March 2017 (Greenvale, New York)
As we near our 25th year in the Bay Terrace Shopping Center, I recently signed the lease renewal for our Ben’s store in Bayside. I am awaiting the Landlord’s countersignature. I thought you might get a kick out of what I wrote in 1994 about building that store way back when...
Soon after we opened Jericho in 1989, people began talking about a store in Queens. It was intriguing. I had graduated Forest Hills High and spent my early married years in Queens. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my aging memory is quite selective. I remember only the euphoria of store planning and design and the warm glow of operating success. I suppress all the tsoris associated with opening a new store. So I forged ahead, back to my roots.
Somehow, I forgot the bank, signing literally hundreds of pages, giving away ownership of the store, and my personal possessions. Even our dog, Mikli and cat, Rover, are encumbered. But no matter. The bank’s crown jewel is the lease; a lease with very high rent and virtually every other provision in the landlord’s favor. I still wonder why it took so long to negotiate!
I’ve always tried to create aesthetically pleasing restaurants, but this time I was on a mission. I wanted Queens to be Ben’s finest, even better than our Deli Express store, which won a 1992 design award.
There were countless meetings: architects, designers, engineers, refrigeration specialists, contractors, vendors. Budgets were set. There were dozens of contacts, sub-contracts, scads of purchase orders with multiple manufacturers, numerous skilled craftspeople for millwork, lighting, etched glass, metalwork and terrazzo floors. Budgets were busted. Reset and re-busted!
Invitations were finally sent for a grand opening party on January 20, 1994, two months behind schedule. Wrong again! The place was a mess until an hour before party time. Construction not finished, temperature in the teens and no heat. We borrowed a blower used during football games to keep guests warm. Ironically, though bad weather kept customers at home and away from our stores throughout January, this night they came to Ben’s in droves. Only President Clinton was a no-show.
Three days later, Ben’s of Bayside finally opened. I literally lived my dream of having people waiting on long lines to eat at my place! So, the hot water heater blew, flooding the men’s room and destroying the paper goods. So, last minute construction left chips on the tables, torn booth seats and ripped wallpaper. So the neon buzzed, computers glitched and drains were filled with concrete!
The tsoris behind, all that’s left is proper execution, new employees, training, equipment adjustments, and, the ultimate test, customer satisfaction. It’s 100 hour weeks again just like 21 years ago. Only now I’m 21 years older. Oi! As I ponder the challenges ahead it’s nice to have this column to jog my aging and selective memory.
See ya at the Deli.
February 2017 (Greenvale, New York)
Dear President Trump,
It has come to my attention that your daughter, Ivanka Trump Kushner, who converted to Orthodox Judaism, found that there is a dearth of kosher restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, where she will be residing for the foreseeable future.
Well, let it be known that Ben's Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers would entertain the idea of opening a unit in the District of Columbia to satisfy the kosher needs of Ivanka, Jared and their children. While Donald Jr's wife is of some Jewish descent, Tiffany Trump's boyfriend is Jewish and was raised in the heart of kosher deli land in New York City. And, I would like to think that, being a true New Yorker, you might even indulge in having dinner with your family at a Ben's of Washington, D.C.
I can see it now. A Ben's with the vestibule being renamed the Congressional Lobby. The left side of the dining room for the Democrats, while the right side of the dining room would be reserved for the Republicans. And, smack in the middle of the dining room, would roam the Independents. Of course, it would have to have some smaller private party rooms (or shall we call them “Caucus Rooms”) with the Black Congressional Caucus and the Charles Schumer Jewish Congressional Caucus (although I thought it could also be called the Al Franken Witty Caucus). Of course, what would it be without the great Women of the Senate and House of Representatives Caucus Room? I'd even have a separate dining room specifically for nine, because I wouldn't want the Supreme Court to be discriminated against! Let's see, I would have the restrooms built with the women on the right (because they always are), men on the left, and another bathroom – unnamed thus far – for our changing mores.
Phew! I am almost done with my imaginings, but I do need some help: Does anyone happen to know a real estate billionaire who could help make it happen?????
See ya at the Deli.
January 2017 (Greenvale, New York)
Happy New Year! I hope you had a lovely time spending the holidays with your loved ones!
As with every New Year, I spend the early part of January wondering what the future holds. This year, my thoughts have migrated to when I’ll retire and whether I’ll downsize. I also wonder how we’ll mature to withstand the changing tastes and demographics of the millennial generation.
