuffed cabbage, Romanian tenderloin, and sliced deli meats (including a pickled-on-the-premises tongue). But there are classics, and there’s “War and Peace.” That’s how I look at a dish like Ben’s chicken in the pot), an epic mélange of half a chicken, a matzo ball (more a sinker than a floater to my delight), a kreplach (think Jewish dumpling), noodles and peas and carrots. So, how does it taste? Bland, of course. But that’s what chicken in the pot is supposed to taste like — the broth bears the slightest hint of chicken fat and nothing more, leaving it up to the diner to add the necessary salt and pepper to bring the one-pot meal up to seasoning code. But I love Ben’s version precisely because of its lack of pretense; the real joy of the dish comes in picking away at the chicken that has but fallen apart from hours of stewing.
A close second in the classic category proved to be the braised fresh brisket, as tender as a slow-cooked meat should be, complemented with outstanding mashed potatoes (though you won’t go wrong with the equally outstanding fresh-cut fries — no frozen stuff at Ben’s).
If you just want to stick with a sandwich, the pastrami or house-pickled corned beef may not rise to the flavorful level of what I had at Katz’s on a recent trip to New York, but they’re better than the commercial norm; I like how the freshly steamed corned beef has the right mouth feel — not so much tender, but tender and textured, so that the fibrous meat holds together, though barely so.
Ben’s does have it limitations. Because kosher dietary laws prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy products, the desserts are of the non-dairy variety, which means they tend to be unmemorable at best and dry and chalky at worst.
And given Ben’s proud emphasis on classic Jewish cooking, I find the restaurant’s few efforts at pleasing contemporary palates all the more absurd. (Who really comes to a kosher deli for a plate of rotelle primavera with chicken?) As all purists know, there’ only one beverage to have in a kosher deli: a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, a refreshing tonic, made with celery seed, that can best be described as a Jewish ginger ale.
That can, after all, stands for tradition. It’s something that the many older Jews of Eastern European derivation who call South Florida home understand intuitively. But it’s also a soulful lesson in heritage that anyone can devour — in every sense of the term.
If there’s any state that knows how to do deli, it’s New York. So imagine if an established New York delicatessen decided to open up shop down here in Boca.
Well folks, hang on to your knishes, because it’s happened. Ben’s New York Kosher, of Queens, Long Island, and Manhattan fame, has finally made its way south.
Having visited a New York deli or two in my day, I’m a fairly tough customer. Surely with all the other northern transplants residing in these parts, I am not alone. Ironically, my thoughts upon entering Ben’s Delicatessen centered on the apparent differences between this pace versus the quintessential N.Y. deli, the Carnegie, Stage and 2nd Avenue Delis to name a few. Spaciousness, for starters, is something you’ll rarely find, but here at Ben’s, the space is bright and vast. Secondly, N.Y. delis can always be counted on for a touch of grit and grime. It’s not that they’re dirty, just “lived in,” which oddly enough adds character and a certain appeal. Ben’s is eat-off-the-floors clean, albeit the place is still relatively new having opened just after last Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong. Ben’s has plenty of charm, it’s just achieved in other ways, like being decorated with impressive glass etched panels depicting such New York City icons as the Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, and Statue of Liberty. Additionally, the walls resonate with printed proverbs both wise (“Better to have a good enemy than a bad friend.”) and humorous (“If you can’t say something nice, say it in Yiddish.”) Lastly, one can usually expect the service in a N.Y. deli to be gruff and impatient. Here, it is attentive and friendly. This is all good and well, but now let’s get to what really matters most — the grub.
Moments after being seated, stainless steel bowls appear, overflowing with delicious cole slaw and assorted pickles. Next comes a basket of raisin pumpernickel that’s virtually impossible to resist. Matzo Ball soup is always available, and theirs falls somewhere between commercially store-bought and made with love in Bubbe’s kitchen, leaning more toward the latter. Tonight’s daily homemade soup, Chicken a La Reine, is a wonderful creamy chicken vegetable, much like a Jewish version of egg drop. The Braised Fresh Brisket of Beef is flavorful and fork tender, and I recommend an oversize potato pancake and stewed fruit compote on the side. The Stuffed Cabbage is prepared the old-fashioned way. Two large leaves are filled to capacity with ground meat and rice, in a savory, lightly seasoned sweet red sauce. The Hot Pastrami Sandwich comes bare or on the plate, but the fact that not a single iota of fat can be found entitles it to stand alone. It’s not as obscenely overstuffed as you’d find in one of the N.Y.C. counterparts, but then again, it’s also not accompanied by the obscene price tag. Though the noodle pudding is a wee bit dry, the kasha varnishkas is impeccable.
