Ben’s In the News
Noel Weinstock says for a psychological pick-me-up, he heads to his neighborhood, New York-style deli... where enjoying a good pastrami and rye is always kosher. It's a great blend of modern chic decor with traditional Yiddish sensibilities. It's in Boca Raton and it's called Ben's of Boca Raton.
From Baldwin, L.I. to Boca Raton, FL, people craving New York-style kosher delicatessen have been flocking to Ben's Deli. Recently however, Bayside latke-lovers learned that the Ben's in Bay Terrace might be leaving.
It seems that Ben's and Cord Meyer Development LLC, the owner of the Bay Terrace shopping center, were not on the same page in negotiating a new lease.
"I went to them a year-and-a-half before my lease expired to talk about a new one," said Ronnie Dragoon, co-founder of the chain of seven delis in New York and Florida. "They said 'we don't do that' and said we'd talk six months before (the expiration date)."
What happened next depends on who's telling you.
According to Dragoon, the landlord came back with an offer that nearly doubled the yearly rent and charges, to well over $600,000 a year. "I'd lose money the first year," he said. "I made a counter-offer and they never got back to me," the deli-man continued.
"About a month ago somebody from Hebrew National called me and said, 'How do you like what the landlord did to you?'" Dragoon recalled. "That's how I found out they had rented to a new tenant – I felt like I got punched in the stomach."
The future occupant of the location, on the main level of the complex, is Panera Bread, a Missouri-based public corporation with almost 1,200 stores in 40 states. They have 10 corporate or franchise locations in the city and on Long Island, with one that opened in Long Island City last October.
Cord Meyer remembers the negotiations differently, saying in a statement that they, "contacted Ben's Deli well in advance of the lease expiration, and had begun talks on a renewal lease for the existing store premises."
The statement continues, "There were many components that were involved; however, the major factor that led Cord Meyer to its decision had to do more with the length of time that Ben's wanted for its lease renewal based on Ben's concerns regarding a changing demographic in the surrounding community."
Dragoon called the statement "not entirely accurate." He admitted that rather than another 15-year lease, he asked for 10 years "with two five-year renewal options." He said that he's been negotiating similar terms when leases at his other locations come up for renewal.
"Deli isn't a very high-markup business,so I want more flexibility," he said adding, "You can't deny the demographics are changing – maybe for the better."
Mary Hughes, a spokesperson for Cord Meyer recalled, "they wanted a short-term lease," citing five years with options, rather than 10. "That was too much uncertainty for us." She pointed out that Dragoon's associate was their contact, though he was "definitely involved."
Uncertainty barely describes how the employees at Ben's are feeling.
Assistant Manager Helen Devine of Astoria is "one of the originals." She said the customers and staff are "like an extended family."
"Customers have parties here after a wedding or a bris. They order for holidays. At the end, when we don't see their names on an order, we know something happened," she recounted, her voice trailing off.
Store manger Oscar Molina started as a busboy over 10 years ago. He put up a sign asking customers to go to bat for Ben's. When they started calling his boss, the sign was changed, giving them Cord Meyer's phone number.
Hughes and Dragoon agree that they are trying to work something out – a new location on the upper level by the movie theater. The rent would be comparable to what Ben's pays now, but for 20 percent less space. Hurt feelings aside, both say the negotiations are "amicable."
The children at the Central Synagogue of Nassau County in Rockville Centre spent the last week readying for Passover, complete with a model seder, in anticipation of the real thing at sunset today.
"We do it at their level with stories and singing and learning about the foods and sampling them," said Rabbi Marc Gruber. "It's a pre-festival festival."
The wait, however, is over as Jews across Long Island will sit down to seder Saturday night. The holiday lasts for eight days and begins with the ritual meal of special foods, arranged on a special plate, that recall the Jews' exodus from Egypt.
Passover is one of the most important of the Jewish holy days and also one of the most home-centered, local Jewish leaders have said. At the Ben's Kosher Deli Restaurants in Long Island, Queens and Manhattan, caterers have filled hundreds of orders for the holiday meal. The restaurants will close for Passover.
Ronnie Dragoon, Founder of Ben's NY Kosher Deli, sets a Passover seder table.
"We are feeding well in excess of 30,000 people," said Ronnie Dragoon, owner and founder of Ben's NY Kosher Delis. "It is a time for family to be together... Even for Jews who are not religious and don't celebrate any of the holidays find that Passover is the time to be with family." Brisket and potato kugel are among the most popular items ordered at Ben's. And the restaurant has also sold hundreds of prepared seder plates.