The New Year also reminds me to be grateful for all that I have experienced and amassed over the last 45 years – whether it be family (especially my grandchild), friends, colleagues, restaurants or material things – and all that I still have. I can still walk, albeit more slowly. I still have great recall, except for more recent events. I can still analyze and think and write, it just takes me longer to accomplish – my being easily distracted does not help. But one thing that does seem to be escaping me is my hearing, especially when I am among the cacophony of restaurant sounds. I also have less patience with sports, but I am increasingly mesmerized by the news and world events than ever before.
One of my favorite things to think about in the New Year is all of the employees who graduated from Ben's University through the years. I am so proud of those have gone onto successful careers and especially grateful for those who have chosen Ben’s AS their career path. I also reminisce about all of the dedicated employees who have passed away. And, I can't stop thinking of all my loyal patrons, and their children and grandchildren, who I have gotten to know and serve for nearly 45 years. I really appreciate all of the patrons who resettled in the new land of milk and honey – South Florida – and continue to patronize Ben's at our Boca Raton location!
What a roller coaster ride it has been! And, I have you to thank for all of it! If not for you, I couldn't indulge myself in these musings. Thank you for being a loyal customer and a Ben’s Friend. I look forward to continuing to grow older together.
See ya at the deli.
December 2016 (Greenvale, New Yok)
It's November 18th and I've been charged with writing a December piece for “Ronnie's Blog.” Blog? Is that a noun or a verb? Someone may have a blog (noun), but can he or she also blog (verb)? This is a strange new world for me. When someone first asked me to go online, I didn't know it was only one word; I thought it was two! In fact, I asked, where is the line and how long is it?
Once I started to realize that this was a brave new world for this soon to be septuagenarian** (okay, I am only 68), I came to grips with this new age of ours which is inundated with Millennials who seem forever distracted by their cell phone – either talking or texting, and sometimes even both … at the same time!
I am being forced into giving up my flip phone because I can't see pictures of my two-year-old granddaughter, and she can't see me unless I visit her. My wife told me it's called FaceTime (so if I use this mode of communication will I be FaceTiming?). I tell my wife she is a show off. With pride, she tells me she now pays our home and personal bills on a machine that is much smaller than a computer. She said she uses a tablet. I asked her if I could see this tablet, thinking that after seeing this I might have to take an aspirin tablet.
It is all so confusing to me. Now, when I receive an email, it oftentimes says “Sent from an iPhone.” Does that mean it belongs to the "I" that sent it? Sometimes it says sent from my Blackberry. I happen to like blackberries and I never knew that blackberries were an acceptable form of communication. I also now get these little pictures of people smiling, people with a halo, people crying and a host of other little symbols that I don't understand and I have to ask people around me what it means.
I thought taking Spanish in school and college was an achievement, and that learning a smattering of Yiddish was also an accomplishment, but, now, after all these years, I have to learn the whole new language of Millennials.
I think I need to go back and re-read George Orwell's book, “1984” (which I read in appx 1964).
See ya at the deli. A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah to all!
November 2016 (Greenvale, New York)
I naively thought that college and later a tour as a VISTA volunteer (the domestic Peace Corps now known as AmeriCorps) would prepare me for the new world I was about to enter 44 years ago. How wrong I was! Nothing would make me smarter than the business interactions I encountered over the years.
I still remember the time a man delivered a huge crate to the bagel store next to the only Ben's location at the time. The owner's son called up his dad (the owner of the store) and, when he did, the person who delivered the package said he'd like to speak to the father. On the phone, the owner told the delivery person that he never ordered anything and told the man to take it back. But, when the delivery man got off the phone (and made certain to hang up the phone), he told the son that his father recalled ordering it and that he, the son, should pay for it. After the man collected $100 and left, the son opened the package. Much to his consternation, he found a little toy about two inches long in a box that was well over three-foot by four-foot!
Moral of the story: Never believe anyone or anything, get confirmation from your superiors, make certain that you see the merchandise and ensure that it is delivered as advertised.
This proved a very useful lesson when Ben's had an order for 50 filet of sole dinners delivered to a specified location and the recipient said he wasn't paying $7.50 per dinner as agreed upon but would only pay $5 per dinner. The driver then called me at the restaurant and I immediately told him to return to the restaurant and, if the man asks to get on the phone with me, not to listen to anything that he might say. The last direction my delivery person heard from me was to take the order back! Sure enough, when he returned to the restaurant, the driver told me that after the customer spoke with me, he told my driver that I had said it was okay to leave it for the reduced price of $5 per dinner. The driver took it back. To this day, I always wondered what that customer told his 50 Friday night guests. He probably ordered Pizza! But, I wasn’t about to turn my business into an auction or a Lebanese Bazaar!