A fellow diner is overheard complaining “the coffee tastes days old.” I’ll only partially agree with his hyperbole. Hours old, I’ll give him, but certainly not days. Dessert-wise, the chocolate layer cake is lousy, the carrot cake is sublime, and I’m just now getting over the absence of black and white cookies that night.
New Yorkers know best, so if Ben’s can make it there, it can make it anywhere. Seeing the way customers are lining up at the door to dine in or take out, I suspect Ben’s will make it here, too.
Ronnie Dragoon, Owner of Ben's Kosher Delicatessen Restaurants and Caterers
1. As a VISTA volunteer (the domestic Peace Corps), Dragoon served in an economically depressed area of Indiana. READ MORE..
One of the top deli operations in the New York area is making its way to West Boca.
Ronnie Dragoon, the owner of Ben’s N.Y. Kosher Deli, is bringing almost 31 years experience to The Reserve, a new “shopping center for country club residents” scheduled to be finished by the end of 2003.
“After finishing college, my father and I took over a bankrupt store in Long Island, [and the rest is history],” Dragoon said.
Dragoon said there were some basic requirements and a few considerations — plenty of sunshine, a dash of upscale clientele and one high-class atmosphere.
“That’s my new land of milk and honey,” Dragoon said about the West Boca area. It’s also “the land” where many of his friends and customers have migrated. He’ll be at the restaurant’s new location for the first two months after its opening.
At The Reserve in Boca Raton, Florida
“I am excited about building a 7,000 square foot store, the largest Ben’s N.Y. Kosher Deli to date,” Dragoon said. “I am excited about seeing my old customers, many of whom have moved to Delray, Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, Deerfield Beach and other adjoining towns.”
Sutton Boca One Developers, Inc. and Brooks Realty, the developers of The Reserve, had a few standards of their own.
“[The Reserve] is going to be a country club atmosphere. You could compare these demographics to Beverly Hills,” said David Yudell, president of Sutton Boca One Developers, Inc. and Brooks Realty.
The shopping center itself will be about 144,000 square feet.
“We’re considering Ben’s as an anchor — [Dragoon] has a big following,” Yudell said.
Besides the food, Ben’s is known for its “matzo ball eating contest.”
“The contest is sponsored by the deli. This year, the winner ate 21 matzo balls,” said Carol Horn, The Reserve spokesperson and a former New York resident.
Last year’s winner ate only 16 matzo balls.
“In New York, we used to eat there all the time,” Horn said.
Ben’s N.Y. Kosher Deli also will offer catering and delivery. The menu will offer soups, including the traditional chicken soup with matzo balls and rice. An order of three-egg omelets, served with potato pancakes and applesauce or fresh cut fries will make a hearty breakfast.
For greens lovers, there are plenty of salads. Carnivores can assuage those cravings with steak burgers. The turkey salad will fulfill those who want the best of both worlds. Israeli Heros will satisfy any sandwich fan (one foot long, overstuffed “with everything but the kitchen sink”). Other items include extra lean corn beef and pastrami and tongue and fresh brisket. Traditional specialties include stuffed cabbage and “chicken in-the-pot.” There is also a kids’ menu which includes sodas, and gelatin or cookies with each meal (ages 12 and under).
Horn said she would not be the only one who is “very happy to have Ben’s on board.”
Among the newer delis that have surfaced in recent years are Wolf’s (41 W. 57th St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 888-4100), close to a raft of art galleries; and Artie’s Deli (2290 Broadway between 82nd and 83rd streets, 579-5959) on the Upper West Side. I mention them should you happen to be in their neighborhoods and in need of a pastrami fix. But the best of the new fellows on the block is surely Ben’s Kosher Deli (209 W. 38th St. at Seventh Avenue, 398-2367).