Along with the family meal, there is also a moral responsibility associated with Passover, Gruber said. He planned to urge Jews at temple services to invite another "guest" to the seder table by estimating the cost of feeding one more person to dinner and then donating that money to charity.
"God tells us to protect the most vulnerable people in society..." Gruber said, adding that, "Passover probably resonates message-wise with people as deep a way as any of the holidays. The narrative of the exodus and of gaining freedom from oppression and the moral responsibility that goes on with that, has been formative in shaping who we are as Jews."
Ben’s Deli: This Boca Raton location of the New York-based chain is as good a kosher delicatessen as you'll find in South Florida, if not all of the United States. Come here for all the favorites, from corned beef sandwiches to chicken in the pot. 9942 Clint Moore Road; (561) 470-9963.
Ben’s Kosher Deli in Greenvale — “The best of the Ben’s,” according to one guest — opened its doors on Oct. 1 for an all-you-can-eat, prix fixe dinner to help those who can not dine so freely.
The entire proceeds of the $54-per-person tab will benefit the Long Island-based Interfaith Nutrition Network (INN), which runs 19 soup kitchens, three emergency shelters and 25 units of long-term housing. According to an INN spokesperson, the evening raised $7,500 to help those in need.
The crowd enjoyed an evening that was a mixture of plentiful food and talk about a serious problem that “you don’t see as visible on Long Island as in the city,” said Cynthia Sucich, the INN director of communications.
Len and Audrey Goodfriend, of North Hills, said of the INN, “It’s a wonderful organization. This is a real donation. All the money, not just a percentage, is going to help people. We’ve come every time it’s been here.”
Referring to Ben’s founder, Ronnie Dragoon, Goodfriend added, “He should be awarded.” Dragoon, a board member of the INN for the past 10 years, was not merely fielding compliments on the food, but working through the night, along with his staff, slicing meats and filling the plates of very pleased diners.
Feeding the Hungry. (Top Left): Ronnie Dragoon, owner of Ben's Kosher Deli in Greenvale, helps to serve dinner at an all-you-can-eat buffet to benefit the Interfaith Nutrition Network (INN). (Middle): Inn board member Robert Kammerer (left) and INN Director of Communications Cynthia Sucich are dedicated to helping alleviate a problem that "you don't see as visible on Long Island as in the city," but is most definitely there. (Top Right): Rumi Ratnam, whose family has been involved with INN for 15 years. Her husband is on the board and she and her daughter are active volunteers.
The first Ben’s opened in Baldwin in 1972. In the 35 years since, the business of “fresh food, freshly prepared and courteously served faithfully observing the kosher dietary laws” (according to Ben’s Web site), has grown to nine stores — six on Long Island, one in Manhattan, one in Queens and another in Boca Raton.
Dragoon said he first heard about the INN when he started to donate soup to soup kitchens. “I grew up in Brooklyn. By the time I was 14 I had lived in eight different places. We did not have much money, so I commiserate with those who don’t have a place to live,” he said.
On Nov. 11, Dragoon will host a Ben’s Thanksgiving dinner at the INN’s Hempstead soup kitchen. “I’ll be going down there to serve it, with my wife and a volunteer.”
When asked how many all-you-can-eat evenings to benefit the INN Ben’s has sponsored, Dragoon turned to Robert Kammerer, another INN board member, who replied, “I think this makes nine.” Dragoon said, “Every year it seems to get bigger.”
Before he returned to filling his guests’ plates, Dragoon responded to the question: Why the name “Ben’s”? Dragoon’s father once had a deli in New York City called Ben’s. “But who ever heard of a kosher deli called ‘Ronnie’s.’” Dragoon asked.
Kammerer, a physics teacher at Vaughn College, said that the INN has served seven million meals to those in need, beginning with its first soup kitchen in Hempstead.
“The INN was started by two people — Mike Moran and Pat O’Connor — in 1983. They were affiliated with Hofstra. They were going into the city to volunteer to help homeless people. Then back on Long Island they saw two people eating out of a garbage can and they decided the type of work they were doing was needed right on Long Island,” Kammerer explained. He also observed that since the founding of the INN there has been “a slow, but steady increase” in the numbers of people requiring the organization’s help. “Most of these people have had one tough break. They have no one to lean on. Our motto is simple: ‘Neighbors helping neighbors.’”