Another time, I had left the restaurant briefly to purchase stamps. When I returned, my neon window sign was gone. I asked the counter man, “what happened?” and he said a man had come in with a paper indicating that he could take the sign out of the restaurant. As I threw my keys on the counter in disgust, I said to my employee: “if he had a piece of paper saying he could take the register, would you have let him?!”
But, nothing beats the time a man appeared at one of the stores and showed the manager a service order for a slicing machine (a slicing machine that didn't need service). The service order stated that the machine had to be taken to the shop to be serviced. Since it was extremely heavy, the manager and other Ben's workers held the door open and helped him carry the $1,200 slicing machine (the cost of the machine 22 years ago) to his station wagon. I am still looking for that slicing machine over 20 years later.
Now I ask you, what college course could prepare you for this?
October 2016 (Greenvale, New York)
As I sit behind my desk in front of my computer, I was thinking of my more challenging customers through the years. But why should I dwell on any customers who, by and large, made it possible for me to spend time writing this blog?
Let me rather speak about landlords with whom I have had the distinct pleasure of jousting through the years. Or should I? Will I risk a lease termination for some trumped up charge of a lease transgression? Will I be made to pay a higher rent if I simply remained mute on some of the egregious behaviors I have witnessed? Or just not be renewed upon lease term end? Oh heck, why should I jeopardize my business for some whimsical recollections with the powers that be?
So, let me just relate two customer stories about that master of the franchising business, McDonald’s. The same McDonald’s with those arches on the original build outs with the exterior sign--- forever changing-- about the millions of burgers that were sold up to that point. When I first opened the Ben’s in Woodbury, my wife and I were working the deli takeout counter when a woman (hereinafter referred to as Mommy) came to the counter to order food. Mommy was accompanied by her very young daughter who was given a pickle (gratis) by my wife. Mommy asked my wife about the chicken fingers. Suddenly, she was raising her voice so that I could also hear her protestations about the price of the chicken fingers. After saying three times that she could go to McDonald’s, I said, in a low voice, “So go to McDonald’s!” With her daughter now crying because of this aggressive manner, mommy said, “who told me to go to McDonald’s?” My wife, always honest to a fault, said it was her husband, ME!!!!! Forget that we use Empire kosher breast which we cut into fingers and not pressed chicken; forget that we process this on the premises; and forget that we make these to order. People believe what they want to believe!
Now onto the next McDonald’s story. Here I am working the Ben’s in Boca Raton when the waiter hands me a note stating that a patron wants to see me in the dining room at the same time I am working the corned beef slicing machine with a line out the door wrapping around the block; and with a dining room seating capacity of 250!!! Needless to say, we were extremely busy….but I asked another counterman to take my place on the corned beef slicing machine and went to visit this other mommy at her table (after my wife was nice enough to point her out). Once there, I was hit with a loud and disconcerting verbal attack: “do you call this a burger (it was a Kids Burger)? Perplexed, I looked at the burger and sure enough it looked like the kid’s burger. So I asked mom, “What’s wrong?” She said it was "a disgrace."
I looked at the daughter who was clearly uncomfortable with mom’s yelling and I asked again, “What’s wrong?” whereupon, mom said screaming, “I could go to McDonald’s!” She then added as I was walking away muttering to myself that she---mom--- would make sure to tell her Rabbi. Having stopped in my tracks, I walked back to the table and said, make sure you tell your Rabbi about going to McDonald’s! There I was, shaking my head, heading back to the corned beef slicing machine and wondering about McDonald’s and thinking that maybe I should open a kosher knock-off calling it McDavid's!!!
See ya at the Deli!
September 2016 (Greenvale, New York)
As the next season befalls us, we will see the leaves change from green to orange, to red and to yellow until, ultimately, there are no leaves.... leaving us with barren trees to view until next Spring – my favorite season.
Certainly, as I get older, the changing of the seasons becomes more precious with much more meaning and import. How many storms, snowstorms, blizzards and hurricanes will we have to endure? How many potholes will we have to traverse this winter? How many electric outages will leave us shivering to the bone?
But, I will happily endure these mini hardships for the right to write about these events months, and even years, later. It means that I will celebrate the traditional celebrations of my ancestors, including Thanksgiving with my soon-to-be expanding family, and other joyous winter events, along with the turning of the calendar marking yet another year away from my birth.