209 W. 38th St. at 7th Avenue
Ben’s is a large room, more a formal restaurant than a traditional deli, yet its food nestles perfectly into the comfort zone set by those older places. Pastrami and corned beef are quite good, but so are Romanian-style kosher steaks smothered in fried onions and such dishes as a very good egg barley with mushrooms and the ubiquitous kasha varnishkes. Unlike the majority of delis, Ben’s bakes all its rolls, cakes and pastries as well as its round, light-skinned potato knishes.
Ben’s Deli sits among the designer showrooms and manufacturers of New York’s bustling Garment District and is on the site of another of the city’s gone-but-not-forgotten delis, Lou G. Siegel. That restaurant was taken over by Ronnie Dragoon, remodeled and opened as Ben’s in 1996. Its spacious booths set into its vaguely Art Deco décor are perfect places to eat half-sour pickles, a bowl of which is placed on every table as you await your pastrami. Above you are ceiling murals depicting traditional Jewish dancing, beneath your feet is a huge marble image of a mustard jar. How apt.
Tucked into a booth at Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen in Baldwin, Don Lerman of Levittown gripped a knife in his right hand, quickly slicing baseball-size matzo balls into quarters like apples and shoveling one after the other into his mouth with his left. His fingers quivered. Crumbs dribbled down his chin and stuck in his beard. He didn’t pause until he had devoured 12 of the half-pound dumplings in two minutes and 50 seconds, just beating out Eric Booker of Copiague, who gulped only 11-3/4.
“I’m inspired now, man,” said Mr. Booker, giving the winner a high five. A week later, at a qualifier in Bayside, Queens, Mr. Booker broke Mr. Lerman’s record by eating 16 matzo balls.
Mr. Lerman was relieved to have secure himself a spot in the final on Tuesday in Manhattan. “I would give up every title to hold this title,” he said, mopping his brow and promising to reclaim the matzo-ball eating title he won two years ago. “ The matzo ball is the cream of the cream of every contest. It puts your body through a lot of trauma, I would say more than going three rounds of Mike Tyson.”
Ben's Matzo Ball Eating Contest Hall of Fame
(Top Row, l to r): 2003 Winner Eric "Badlands" Booker; 2002 Winner Oleg "The Russian " Zohornotsky; 2001 Winner "Hungry" Charles Hardy
(Bottom Row, l to r): 2000 Winner Don "Moses" Lerman; 1999 Winner Russel "Mad Dog" Machover; 1998 Winner Bruce "Bubba" Stock
Driven by a love of eating and the fleeting notoriety a title brings, Mr. Lerman, 52, a 5-foot-8, 176-pounder with a seemingly bottomless appetite, does not enter eating contests lightly. He retired from his day-old-bread business to concentrate on championship eating and trains by drinking a gallon of water in under three minutes, stretching his stomach. Though he keeps in shape by jogging on a treadmill, he recently gained 30 pounds practicing for ice cream, French fry and hamburger contests.
Along with Mr. Booker and Ed Jarvis of Nesconset, Mr. Lerman is among the top 10 competitive eaters in the world, professionals on the glutton circuit where speed and quantity count when wolfing down ice cream, hot dogs, zeppole, jalapeños and steak.
In November, Mr. Lerman earned the title of “Cloud Burger” champ at Grandma Willy’s Garage in Minnesota for eating 11-1/4 quarter-pound hamburgers on buns, but without lettuce, tomato or special sauce, in 10 minutes. Mr. Jarvis won a Belmont racetrack contest last year by downing a 17-inch pizza in three minutes, and Mr. Booker, a five-year veteran of stuff-your-face battles, chomped 24-1/2 hot dogs with buns in 12 minutes, an American record, at a Central Islip qualifier for the annual Nathan’s contest in Coney Island. (Takeru Kobayashi of Nagano, Japan, took the world record with a staggering 50 hot dogs.)
Not only do these guys not have a problem cleaning their plates, they are on the leading edge of a centuries-old, but increasingly popular and totally consuming sport.