Kammerer added that anyone who comes to the INN saying “I’m homeless” would be given shelter. “You don’t have to go through a ton of paperwork to get emergency shelter.”The INN’s Sucich brought her experience in the corporate world to a job where now, she says, “I have a purpose. For the first time in my life I wake up and feel good about what I do. It feeds my soul to be involved in feeding 250,000 meals a year to people who really need it.” With apparent sincere enthusiasm she said, “When I think about the INN, I think about purity. I tell everybody, come see what we are going.
“We do what we say we’re doing. You can come to any of our soup kitchens, and I promise you, your life will change.
“People being hungry, people without a home — it’s in every community, whether you see it or not. We’re the only business that hopes it goes out of business, but I don’t think it’s going to,” Sucich said.
One of the guests at Ben’s Rumi Ratnam, said that her family had been “part of the INN for 15 years now.” Her husband is on the board. “I remember when it was small.”
Ratnam talked about her daughter, who while in grade school volunteered in soup kitchens. “One Christmas she decided to make Christmas cards for the homeless. I thought it would be better if she collected cans of food, something like that. But when she went to a soup kitchen before Christmas and gave out the cards, it was amazing how good it made these people feel to get one of her cards. As if someone cared about the.”
Jean Kelly, director of the INN, said she “helped open the first soup kitchen in Hempstead.” She noted that the organization now has 1,500 volunteers “from all faiths. We call it ‘interfaith’ because the issue of hunger belongs to the whole community.” Kelly added that anyone in need of food would not be subject to any religious proselytizing. Alongside that is her belief that all human beings have a desire to give and to get love. “If we don’t share that we are diminished.”
A sign on the wall in Ben’s of Boca Raton reads: “If you don’t eat, it will kill me.”
So I ate, and ate, and … well, you get the picture.
After all. I would have felt like a real schlemiel if I hadn’t noshed on a little bit of everything.
Like many South Floridians, Ben’s roots are in New York. Since its six other locations are all in the Big Apple, I thought it only fitting that the mural in its Boca Raton restaurant is of Broadway.
My family and I started with the nicoise salad, a generous helping of tuna topped [on] a bed of bit-sized bits of crisp romaine surrounded by tomatoes, eggs, black olives, green beans, potatoes and mushrooms.
The tuna was a little dry, but the sweet poppy seed dressing more than made up for the lack of mayo. There was enough for two with plenty to spare.
You can’t go to a deli without ordering a knish.
A spinach lover, I opted for the spinach version. This Eastern European treat was scrumptious and quite filling.
I am a big fan of chicken in the pot, so I had to try Ben’s. It lived up to all my expectations. This truly was chicken soup for my soul. The kosher half-chicken was so tender it fell away from the bones. Too often, matzo balls are leaden, stick-to-your-gut balls of dough. The softball-sized matzo ball was light and airy. A kreplach, noodles, peas and carrots filled out the pot. My kids are big soup eater and this was a real hit with them.
After all of this food, it was hard to think of dessert, but I forced myself to order one of Ben’s jumbo cookies. It was a crunchy sugar cookie with a quarter-size chunk of chocolate in the center and definitely big enough to share. It was a big ending to a big meal that was a big hit for my family!
Is there such a thing as Jewish “soul food”?
It’s a question I found myself asking again and again during the course of a satisfying meal at Ben’s Deli in Boca Raton the other night. After all, what is soul food but a cuisine rooted in a working-class ethos, making use of whatever bits and scraps are available and turning them into something filling — not just in a gastronomic sense, but in a cultural one as well?
But in the end, it’s still about soul. And Ben’s has it in abundance.
In many ways, the New York-based kosher chain — the Boca eatery is its sole Florida out post — represents the last vestiges of an era when delis thrived in almost every neighborhood where Jewish culture thrived. During this pre-gourmet epoch, it wasn’t about knowing if your corned beef was lean and tender.
Now, deli has become a euphemism for any place, kosher or not, that sells sliced meats and sandwiches, and lighter, healthier and more sophisticated fare has found its way into current-day palaces of pastrami. Consider that at the TooJay’s chain, you can sup on vegetable lasagna or a Mandarin chicken salad. Then again, at least TooJay’s is around. In New York, one of the last of the old-school delis, the non-kosher Katz’s, may soon be shutting down.
Fortunately, Ben’s is also thriving — during the season, be prepared for lines that typically extend out the door at the 3-year-old location — but it’s doing so with a menu firmly rooted in tradition. At the same time, what makes Ben’s so appealing is that, in stark contrast to the old-school delis, the restaurant is stylishly designed, with clean lines, comfortable seating and such classy details as renderings of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge in etched glass and vintage posters from the Yiddish theater.
