Ben’s In the News
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.
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.