I don't know about you, but when I was a youngster, I always felt that a person in their forties was a senior citizen. Now, at age 68, I don't think of myself as an older person except when I buy a train or movie ticket which accords me a very special joy! And, I have learned to come to grips with the fact that (especially when people ask me to open in Boston, Chicago, DC or Las Vegas) my body and mind will simply not let me do this any longer!
See ya at the Deli!
As is the custom in modern times, every January, the President of the United States offers a State of the Union Address to a joint session of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in the larger House Chamber.
Let me take this opportunity to offer a Ben's State of the "Union," albeit in written form.
Ben's has weathered a sea of change, or paradigm shift in the marketplace in which we operate. With an explosion of fast food establishments in the country, and specifically in metro New York, along with the bevy of fast casual restaurants and a wider array of prepared foods offered in most supermarkets, it is no wonder the kosher and Jewish-style delicatessen restaurants and appetizing stores have closed their doors – most recently at an alarming rate.
But, I guess what is more disturbing is a thought I have expressed for the last twenty years: with each generation that is removed from the immigrant experience comes a decrease in loyalty to the neighborhood kosher deli.
It is my obligation to keep this tradition alive; not only because this is what I have been doing for 44 years, but because I have developed a kinship for the business and what it has meant to all those who enjoy having a community fashioned around their neighborhood "hangout" – the neighborhood kosher deli – and the memories of patrons who argued that their kosher deli was the best! Sadly, there are fewer and fewer of us left. Exploding rents have not helped the cause!
In 1980, I placed an ad with a picture of my newborn son in a Ben's cap with the blurb: "My Pop has the Best Kosher Deli in the World!" I plan to place an ad very soon with a picture of my granddaughter, but with a slightly different blurb: "My Pop Pop has the Best Kosher Delis in the World!"
Let's Keep the Tradition Alive!
See ya at the Deli!
Author's Note: I wrote this blog 1.5 years ago, when I was devastated by the news that my wife, Cindy, had breast cancer. Today, two surgeries and two bouts of chemotherapy and daily radiation later, Cindy is doing great! We celebrated our 40th Wedding Anniversary on April 4, and, unlike me, Cindy's hair has grown back....just curlier and grayer than before!
Cindy and I have been married for 38.5 years and have raised two wonderful children who are now succeeding in their professional careers. This past week, we learned the devastating news that Cindy has breast cancer, which has spread to her lymph nodes; but the full prognosis and exactly what stage she has will be provided sometime in the coming week. My world came tumbling down.
This has made me realize what is important and how much I love and care for my wife. I can no longer take all of the little things for granted. All that she has done for me and our children to support us and help us become better than we were individually can no longer be taken for granted as well. No more jokes about marriage, no more complaints about my wife.
Through the years, if not for her prodding, I wouldn't have found out I am diabetic, that I have too much bad cholesterol (and not enough good) and that I have high blood pressure. And I certainly would not have taken all the medications that were prescribed. But in all the time she was caring for me, she never had a mammography and was always hesitant to go to a gynecologist. I couldn't press the issue because, for all who know my wife, Cindy is her own person with strong beliefs and a stubbornness that exceeds my own. Now, we both know differently. I should have been relentless and she should have been more amenable to my exhortations.
All that I can do now is shed tears for all the regrets that I have and reflect on the life I spent never fully appreciating what my wife meant to me. She stayed in tremendous shape for a 50-something woman, helped me grow our small business and has been by my side at every store I opened throughout our marriage, working full-time herself until about ten years ago.
Now, all these questions come to the fore: Was I sensitive enough? Was I loving enough? Was I attentive to her needs?... But, all I can say is "I am sorry" and reassure my wife that I will be by her side through every painful step of this frightening journey and unknown path. I will block most everything else out from my life except for Cindy, our family and this latest overwhelming journey in our life together. And, I will be more loving than I've ever been.
Thanks for listening.
As summer approaches, and the 2016 Presidential election comes ever closer, I am reflecting on what a tumultuous year it has been what with the end nearing for the first African American President and a Presidential election that may either elect the first female (former First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State) or the brash political neophyte and former businessman whose first foray into electoral politics is taking place now! To watch MSNBC, CNN and Fox News every evening and see the events unfold is better than any television show I can remember. To say it is entertaining would be an understatement.