George Shea is president of the International Federation of Competitive Eaters, a Manhattan-based organization that sanctions events and track nearly 100 active “gurgitators” on the circuit. “Long Island is a hotbed of eating,” he said when asked why so many Long Islanders are world-ranked gluttons.
“ This past year it’s really exploded,” said Mr. Shea, a competitive eater since 1988. “People respond to the fundamental aspect of competitive eating. It’s a pure athletic pursuit. It’s the sport of the everyman but then every man finds out he may not have it and only few do.”
Then there’s the spectacle. Speed-eating contests are like feeding time at the shark tank. The only rule is that vomiting brings disqualification. And with the media attention they attract, the gobbling gladiators are really full of themselves.
Mr. Lerman said eating should be an Olympic sport and named himself “the king.” In the 6-foot-6, 400-pound range, Mr. Jarvis and Mr. Booker dwarf Mr. Lerman, but they both call him their mentor. “It’s the pat on the back,” Mr. Lerman said, though the $25 entry fees from the Ben’s contest go to the Interfaith Nutrition Network and many of the competitions are fund-raisers for other hunger organizations.
“The trophy, the bragging rights from you friends and relatives,” Mr. Lerman said. “This is my chance at fame, at the brass ring.”
There is some prize money, but not enough to make a living out of eating. The three Long Island speed eaters competed in “The Glutton Bowl: The World’s Greatest Eating Competition,” a Super Bowl of eating challenges with a $25,000 top prize. It is scheduled to air nationwide on the Fox television network on Feb. 21, but the contestants signed agreements not to talk about how they fared. They appear in the show “Big Eats” on the Food Network and on March 3, star in “Gut Busters,” a documentary about the competitive eating circuit, on The Discovery Channel.
Mr. Jarvis, a real estate agent, is up for rookie of the year. After watching Mr. Lerman devour the matzo ball championship two years ago, Mr. Jarvis figured that with his size he would be a natural.
“Everybody has the need to win in some shape or form,” Mr. Jarvis said, having been kept from playing football in high school because his mother was afraid that, despite a 385-pound frame, he would get hurt. “This is what I do best. I eat.”
After making it to the finals of the matzo ball contest last year, Mr. Jarvis, 35, won his first pizza eating competition in record time, then celebrated with a dozen zeppole. That turned out to be a mere warm-up for the contest at the Feast of Mother Cabrini in Brentwood, where he finished 15-1/2 cold zeppole in four minutes. Last summer, he traveled to hot dog competitions across the country with Mr. Lerman and Kevin Lipsitz of Staten Island, the reigning International United-Carnegie Pickle Eating champion. Mr. Jarvis won trophies in the Meadowlands, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
“We will go wherever food is found,” Mr. Jarvis said, patting his belly. “If there is competition, we will be involved. Wherever there is food, we will conquer.”
For Max and Mina’s Ice Cream Open In Manhattan, Mr. Lerman practiced by eating half a gallon a day and in the finals wolfed down 6 pounds, 9 ounces of butter-cream-vanilla in 12 minutes. But Mr. Jarvis beat him by 5 ounces, complaining afterward that it felt as if his jaw was frozen.
In November, Mr. Jarvis ate 2 pounds, 9 ounces of French fries at an invitational competition at the Village Restaurant in Manhattan.
“They are tough to eat for quantity,” Mr. Jarvis said. “You can feel them going down your throat. You can’t just pack them in like ice cream.”
The Challenge not long ago at J&R Steakhouse in Stony Brook was to consume a 76-ounce steak, accompanied by creamed spinach or a baked potato, in an hour. Mr. Jarvis finished his in 20 minutes, along with two orders of creamed spinach plus a pitcher of beer. It took Mr. Booker 36 minutes, Mr. Lerman 50 minutes and Mr. Lipsitz 60. Meanwhile, Mr. Jarvis had coffee and dessert. And at the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan, these big-time eaters had no problem polishing off a 9-inch tall, 7-1/2 inch long, 5-1/2 inch wide sandwich called the No. 13, piled with corned beef, Swiss cheese, turkey, coleslaw, pumpernickel bread and Russian dressing, along with pickles. Their plates were clean in 25 minutes. Dessert was chocolate layer cake.
