Ben’s In the News
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.