Ben’s In the News
Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurants & Caterers (Jericho) is approaching its silver anniversary, but Ronnie Dragoon, founder of the deli chain, did not have its success served to him on a silver platter — he had to work for it.
In 1972, Ronnie’s father Ben, incidentally the “Ben” of Ben’s Kosher Deli, opened the first store in Baldwin. Dragoon joined his father, but when business decisions were not seen eye-to-eye, they parted company and Dragoon took over the business. Today, Dragoon owns 10 stores, including eight on long Island with most of them averaging 4,000 sq. ft.
Dragoon, who employs over 400, explained his business philosophy as “being a people person.” “When my customers are happy, I’m happy,” he said. With 1996 sales totaling $17 million, his customers are apparently very happy.
Dragoon recently opened a Manhattan store and is searching for locations in Westchester, New York, Connecticut and northern New Jersey. “My goal was to get the Manhattan store up and running — and it is,” he said, adding that he plans to open one more store in Suffolk County before expanding outside the metropolitan area.
Building a restaurant business on Long Island has been a challenge, Dragoon noted. He said different municipalities require different ordinances which creates an “awesome burden.” But over the years some localities have conformed to the same regulations making it easier to operate a food chain. Through it all, his brother, wife and two children, have helped him get his stores off the ground, he said.
Dragoon said the secret to his success is offering quality food along with hearty portions. Whether it’s a backyard barbecue, Super Bowl Sunday bash or a holiday meal, Dragoon prepares a unique package for every occasion. His “Real Meals” program, which consists of salad, two side dishes and choice of main course was specifically designed as a family-style takeout. “I try to make it work for everyone,” he said.
Besides serving customers, Dragoon also serves the community. Ben’s will match each pint of blood an organization donates during a blood drive with a free pint of chicken soup through a program called “A Pint For A Pint.” In addition, Ben’s donates soup and food to local charities including the Interfaith Nutrition Network, located in Hempstead, which is honoring Dragoon as “Man of the Year” in April.
Dragoon has received achievement awards for his “community spirit” from local groups such as the Greenvale Chamber of Commerce, the Freeport Chamber of Commerce and the Arts Council of Freeport. He also received Certificates of Appreciation from The American Cancer Society (Hauppauga), the American Kidney Fund (Ronkonkoma), and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation (Mineola).
Dragoon attended Brooklyn College where he received a Bachelor of Arts Degree. He said he can still remember living off a mattress on the floor in Queens, but with hard work, he has turned his dream into one of the most successful delicatessen establishments on Long Island. —LJ
Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen, Restaurant and Caterers in Baldwin is now able to rush to the rescue of any food emergency. Ben’s is the recent recipient of an emergency vehicle that formerly belonged to the Jericho Fire Department. Aptly named the Chicken Soup Emergency Delivery Vehicle, this ambulance is available for rental for any occasion.
The former ambulance is the creation of owner, Ronnie Dragoon, and is equipped with realistic touches. The authentic rescue automobile, read “Keep Back, Hot Soup.” On the front, such quips as “We Cure Our Own Corned Beef. Our Chicken Soup Cures Everything Else” can be found.
The Chicken Soup Ambulance is nothing more than a fun way to enjoy Ben’s Kosher food. The ambulance is rented at a rate of $50 per hour which includes a driver. Your order is delivered via an ambulance that pulls right up to your door.
“It’s a fun kind of thing to do for lunch,” said Pat Cohen of Ben’s Chicken Soup Emergency Delivery Vehicle. “You pay a fee and your order is delivered in the ambulance. It’s a brand new feature and we expect it to generate some interest.”
Ms. Cohen said she expects the ambulance to gain popularity during the next few months. “The Chicken Soup Ambulance is available for organizations to rent for parties, fundraisers, or barbecues. Really, any event where there will be spectators.”
The ambulance, which is parked at the Jericho Fire Department, is also available for rental at Ben’s Baldwin location. A landmark in Baldwin for the past 25 years. Ben’s Continues to make a name for itself by serving the finest in Kosher cuisine. In the tradition of family dining, Ben’s is currently offering the following promotion for the entire month of February. With each sandwich or entrée purchased at the regular price, children may select an item off Ben’s children’s menu for free.
The atmosphere at Ben’s is very children-friendly. “We get a lot of families,” said Baldwin store manager Kenny McIlwaine. “Recently we had a couple come in with a Valentine's Day card from their two grandsons. They put it together on their computer. It read: ‘Happy Valentine’s Day Grandma and Grandpa. Let’s make it even a happier one by going to Ben’s.’ I was touched by that. This is a 10 and a 12-year-old. We gave them each a special Ben’s Friends T-shirt.”
Ben’s Chicken Soup Emergency Delivery Vehicle is available for rental at Queens, Long Island and Manhattan Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurants and Caterers locations.
Ronald Dragoon started out at age 24 by buying one bankrupt store. In 25 years, he has built the business to a seven-location chain with some 400 full- and part-time employees. Sales totaled $17 million in 1996.
Dragoon says he works seven days a week, about 13 hours a day. Admitting he’s a workaholic, he adds, “I don’t think I’ll ever retire.”
So who is Ronald Dragoon?
He’s the founder of Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurants & Caterers, headquartered in Jericho.
In 1970, and unemployed, Dragoon was a recruit at Volunteers in Service to America, having graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in political science. He saw two choices for himself: go to law school or start his own business.
“I figured I wouldn’t make the best attorney. I simply wanted to be successful. There happened to be a bankrupt kosher deli available in Baldwin,” Dragoon recalls.