“They put our picture on the wall in the Carnegie Deli, which really was to me a big honor because really the only people on the wall are all famous people,” Mr. Jarvis said. “I felt like a star.”
Though they are competitors, the men have found kinship in eating big. They trade tips. They often speak on the phone and, of course, pig out together at all-you-can-eat buffets. When they met for an informal rib-eating contest in New Jersey, Mr. Booker, 32, who works as a conductor in the New York City subway and produces and records hip-hop music, had 21 reorders.
Despite the pressure of the clock, Mr. Booker said he savored every bite. And he never gets heartburn. “If the food is good, I enjoy it,” said Mr. Booker. “I’ve been known to put mustard and relish on hot dogs,” he said. “Everyone is eating for speed. I just take my time and win.”
Mr. Booker claims 10 pounds of eating capacity, but said training and technique play a greater role. Everyone's stomach is about the same size, he said, and extra flab can keep it from extending to its fullest. So he eats salad in the off-season and stays in shape with judo. The Japanese hot dog champ weighs in at 131 pounds.
Mr. Lerman said he has always been a fast and voracious eater. When the first Krispy Kreme outlet on Long Island opened in East Meadow in June, he showed up at 4 a.m. When the doors opened two hours later, he downed a dozen of the sugar-coated doughnuts with gusto. That was only two days after chomping 17 hot dogs in 12 minutes at Belmont Racetrack, one of 10 qualifying events around the country for the Nathan’s contest, where he consumed 20 in the final, garnering fourth place. At a Russian pelmeni open at a festival in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in early September, he devoured 150 of the little ravioli-like pirogi in 2 minutes, 49 seconds.
To qualify for the Wing Bowl in Philadelphia, Mr. Lerman ate 30 White Castle hamburgers in 15 minutes. And he’s been practicing for the jalapeño contest scheduled for February in Texas.
“This is our sport, competitive eating,” Mr. Lerman said, happily handing out autographed photographs of himself to diners at Ben’s after the contest. “Some people they box, they play golf. Michael Jordan is the best, but how good would he do in this arena?”
Being in love with matzo balls, Ben’s is my favorite in the bustling Bay Terrace Center. It is set in the corner looking deceptively small outside but is actually a spacious and slashingly designed Kosher deli that is much more.
The two-level dining area has been designed to give soft lighting and elegance to the space. There is also a large private dining room for parties. Of course, all food faithfully observes the Kosher dietary laws.
One of seven Kosher delis run by Ronnie Dragoon, it is open seven days and always is busy — either the front counter for take-out or the dining room. I love when waiting for tables has a line, the hostess passes out hors d’oeuvres keeping everyone on line happy!
Now for my favorite food — turkey! They cook a whole turkey so not only is it sliced off the bone, there are bones. And I love bones.
The neck, the wing, the thigh, and even the “tush” (or end of the turkey). It’s always cooked to perfection — crispy skin and moist meat.
Let us not forget that the owner-founder is committed to preserving the traditional cuisine of his eastern European heritage. So you will find chicken fricassee, succulent chicken pieces and meatballs in a flavorful brown gravy. Of course, Hungarian goulash, chicken livers, stuffed cabbage and gefilte fish.
Chicken is their specialty, done at least 10 different ways. Each day there is a special soup, but of course as I said, the light, fluffy, huge matzo balls in the tasty broth is my favorite.
In January, watch for Ben’s Matzo Ball Contest held in all their locations. What a sight to see the competitors push these succulent matzo balls down their throats.
Being a modern Kosher deli, there is also a rib-eye steak, which they call the King of Kosher Steaks and it is a tender and juicy cut, a bargain because it includes a vegetable-of-the-day, choice of potato, pickles, cole slaw and bread.
For fish lovers, there is a juicy, well-cooked, grilled salmon with vegetables and potato for $15.95 and it’s freshly cut from a whole salmon.
A kids’ menu is available for a choice of main courses that also includes soda and cookies. The frank on a roll with fresh cut French fires is delicious.
The dessert menu ranges from assorted rugulach to my favorite, a seven layer cake slice.
