I always look forward to the month of October.
But, this year, a harsh reality must be faced.
Why? You might ask.
Well, I am turning 70 years of age.
And I thought I’d never make it.
What to do?
Keep on going?
Pack it in?
Sell my beloved business and brand?
So what is the reality?
That I have to start taking distributions from my Ben’s 401(k) plan at age of 70-1/2 years!
Still hoping to see you in the deli!
Throughout my career, I always prided myself in giving value to Ben’s patrons. My dream has been — and still remains to be — to satisfy as many patrons as possible. Too many times throughout the years, I have heard that Ben’s is expensive. I shook my head knowing that I kept the prices down, effectively keeping the lid on my competitors’ pricing. But because I desired a certain ambiance, invested in technology (beginning with the installation of computers in 1978), and maintained the restaurants, I spent the requisite dollars to ensure the look and feel that I wanted for Ben's.
It was evident to me that people thought that, if our restaurants looked as they do, then Ben’s must be expensive! I simply chalked that up — those “expensive” impressions — to people not understanding the enormous pride I take in Ben’s appearance.
Money has not been my motivator and never will be. Where I came from in my life, no matter how bad my business might become, I am a whole lot better off in life than when I began this journey over 46 years ago! Pride in my business, not money, motivates me.
May all of our friends and patrons have a very happy, healthy, reflective, and peaceful New Year. And for those who do not celebrate these holidays, may you and your families have a bountiful fall harvest with health, happiness and peace.
See ya at the Deli,
For close to twenty years, I sat on the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Nutrition Network (affectionately called the INN). And then I decided to fade away (retire). But still, I keep thinking....
If I had to wander the desert for forty years, there would be no better people to be with than the people who attend the Annual INNkeepers' Ball, and especially those with whom I sat around a conference table every two months at our Board of Director meetings.
As I get older, I find myself reflecting more and more. I keep thinking, and I am saddened by the deepening divide between the rich and poor or, as I like to say, the haves and the have-nots... on this island, in this state, in this country and in this world.
When will we wake up and understand that, as sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters of immigrants who came to this country - some by force, some by desire, some by accident - simply want to put bread on the table, clothe our families, have adequate medical care and make a better life for our children?
This is not a political issue, not a Democratic or Republican issue, nor a conservative or liberal issue. Rather, it is an issue of sensitivity, of understanding, and of social humanism, and fairness.
I keep thinking: if others had to spend a part of their lives, not having a place to live nor food to eat, would the world be a better place because of a better understanding and a more sympathetic ear?
I think so...
See ya at the deli!
In my lifetime, I have always had the greatest respect for intellectual Conservatives (including but not limited to George Will, the late William Buckley, David Frum, Bill Kristol) though we probably disagree on most socio-economic issues but they were or are rational, thoughtful, and smart. What we are witnessing and hearing in these times is making the world go upside down (at least my world): adults behaving like adolescents; adolescents behaving and speaking as reasoned adults; and children separated from their parents.
These are dangerous and - in my mind - perilous times for a democratic society. At any moment, I fear a constitutional crisis will be affected by an action of the Executive branch or the inaction of the Legislative branch. Political philosophy aside, the President represents everything we teach our children not to be. Does any rational, thinking human being have to be reminded of that which has been said in the last plus year?
What are we to do? Impeachment and/or Conviction is not the answer. It will only make us all more parochial in our future dealings. We as a people need to know that he is our President, but we must also cherish the First Amendment to our United States Constitution, i.e. the separation of church and state, freedom to assemble and protest, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.
Unlike other restaurateurs, I welcome all to Ben's, never denying food and service to those with whom I may disagree politically or who may look different from me or are of a different religious background or sexual orientation.
Having said this, I'll stick to my day job as the best bologna slicer in the world!
I wrote and sent my June Blog to those who oversee the production of the monthly Ben's eNewsletter. To my dismay, and theirs, I was encouraged to write something not as political as my first attempt, which was, with civility, a critique of our government.
But, let me first just say that an enlightened government is judged not by its riches, but rather by the way in which the government treats the poorest and weakest among us.
Well, I am glad I got that off my chest. Now I can feel free to write something different.
