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Ben’s Deli boss shares memories of his early days

Photo courtesy Hank Russell
By Steve Mosco

Growing up in Queens inspired one man to don deli whites with blue-collar roots.

Ronnie Dragoon, owner and operator of Ben’s Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers, spent many of his early years across from LeFrak City on 98th Street in Rego Park.

Now, after 40 years of running the well-known kosher deli, Dragoon reflected on those humble beginnings long before his kugal and knishes fed countless hungry patrons in Bay Terrace and five other spots.

“Some people have this entrepreneurial spirit residing within their genes,” said Dragoon, who named the restaurant after his father. “I had this in my DNA from the very start.”

As a teenager, Dragoon, 63, attended Forest Hills High School and played basketball at Lost Battalion Hall. A diverse group of friends, all products of working class parents, surrounded him during these early days — and he never lost that connection.

“I’ve always cared about those who worked for a living, those who worked the hardest but made the least,” he said. “That connection with the working class and lower-middle income people never left me. The blue-collar mentality has served me well in whatever success I’ve enjoyed.”

That success includes six locations of his restaurant: one in Bay Terrace, one in Manhattan, three in Nassau County and one in Florida. But before expanding, Dragoon worked seven days a week at the first Ben’s he opened in Baldwin, L.I.

And he used that time as an opportunity to build relationships with what would become loyal customers.

“I had a relationship with every customer in Baldwin,” he recalled. “The Baldwin customers knew that there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them. If someone wanted a pint of chicken noodle soup because they were sick, I’d find a way to get it to them.”

The first few years in Baldwin had plenty of ups, downs and financial uncertainties, but the lessons learned there still inspire Dragoon to run his franchise as if it was one deli on one street corner.

Ben’s Deli does not buy food in large, pre-sliced, frozen quantities like large chain restaurants. While that type of operation works for the chain restaurant business model, Dragoon prefers to keep food production on the premises of each restaurant.

The chain approach is “ingenious in terms of a business model, but inevitably that food is going to either be loaded with preservatives or it’s not going to be as fresh as you want it to be,” he said. “That’s not where we want to head. You lose the personality of each restaurant and you lose that family atmosphere.”

Since the inception of Ben’s Deli in 1972, Dragoon has tried to stay true to that family atmosphere and make each locale unique. When Ben’s Bay Terrace location, in operation for about 18 years, began losing customers to Florida retirement, Dragoon decided to open up shop in Boca Raton and his first day there became a Queens family reunion of sorts.

“When they saw me in Florida, they had tears in their eyes,” he said. “That’s the kind of success I always wanted. Money comes and goes, but it’s the people that matter.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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