Ben’s has created a successful chain where you can get quality food, friendly service and a beautiful environment.
In 1972, fresh from the Vista Volunteers program, Ronnie Dragoon took over a failing delicatessen restaurant in Baldwin, NY. His dream? To have customers standing on line to get into his place. “I never thought about the bottom line. Just the line of customers! I guess I was somewhat naïve,” says the good-humored restauranteur. It wasn’t long before Ronnie’s dream became a reality at Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers, a store he named after his Dad (“Who ever heard of a kosher deli named Ronnie’s?”)
Ronnie’s secret? FOCUS. Focus on customers. Now celebrating its 30th Anniversary, Ben’s 7 full-service and 2 quick service restaurant and catering operations are serious about customer satisfaction. “People think that our product is a great food and friendly service,” says Dragoon. “That’s certainly a big part of it. Ben’s real job though, is to manufacture happy customers.”
Dragoon soon realized that making happy customers meant that the staff had to be top-notch. “I tell my people all the time that every restaurant and caterer can buy the same food ingredients or decorations or book the same entertainment, The difference is what the staff does with these materials.” Dragoon puts his money where his mouth is. Ben’s labor costs are well above restaurant averages and the company’s employee benefits programs are superior, rarely found among regional restaurant companies.
Ronnie’s new focus? Westchester County. While Ronnie is still searching for the perfect location for a new 5,000 square foot restaurant, catering operations are in full swing. “We have an extraordinary Catering Director, a seasoned staff, trucks, equipment, everything we need to manufacture happy catering customers in Westchester, or anywhere else in the New York metro area. I may never find the right location, but we can certainly put on a fabulous party; indoor or out, from simple to elegant, small or large,” says Dragoon who still maintains a hands-on approach even after 30 years.
In fact, delicatessen restaurant is somewhat of a misnomer for this caterer. Ben’s has a separate catering and party planning division called Ben’s Events (1-800-344-BENS). The catering menus are extensive (www.bensdeli.net). And while Ben’s does produce terrific delicatessen platters, their steak and salmon barbecues, or their grand buffets and international fare are equally impressive.
The owner-founder immodestly adds, “I tell my landlords, take a look. How many restaurants have been around for 30 years? We must be doing something right!” Ronnie Dragoon hopes to show Westchester customers exactly what that is!
Hicksville, NY — Ben’s Kosher Deli, the 27-year-old chain of New York style deli restaurants, is eyeing expansion beyond the tri-state area with a new prototype designed to create the atmosphere of a turn-of-the-century New York subway station and overcome the site limitations of a mall location.
“We’ve gone from the era of ‘mom and pop’ to state-of-the-art,” says CEO Ronnie Dragoon, noting that this year, sales are expected to reach $23 million, up from $20 million in 1998. Next year, he projects $25 million or better, he says.
“We did a total make over of our Woodbury, NY unit,” Dragoon notes. “We expect to do $3.25 million there this year.”
The 110-seat restaurant which was constructed late last year at a cost of $1.3 million, became the chain’s best selling store, exceeding the Manhattan location. In the first seven months of this year, sales at Woodbury exceeded projections by 200 percent.
The transformation of a strip mall deli to a “Manhattan subway stop” was achieved by using theatre track lighting, indirect and fiber optic chandeliers, and laser-cut foam arches to provide a low-cost, visually effective design component, says Judd Brown Designs, the Warwick, RI architectural firm which undertook the project.
Judd Brown, which will work on all future units as well, used the natural shape of the deli line to create the feeling of train tracks winding through various New York neighborhoods. A map on the floor correlated sections of the restaurant with sections of New York (Broadway, Times Square and Wall Street). The theme was “reinforced with visual prompts such as “graffiti” art and arches, to create a symbolic interpretation of the city.” A Statue of Liberty-inspired marquee highlights the entrance and “spotlights the restaurant amidst the strip mall,” says Judd Brown Designs.
A new unit is planned in Roslyn, NY, says Dragoon, who notes that he has been reviewing sites in Westchester County and Connecticut for new full service outlets. “We looked at malls, but my niche is full service,” he declares.