In 1969-70, I served as a Vista Volunteer (Volunteers in Service to America) in Richmond, Indiana. After training in Chicago (this Jewish kid stayed at a YMCA hotel, courtesy of the U.S. Government), I was sent to Indiana, where there was plenty of feed corn (as I later found out), Hoosier hysteria (basketball, for those who are not familiar with the term) and more churches than the number of citizens (or so it seemed).
College didn't prepare me for this. I got to Richmond a day before I was scheduled, so I walked to the downtown area and found a movie theater. I decided this would be the way to kill some time. I paid my very cheap movie ticket and took my seat in the nearly empty movie theater. I waited and waited and waited until someone came in (possibly the ticket taker, or the ticket seller, or the popcorn concessionaire) and announced that, because there were not enough viewers in the audience, they would cancel the movie showing. I foolishly asked that person how many viewers they were missing. Since I had few extra dollars in my pocket compliments of Uncle Sam (for all the fiscal watchdogs out there, trust me, it wasn't much), I followed up by saying I would pay for the number of attendees that were needed for the theater to show the movie. All to no avail.
So, I walked around town all day, found a flea bag hotel for the night (those few extra dollars that were given by Uncle Sam) and waited for my further instructions and training on-site. Suffice it to say, during my time in Richmond, Indiana, I constructed a survey of the north end of Richmond. It was an impoverished neighborhood consisting of mostly of poor black folks and I administered it with the help of some Earlham College students (one of whom was the roommate of Ben Zwirn, who later became Town Supervisor of North Hempstead). There, we operated a book store as a co-op, tried to revive a struggling credit union for the community (my black supervisor thought that, as a Jew, I would be good at this), led a protest at City Hall for school children to receive winter coats as mandated by the Congress, and acted as a liaison with the Mayor of Richmond.
A while later, I got myself involved in a deli on the south shore of Long Island that had gone bankrupt. Therein began my journey as a deli man … and the rest is history.
See ya at the deli!
Have you, like me, thought about how we would fare in a profession other than our present one?
I guess, as we wind down our chosen careers, we think of those possibilities.
I want to be a talk show host writing my own commentary and clean humor (though I am no prude).
I'd question many of the celebrities we know and bring them back down to earth.
I'd cajole the comedians to make me belly laugh.
I'd question the politicians on their policies, their relationship with big money donors, and reasons for their support of their chosen policy positions.
Since I can't sing (can't even carry a tune), nor dance, nor run a ten-minute race, I'd better be a great listener, a great inquisitor, quick witted, and generally nice so that the same fate that befell poor ole Chevy Chase (master of the pratfall) wouldn't befall me!
Hey, wait a minute, I do all that in my present job as Chief Bologna Slicer (CBS) at Ben's.
P.S. My customers are my audience, our employees are our comedians, and the complainers are the politicians!!!
See ya at the Deli,
What it means to be in the kosher deli business:
Going on a date and getting back so late, that I chose to sleep in the restaurant's bathroom with linen tablecloths as my mattress, so I could be up at 4:00 AM to start the next day's catering orders.
Having to open the restaurant at 4:00 AM on my wedding day, going home to Queens to put a tuxedo on, getting married (with about 50 guests), and then coming back to the restaurant to "make" the register (reconcile) and then making the deposit at the bank's night deposit drop (still with my tuxedo on).
Using about $900 of our wedding presents (representing about 60% of our wedding gifts) to purchase and install a new floor for the restaurant.
Not taking a day off for seven years except for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the eight days of Passover.
Having to walk three miles through a blizzard to open the restaurant.
Cutting my finger on a knife during lunch and, being the only counter person that day, I put a stack of dinner napkins around the wound with scotch tape holding it in place with a glove on the one hand as I continued to work.
Working through a104 degree temperature because I was the only worker behind the deli counter that day.
Helping the young employees with their homework (high school and college).
Mentoring a whole cadre of young people who worked for me, although I prefer to say worked with me (only a few years older than these workers), and seeing them become doctors, lawyers, judges, sheriffs, police officers.
Finding my wife in a Newsday ad for servers, and, as Newsday printed on our wedding anniversary, "She found her husband and her job through Newsday Classified."
Getting stuck on Sunrise Highway with my wife on New Years Eve after working 48 hours straight (in order to get hundreds of catered trays to the public).The van we were driving broke down!
Having to buy $25.00 worth of used furniture (plus a mattress on the floor) for our first apartment together because the deli wasn't exactly an overnight success!
