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.
Happy New Year! I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season at home with your family. We’re looking forward to an exciting 2016, full of celebrations, family and friends.
We launched our updated Ben’s Deli e-Newsletter this month, which has a little bit of something for everyone in every issue; customer and employee spotlights, Rewards Program updates and the latest news from Ben’s. If you haven’t already, you should join our e-Club to ensure you receive all of our great monthly news. As you read through this blog and our electronic newsletter, I encourage you to share your thoughts and ideas with us through the Ask Ronnie page.
Though we continue to do everything possible to operate a modern restaurant, I continue to remain fully committed to preserving all of traditions of my Eastern European heritage and the Jewish American delicatessen. To some, delicatessen is something you put between two slices of bread; to me, it’s a calling.
This is our pledge, from the Ben’s family to you: Fresh food that is freshly prepared and courteously served in a clean, well-maintained restaurant that faithfully observes Kosher dietary laws.
Peace and Pastrami,
To some, delicatessen is something you put between two slices of bread. To me, it’s a calling. I am committed to preserving the traditional cuisine of my Eastern European heritage, amidst all that’s required to operate a modern restaurant.
This is our pledge, from the Ben’s family to you: Fresh food, freshly prepared and courteously served in a clean, well-maintained restaurant faithfully observing the Kosher dietary laws.
I urge you to bring anything less to my personal attention by calling 1-888-344-BENS or filling out my "Ask Ronnie" form and submitting it with your questions or comments. Your complete satisfaction is our goal. Any concerns will receive my prompt attention.