And don’t forget the amusing aphorisms — they’re called “Ron-ifications” since they come courtesy of Ben’s founder Ronnie Dragoon — that are posted everywhere. One example. “For five thousand years, we were a wandering people. Then we found Boca Raton.”
Still, food is the big draw. You know you’ve entered a Jewish comfort-food zone as soon as your server brings by the complimentary bowls of crunchy (and yes, galick-y) pickles and lightly dressed, house-made cole slaw. (The service, by the way, is first-rate in terms of courtesy and efficiency, another noteworthy contrast to the delis of old.)
The offerings set the stage for some terrific appetizers. Try the chopped liver, thick and rich in all its artery-clogging glory, or that Jewish snack food known as the potato knish, as good an excuse for carbohydrate overloading as any I've found. ( By the way, Ben's bakes it own densely delicious round knishes, though it also sells the popular commercially made square ones.) If you insist on something light, the Israeli salad — a Mediterranean-style chopped salad — will suffice.
With entrees, Ben’s has all the classics: chicken fricassee, stuffed cabbage, Romanian tenderloin, and sliced deli meats (including a pickled-on-the-premises tongue). But there are classics, and there’s “War and Peace.” That’s how I look at a dish like Ben’s chicken in the pot), an epic mélange of half a chicken, a matzo ball (more a sinker than a floater to my delight), a kreplach (think Jewish dumpling), noodles and peas and carrots. So, how does it taste? Bland, of course. But that’s what chicken in the pot is supposed to taste like — the broth bears the slightest hint of chicken fat and nothing more, leaving it up to the diner to add the necessary salt and pepper to bring the one-pot meal up to seasoning code. But I love Ben’s version precisely because of its lack of pretense; the real joy of the dish comes in picking away at the chicken that has but fallen apart from hours of stewing.
A close second in the classic category proved to be the braised fresh brisket, as tender as a slow-cooked meat should be, complemented with outstanding mashed potatoes (though you won’t go wrong with the equally outstanding fresh-cut fries — no frozen stuff at Ben’s).
If you just want to stick with a sandwich, the pastrami or house-pickled corned beef may not rise to the flavorful level of what I had at Katz’s on a recent trip to New York, but they’re better than the commercial norm; I like how the freshly steamed corned beef has the right mouth feel — not so much tender, but tender and textured, so that the fibrous meat holds together, though barely so.
Ben’s does have it limitations. Because kosher dietary laws prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy products, the desserts are of the non-dairy variety, which means they tend to be unmemorable at best and dry and chalky at worst.
And given Ben’s proud emphasis on classic Jewish cooking, I find the restaurant’s few efforts at pleasing contemporary palates all the more absurd. (Who really comes to a kosher deli for a plate of rotelle primavera with chicken?) As all purists know, there’ only one beverage to have in a kosher deli: a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, a refreshing tonic, made with celery seed, that can best be described as a Jewish ginger ale.
That can, after all, stands for tradition. It’s something that the many older Jews of Eastern European derivation who call South Florida home understand intuitively. But it’s also a soulful lesson in heritage that anyone can devour — in every sense of the term.
If there’s any state that knows how to do deli, it’s New York. So imagine if an established New York delicatessen decided to open up shop down here in Boca.
Well folks, hang on to your knishes, because it’s happened. Ben’s New York Kosher, of Queens, Long Island, and Manhattan fame, has finally made its way south.
Having visited a New York deli or two in my day, I’m a fairly tough customer. Surely with all the other northern transplants residing in these parts, I am not alone. Ironically, my thoughts upon entering Ben’s Delicatessen centered on the apparent differences between this pace versus the quintessential N.Y. deli, the Carnegie, Stage and 2nd Avenue Delis to name a few. Spaciousness, for starters, is something you’ll rarely find, but here at Ben’s, the space is bright and vast. Secondly, N.Y. delis can always be counted on for a touch of grit and grime. It’s not that they’re dirty, just “lived in,” which oddly enough adds character and a certain appeal. Ben’s is eat-off-the-floors clean, albeit the place is still relatively new having opened just after last Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong. Ben’s has plenty of charm, it’s just achieved in other ways, like being decorated with impressive glass etched panels depicting such New York City icons as the Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, and Statue of Liberty. Additionally, the walls resonate with printed proverbs both wise (“Better to have a good enemy than a bad friend.”) and humorous (“If you can’t say something nice, say it in Yiddish.”) Lastly, one can usually expect the service in a N.Y. deli to be gruff and impatient. Here, it is attentive and friendly. This is all good and well, but now let’s get to what really matters most — the grub.