There are so many more stories about this journey and as soon as I remember them (I am fast approaching 70 years of age), I will be happy to share!!!!!!
See ya at the deli!
As with most everyone in these United States, I am devastated by the tragedy that occurred in Parkland, Florida (located just 15 minutes south of Ben's in Boca Raton), which left at least 17 dead and many others wounded. Having listened to all the arguments and news shows about mental illness and gun control, ad nauseam, I'll offer a different slant, which I believe will get at the root of the problem.
Public financing of political campaigns is a must. No politician should be beholden to their contributors/donors; rather, they should do the right thing based on their beliefs and their constituents, whose views they represent in the House of Representatives. Senators, on the other hand, have a higher calling and should take into consideration the thoughts of the whole country. It is an imperative. Anything less would be a disgrace to the future of our country. Private money has no business in our campaigns for elected offices.
I am a deli man with no constituency, and not educated well enough to represent others, but I am a pragmatist willing to fight for the new America as represented by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who spoke so eloquently to the news media outlets after the tragic events. They (and other like-minded students) will be the future leaders of a new and enlightened America. Those present leaders who stand idly by while these events occur will be voted out of office. The status quo cannot continue.
See ya at the deli,
This week, I’ll be working at Ben's Boca Raton to help with Big Game catering orders. I was in Boca Raton for the last two weeks of December, helping with holiday catering. Since then, I have had, and am now recovered from, trifecta hernia surgery (three hernias done at the same time). I figure I got my money’s worth since we needed only one anesthesiologist, one surgeon, one hospital bed, etc. to repair (not replace) the hernias. I say this only because the Vice President of Ben's, Mr. Todd Silverstein, recently had just one hernia repaired, so I got more value from "my" procedures!
But, on a more serious note, let me relate my experiences with St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn. I have never been treated with so much respect and caring as when I was first in their emergency room; and then before, during and after surgery. In an age where everyone seems to be bothered by the easiest question, more concerned about their latest text message than taking care of the "customer" or, in this case, the patient, St. Francis Hospital deserves to be recognized as an A+ operation (pun intended). It's not as if I enjoy prodding people to go to the hospital (or for that matter consummating a pre-order funeral) but, based on multiple experiences with different members of my family, St. Francis deserves kudos for being one of the finest.
Coincidentally, I appeared – in an ecumenical spirit – on the Telecare Telethon Show (Catholic TV station) asking for the support of Ben's patrons within the same week I found myself under the proverbial knife (and not a chef's knife).
The world is interesting and my wonderful journey through life has certainly been interesting. And, as long as I can talk about it, I will, hopefully see you at the Deli. This time in Boca Raton, where I'll be working “Big Game” week, fully recovered.
Happy New Year to All! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season.
The New Year continually inspires me to reflect on some very interesting stories that have taken place at Ben’s through the years, all of which have been hard to forget:
When I was first in business, I had little money to decorate my very first Ben's, in Baldwin Harbor. So, I used whatever ingenuity I had and asked local painters to hang their respective works of art on the walls of the restaurant. At that time, we also had a very good patron, Captain Arnold, who operated a shark fishing vessel, who asked me to hang his shark jaws on the restaurant’s wall. The request was so unique, how could I say “no?” So, he proudly displayed nearly one-dozen shark jaws on the wall of our Baldwin restaurant. And, when patrons were taken aback by the display, I would always ask them if they liked my mother-in-law. Most people laughed, but my newlywed wife wasn't so thrilled!
It was 1983. I had just opened a Ben's in Suffolk County when a long-time patron called me from Baldwin and told me that the Baldwin Ben's Manager was an idiot. I asked him to calm down and explain what had happened. He said he ordered a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut. So, I asked him what was wrong. Well, he arrived home, ready to enjoy his hot dog and, as he unwrapped the hot dog, there was the hot dog roll, the mustard and the sauerkraut, but no hot dog! When he called the Baldwin store, the Manager said it was impossible! Immediately, I said, nothing in this world is impossible (except maybe a trip to Venus). I apologized profusely and then, aggravated, I called the Manager at Ben's of Baldwin. I reiterated what I relayed to the long-time patron, to wit, nothing is impossible (except maybe a trip to Venus). Sure enough, as they were closing, in a corner behind the deli counter, a cooked hot dog was found. Clearly, the hot dog slipped out of the roll! The moral of the story then, and one that holds true today, is that nothing is impossible (except maybe a trip to Venus).