So he and his father, Ben, namesake of the business, bought the store in 1972. His father also owned a store in Manhattan, the 72nd St. Kosher Deli. As for the father-son partnership, Dragoon says, “We parted our ways about six months after that. He had his ways and I had my ways.”According to Dragoon, now 48, he turned that first deli around by working “seven days a week for seven years. As I could afford it, I put money back into the store.”
He spent extra money on new décor and top-of-the-line equipment.
After turning around the Baldwin deli, Dragoon opened his second location in Greenvale in 1982. During the next seven years, Dragoon opened kosher delis in Smithtown (1983), Carle Place (1988) and Jericho (1989). He launched the Bayside deli in 1994 and just opened the latest location in Manhattan on West 38th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, in November.
Meanwhile, sensing a gold mine in progress, Dragoon’s then-accountant, sold his practice and in 1989 became “a minor shareholder” of Ben’s. Dragoon says, he moved Ben’s “from an entrepreneurial spirit to a more professionally managed company.”
Managing the company and expanding it has been all-consuming for Dragoon. “I basically have no hobbies and very little social life. My life is Ben’s-based,” Dragoon says.
He married his wife, Cindy, in 1975, six months after hiring her as a waitress. She continues to work in the business, mostly in the New York store. Their two children — Janie, 16 and Josh, 17 — have worked part-time in one store or another.
However, Dragoon rather candidly admits Josh will not follow him into the business when he grows up “because there’s a certain amount of resentment of all the hours and time that this business has taken away” from him.
In the course of expanding, Dragoon says “bureaucratic red tape” has at times been a hindrance. “The permit process is getting more cumbersome. Different towns have different ordinances, and that has made it more difficult because you don’t know what to expect,” he explains.
He sees his competition growing, with major restaurant chains such as Outback Steakhouse and Houston’s vying for customers.
Still, he has been able to meet these problems head-on. “The Challenge is the next level,” Dragoon says of his motivation to continue building the company. “Theoretically, there could be 70 to 80 Ben’s full-service delis in the U.S.”
His advice to future entrepreneurs? “Be prepared to suffer initially, stay the course and know when to bail out.”
But bailing out is hardly what Dragoon has in mind. “We might go public,” he says. As for growth, “we’re looking at the tri-state area — New Jersey and Westchester, specifically. Then we’d like to do one out of the region, to test the waters.”
Dragoon adds, “I want to do for this niche what pizza or Chinese food became. And I see no reason why it can’t happen.”
Five months after Lou G. Siegel’s ended its legendary, Runyonesque 70-year stint as the granddaddy of all fleishig restaurants, a young deli operator from Long Island, Ronnie Dragoon, has moved into Siegel’s old space at 209 w. 38th St. with a kosher restaurant all his own — Ben’s, his seventh deli with that name, and his first in New York City.
Why call it Ben’s? Why not Ronnie’s? Dragoon, 48, explains that Ben is his father: “What kind of kosher deli would be named Ronnie’s? It has to be either Ben, Abe, Max or Sam.”
Dragoon is respectful to his predecessor, while asserting himself as the spiritual heir. A bronze plaque informs passers-by that on this site was “The Lou G. Siegel’s restaurant, built in 1926 by Irving Herschenfeld, builder, rebuilt in 1996 as Ben’s Kosher Restaurant by his son Edwin Herschenfeld, builder.”
But Dragoon doesn’t want to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes. Ben’s, says Dragoon, will be “less expensive, less elitist. [Siegel’s] could only feed well-to-do Jews. Our dinners are half the price.”
The restaurant — whose kashrut is supervised by Rabbi Israel Mayer HaLevi Steinberg of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinical Alliance of America — is open on Shabbat, through a halachic allowance premised on the fact “that no Jews light the fires [ovens or stoves] on Shabbos,” says Dragoon. “and only gentiles prepare the foods.” Because traditional Jews will rarely eat in a Jewish-owned restaurant that is open on Shabbat, Dragoon says “We sell Ben’s to a gentile” for the duration of every Shabbat,” so on that day it is still Ben’s but not Dragoon’s, similar to the concept of selling chametz before Passover.
The shelves above counter are lined with ketchup, mustard, pickled red peppers, tea boxes, bottles of Ben’s private-label root beer, and Ben’s private-label 100-percent pure natural spring water from a source in the Catskill Mountains, near Kiamesha. Fountain service is available, for those who crave a shpritz of seltzer with parve chocolate syrup.
The architecture is traditional yet startling, as might be expected from the Haverson firm, designers of the Motown Cafe and other theme restaurants. The old Siegel’s facade, once heavy with travertine marble, has been replaced by extensive glass, allowing a sidewalk view of the deli counter and the main dining room. The floors are splashed with terrazzo imprints of coffee flowing from a coffee cup, a big green pickle by the deli queue, a 10-foot-long violin, an uncorked champagne bottle. The multi-hued banquettes and booths are high-backed with the curves of a cello’s waist.
The ceiling is an illuminated Chagall-esque mural depicting everything from the old Lou G. Siegel’s façade to cops and robbers, and a pair of ducats — spelled out in Yiddish.
Hey, enough with the interior decorators. This is a deli, and it looks like a very nice deli. The stuffed cabbage and the cold cuts are the right color (and the right taste) and that’s all anyone has to know. The music being piped in is Jewish music. Dragoon is everywhere, bussing tables, making sandwiches, shmoozing, doing business.
The king is dead. Long live the king.