Sixteen years ago, the First Lady was campaigning as a New Yorker for the vacant United States Senate seat and chose to visit Ben's in Greenvale (as we were celebrating our grand reopening after an extensive renovation) where she sat down graciously and spoke with quite a few of us in a town hall-type setting and later greeted patrons throughout the restaurant.
To be fair, four years earlier, Mayor Rudy Giuliani attended the grand opening of Ben's Manhattan in 1996. The day before the grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony, they replaced all the lighting on West 38th Street (where Ben's is situated, just off 7th Avenue). Everyone on the block thought I had all this political clout but it was only dumb luck! Combining that with the Mayor's presence was simply too much for people on the block to think otherwise.
To think that two New Yorkers are running for the highest office in the land is incredible. To know that one of them will by your President is interesting. When I pull the lever (or put the paper through the computer, as the case may be), I hope the candidate of my choice will prevail; and I know that you hope your candidate will prevail... but it can only happen if you exercise your right to vote!
Thanks for listening. See ya at the deli.
One of the great joys in my 43-year career has been the opportunity to mentor the many young people who have worked for us and gone on to high-level careers in the medical, judicial, educational, financial and real estate markets of the world.
Through the years, many have written to me to say that the greatest lessons in life were learned from their time working at Ben's as teenagers and college students.
I still remember helping high schoolers with their college applications, helping college students with their course work and, above all, demonstrating how hard work and diligence are the perfect recipe for success. I am most proud of these former Ben's workers. If they could make it through the rough and tumble world of dealing with a demanding public during a Ben’s apprenticeship, there is not a person out there who they cannot handle.
I believe (and hope) that I have made a lasting impression on many of those who joined me on this journey and that I continue to do so for those who now still work shoulder to shoulder with me on this continuing adventure.
I want to take this opportunity to thank all of our patrons through the years for their loyalty and good wishes and for enlightening the generations that followed. And, to all the workers, managers and vendor partners who have joined me along the road that I have chosen to travel.
With humility, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart,
Oh, about fifteen years ago, I went from bologna slicer to Internet user. Now, I respond to our customers via email instead of a phone conversation. No need to call multiple vendors to get pricing for equipment, meat, fish, poultry, produce, or paper disposables. The quicker, more impersonal, time-saving Internet is now my weapon of choice. Not only does it work, but it gives me the opportunity to exercise my writing style (which is usually humorous). In fact, I oftentimes win over current and future patrons alike with my sense of humor. I admit, however, that it has been difficult to learn the nomenclature – virus, paste, copy, search engines, the cloud, ad infinitum.
I love it when that voice I've come to know so well calls out, "you've got mail." The first time I heard this, I jumped out of my chair. By the time that same voice commanded "goodbye," I was starting to enjoy this brave new world. And, I thought that the radio, television, phone and fax machines were great inventions! My question, then and now, is how were we able to do anything without it!
This neophyte is enthralled by it all!
I used to say, “I'll see you in the deli.” Now I say, “See you on the Web!”
As spring approaches – with its warmer weather and longer sunlit days – a renewed sense of energy envelopes us all. With that feeling, I want to make Ben's the very best it can be made amidst the changing labor market and fewer reliable suppliers, along with the financial pressures of higher rents, insurance and health care costs. It is my determination to have Ben's succeed.
Thank goodness we still make our own cole slaw (and all our other salads); cure our own corned beefs and tongues (which are going the way of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda); clean, scrub and hand cut our French fries; and make all of our soups from scratch – all without the aid of computers, iPods, iPads, smart phones and new-fangled watches. In other words, without the trappings of this new technological world. We need to succeed by just plain old hard work without cutting any corners! Will it still work? I certainly hope so.
See You at the Restaurant,
On a sad note: Monsignor Tom Hartman passed away earlier this week. Tom was a great man and friend and on whose show, The God Squad, I appeared numerous times. Everyone at Ben's, and I, will miss his soft spoken manner, humanity, intelligence and good will that he generated amongst all of the communities of Long Island and beyond. May he rest in peace and commune with his maker.
As I sit in my office thinking of the past 43 plus years, I wonder how I was able to survive while many of my kosher deli peers and contemporaries went the same way as EJ Korvettes, Robert Hall, Gimbel's, Waldbaum's and the Edsel (the automobile, for you youngsters reading this).
I believe our survival has involved trying your very best, every day of every year. Never resting, never satisfied; there always had to be a better way.
Mix in empathy and an ability to communicate with customers and employees while never forgetting (at least in my case) one's humble roots, and I believe you have a recipe for success.
To all my customers and employees—old and new alike, I thank you.