See ya at the deli,
Postscript: Cindy and I were very happy to see all our friends, family and loyal (and new) customers during our visit to Ben's of Boca Raton over the holidays. We look forward to seeing you all again soon!
As 2017 draws to a close, let me take this opportunity to relate some very interesting stories that have taken place through the years, all of which would be hard to forget:
A while back, we were encountering continued walkouts (aka unpaid checks) in three Ben's locations. And, for months, we tried our best to imitate Inspector Clousseau to find the culprit. After much debriefing, we finally realized that the persons were chain smokers and, by the time they left, the ashtrays were filled with cigarette butts. At that time, we had separate seating for the smokers, so we were able to isolate who it might be. Since I personally spend most of my time at the Greenvale location, we used that spot as “home base” for our detective work. And, we finally determined that it was an older couple who always ordered our hanger steaks (Why not? The food was, in effect, free). On this couple’s final visit to our establishments, the server, the dining room manager and I stationed ourselves by the register, outside the restroom and at the host station. Finally, we caught the culprits and, as I held them in the store, the cashiers were instructed to call the police. What was the response from the customers? "Ronnie, we are such good eating customers!" to which I responded, "Sure, you're good customers ... you never paid for the meals!!!” (And, truth be told, only the Good Lord knows for how long)
In another instance, it was Thanksgiving and we were crazy busy – both in the restaurant and with delivery of Thanksgiving orders. Late afternoon, I received a frantic phone call from a woman who said she needed a whole cooked turkey. I said, "You want to order a turkey, now?" She explained that her cat had eaten most of the turkey she had prepared for the day. Being the customer service person I am known to be, I came through and even offered to deliver the order, never truly believing the story was true. Upon return to the restaurant, our delivery person explained that he had indeed seen the mostly eaten cooked turkey with a bloated cat laying in the kitchen barely able to move. I guess that is what we call a Fat Cat, not a fat liar!
See ya at the deli,
Postscript: Cindy and I look forward to visiting all our long-term (and new) customers in Florida when we travel down. I’ll be behind the deli counter at Ben's Boca Raton from December 21 through January 4.
Years ago, we began printing ‘Comment Cards’ for our patrons to evaluate the experience they had at whichever Ben's location at which they chose to dine or take-out. It has been a very interesting experience to read these, especially for someone with my sense of humor and, with that in mind, I always made my own comments (in my mind, of course) ***
So, when a customer wrote:
- …that she loved the server — I suggested that she take him home with her (in my mind);
- …that she didn't like the décor — I offered for her to redesign the store and build it just the way she would like (again, in my mind);
- …that he liked the matzoh balls better in another Ben's location — I suggested that he go there (again, in my mind);
- …that we didn't have enough stalls in a particular Ben's — I asked whether the patron came to dine or pee (again, in my mind);
- …complaining about a young worker having pimples — I inquired whether the patron was a dermatologist, so he could offer his services to the young worker (again, in my mind);
- …that she and her husband were revolted by the length of a server's nails — I said, “you should see the collections of snakes and tarantulas in her home” (again, in my mind);
- …that he remembered when kosher hot dogs cost 5 cents — I wondered how much he was making per week “back in the day” (again, in my mind);
- …that she didn't like the server uniforms — I asked whether she prefer that the servers wore no uniforms (again, in my mind);
- …that she had to wait on the queue for more than 40 minutes to get seated at the Ben's Boca Raton, Florida location — I said, “at least it's warm outside” (again, in my mind).
Owning a Kosher Delicatessen and Restaurant is like earning a Master's degree in human psychology!
***Please don't get the wrong impression from my bent to the whimsical. I take these comments from our patrons very seriously, including suggestions about our food, décor, service, bathrooms, etc. Just ask the General Managers about the missives I write and the phone calls that I make as I undertake the correction of our failings and the reinforcement of the positive customer comments.
See ya' at the deli,
45 years? Would you believe that I have been slicing and eating pastrami for 45 years? If anyone would have told me that I’d be a bologna slicer in the first place, I would have said “they are nuts.” Politics — maybe; professor — possibly; lawyer — less likely… but, a hot dog vendor — never.