Moments after being seated, stainless steel bowls appear, overflowing with delicious cole slaw and assorted pickles. Next comes a basket of raisin pumpernickel that’s virtually impossible to resist. Matzo Ball soup is always available, and theirs falls somewhere between commercially store-bought and made with love in Bubbe’s kitchen, leaning more toward the latter. Tonight’s daily homemade soup, Chicken a La Reine, is a wonderful creamy chicken vegetable, much like a Jewish version of egg drop. The Braised Fresh Brisket of Beef is flavorful and fork tender, and I recommend an oversize potato pancake and stewed fruit compote on the side. The Stuffed Cabbage is prepared the old-fashioned way. Two large leaves are filled to capacity with ground meat and rice, in a savory, lightly seasoned sweet red sauce. The Hot Pastrami Sandwich comes bare or on the plate, but the fact that not a single iota of fat can be found entitles it to stand alone. It’s not as obscenely overstuffed as you’d find in one of the N.Y.C. counterparts, but then again, it’s also not accompanied by the obscene price tag. Though the noodle pudding is a wee bit dry, the kasha varnishkas is impeccable.
A fellow diner is overheard complaining “the coffee tastes days old.” I’ll only partially agree with his hyperbole. Hours old, I’ll give him, but certainly not days. Dessert-wise, the chocolate layer cake is lousy, the carrot cake is sublime, and I’m just now getting over the absence of black and white cookies that night.
New Yorkers know best, so if Ben’s can make it there, it can make it anywhere. Seeing the way customers are lining up at the door to dine in or take out, I suspect Ben’s will make it here, too.
Ronnie Dragoon, Owner of Ben's Kosher Delicatessen Restaurants and Caterers
1. As a VISTA volunteer (the domestic Peace Corps), Dragoon served in an economically depressed area of Indiana. READ MORE..
One of the top deli operations in the New York area is making its way to West Boca.
Ronnie Dragoon, the owner of Ben’s N.Y. Kosher Deli, is bringing almost 31 years experience to The Reserve, a new “shopping center for country club residents” scheduled to be finished by the end of 2003.
“After finishing college, my father and I took over a bankrupt store in Long Island, [and the rest is history],” Dragoon said.
Dragoon said there were some basic requirements and a few considerations — plenty of sunshine, a dash of upscale clientele and one high-class atmosphere.
“That’s my new land of milk and honey,” Dragoon said about the West Boca area. It’s also “the land” where many of his friends and customers have migrated. He’ll be at the restaurant’s new location for the first two months after its opening.
At The Reserve in Boca Raton, Florida
“I am excited about building a 7,000 square foot store, the largest Ben’s N.Y. Kosher Deli to date,” Dragoon said. “I am excited about seeing my old customers, many of whom have moved to Delray, Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, Deerfield Beach and other adjoining towns.”
Sutton Boca One Developers, Inc. and Brooks Realty, the developers of The Reserve, had a few standards of their own.
“[The Reserve] is going to be a country club atmosphere. You could compare these demographics to Beverly Hills,” said David Yudell, president of Sutton Boca One Developers, Inc. and Brooks Realty.
The shopping center itself will be about 144,000 square feet.
“We’re considering Ben’s as an anchor — [Dragoon] has a big following,” Yudell said.
Besides the food, Ben’s is known for its “matzo ball eating contest.”
“The contest is sponsored by the deli. This year, the winner ate 21 matzo balls,” said Carol Horn, The Reserve spokesperson and a former New York resident.
Last year’s winner ate only 16 matzo balls.
“In New York, we used to eat there all the time,” Horn said.
Ben’s N.Y. Kosher Deli also will offer catering and delivery. The menu will offer soups, including the traditional chicken soup with matzo balls and rice. An order of three-egg omelets, served with potato pancakes and applesauce or fresh cut fries will make a hearty breakfast.
For greens lovers, there are plenty of salads. Carnivores can assuage those cravings with steak burgers. The turkey salad will fulfill those who want the best of both worlds. Israeli Heros will satisfy any sandwich fan (one foot long, overstuffed “with everything but the kitchen sink”). Other items include extra lean corn beef and pastrami and tongue and fresh brisket. Traditional specialties include stuffed cabbage and “chicken in-the-pot.” There is also a kids’ menu which includes sodas, and gelatin or cookies with each meal (ages 12 and under).
Horn said she would not be the only one who is “very happy to have Ben’s on board.”