So, a funny thing happened on my way to a more prestigious position. I did, indeed, become a deli clerk ... with a thousand stories to tell.
45 years? Would you believe that I’ve been catering Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (feast before the fast), Passover and Chanukah for 45 years? And, that's just the Jewish holidays. We have also been a staple at Christmas/holiday parties, New Year's Eve celebrations and even “The Big Game” events. How could I ever forget all the Mommies and Daddies Days we celebrated with our long-term patrons, both in their dining rooms and ours! I can't even attempt to calculate how many families with whom we played a role in the rites of passage that are important to every patron and their families.
How will we be celebrating Ben's 45th Birthday? With a cake, of course! And with a $19.72 (our founding year) dinner and luncheon special that includes soup, several entrée choices, sides and a fountain beverage. We’re also celebrating some of our favorite patrons in October – the kids – with a 50% off deal!
Now, all I need to do is plan our next 45 years.
See ya at the deli,
When I was a Vista volunteer in 1970 with a beard developing and a disappearing hair line - a harbinger of things to come - we VISTAS (Volunteers in Service to America) all gathered to create a sense of team. I turned down smoking a joint, and when they offered me a beer, I said no thank you. They couldn't imagine this young man from Queens County wouldn't smoke marijuana or drink alcoholic beverages. Really, they exclaimed! No alcohol? No drugs? I just nodded my head in some sort of shame. The peer pressure was difficult to handle, but I stood tall and wouldn't let anyone or anything change this progressive mind (with a conservative life style)... even though I was the lone dissenter.
I guess that is why I own a Deli. I went against the advice of many. My best friend through High School and College told me I was wasting my life. He said I was smarter than this (this meaning the business). My parents laughed at me and told me I was crazy to embark on this endeavor. I didn’t blame them; after all, it’s not the typical path of an educated young man along with a tour as a Vista Volunteer after college. And to add insult to injury, the bank was hesitant to give me a business loan because, my first location that I took over as a kosher delicatessen, already went bankrupt twice.
So I showed them... or did I?
My best friend is collecting an extremely nice pension as a retired professor of Biology and I am still toiling in the proverbial trenches. Another friend from my Vista days also retired from SUNY as a professor of sociology.
Although I continue to work extremely hard, I do take pride and take great satisfaction that I survived and continue surviving when so many kosher deli’s failed and continue to fail all around me. My customers have a need that I am able to fill. I provide jobs for over 320 employees.
I guess if I had to attribute something to my success and survival it is that I always followed my dreams and my gut and never fell to peer, employee, landlord or distributor pressure. And let's be honest, I’m here because of you - our loyal customers who pay all our wages. I did it my way for almost 45 years; and thank you for letting me serve you. May we continue our relationship for years to come. I wish you all a Happy and Healthy New Year.
See ya at the Deli,
What should I write for my August blog? In the approximately twenty years I have been writing a column for the Deli Newsletter, I have touched on everything from some odd requests, to some misconceptions I had about our patrons, to the experiences of opening new stores and the closing of others. I have also discussed my vendors--past and present, landlords, and also some positive and negative aspects of our many employees.
I am sure I left out some stories due to my advancing age and unfortunately, my advancing age has taught me a thing or two about what writer's block truly means!
I am here... so I go back to my question, what should I write about for the August blog. Hmmm. I've got it. The Future. Years ago, I dreamt of the day that Robots would replace servers; no disrespect here but robots do have some advantages - they don't talk back, won't call in late or sick, or tell me that their uncle died (how many uncles can one person have), that they forgot their dentist appointment or countless other excuses for not showing up to work that sometimes are actually quite creative.
Yes, I am waiting for the robots to serve pastrami, French fries, stuffed cabbage, hanger steak, and turkey dinners. And it is not too far in the future since I just read about a pizza parlor that is staffed by robots acting as servers. In fact, the business doubled when the public found this out. I guess a robot can't be impatient, surly, or insulting. But in all fairness, a robot won't be able to read a customer's mind about what they want to eat or be a friend and listen to a customer's story about a bad day. Most importantly, a robot won't be able to go the extra mile in order to do the right thing to satisfy every customer and make sure that every customer leaves happy.
Thank you for putting up with my latest thoughts, and ramblings.
See ya at the Deli!