Says His Humble Upbringing Inspired Him to Please Others and Succeed as an Entrepreneur
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In 1972, Ronnie Dragoon returned to his native Long Island from Indiana to open a delicatessen in Baldwin Harbor. He called it Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant, which he named after his father. Forty years later, the restaurant has expanded with six locations: three in Nassau County, one in Queens, one in Manhattan and one in Florida. It offers freshly prepared food that is courteously served in a clean, well-maintained restaurant while faithfully observing Kosher dietary laws.
Mr. Dragoon was born in the Bronx and his family struggled financially throughout his childhood. The Dragoon family lived in eight different places by the time he was 14 years old. “There was a point when the six of us were living in two bedrooms,” Mr. Dragoon recalled. “Having been through that, I’d always assumed that if you owned a house, you’re rich.”
His parents were finally able to buy a house in Plainview for $15,990 but soon after, the bank foreclosed. He remembers as a child returning home one day to find all his family’s belongings on the sidewalk. “We had a cherry tree in our yard and our neighbor offered us a dollar if he could have it before we had to leave,” he said. “My father and I dug out that tree for one dollar.”
As a teenager, Mr. Dragoon attended Forest Hills High School and, upon graduation, enrolled in Brooklyn College. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, he served as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in Indiana, where he helped out those living in poverty-stricken areas improve their situations.
After completing his VISTA tour, he moved back to New York and opened up Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers in Baldwin Harbor. From its inception, Mr. Dragoon’s life and that of Ben’s have been intricately intertwined. In fact, it was when he was hiring staff for his first restaurant that he met his wife, Cindy, who was applying for a waitress position. Cindy is still involved at the restaurant and can be found working the dining room floor, behind the counter or doing early-morning catering as needed.
During the delicatessen’s first seven years, Mr. Dragoon worked seven days a week, without ever taking a day off. Since he spent the majority of his time at the Baldwin restaurant, he took advantage of this opportunity as a way to get to know every single customer that walked through the doors.
“I had a relationship with every customer in Baldwin,” he recalled. This type of personal service, care and dedication is what created a deep-rooted customer loyalty and keeps people coming back to Ben’s to this day. “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.”
Despite his early financial struggles, there were some light-hearted moments, such as the time he learned a little bit about value. A customer came in and ordered a hot dog. The counterperson said, “If you tell me a joke, the hot dog is free.” To which, comedian Alan King replied, “I haven’t worked so cheap since the Catskills!”
It was also during this time when Ben’s in Baldwin — near its apex — received 372 catering orders for one New Year’s Eve. “We had so many orders that we simply didn’t have enough refrigeration,” Mr. Dragoon said. “But because it was cold enough outside, we wrapped and stored some of the six-foot heroes on saw horses behind the store.” When he heard someone ran off with one of his heroes, Mr. Dragoon chased him down. “You better believe I got it back,” he said. “It’s not easy to run with a six-foot hero.”
His humble beginnings and life experiences instilled in Mr. Dragoon an unerring desire to please, a quality he continues to serve daily. While other Kosher restaurants have opened over the last 40 years — only to close their doors for good — Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers remains a beloved institution as the result of Mr. Dragoon’s personal commitment and drive to succeed as an entrepreneur. “It’s been a 40-year rollercoaster ride with ups and downs,” Mr. Dragoon said. “I told my wife, ‘No matter where we wind up, we’re a lot better off than where we started.’”
Ben’s later expanded with additional full-service and express deli locations on Long Island and in the New York metropolitan area. Throughout the 1990s and beyond, Long Island has experienced hard economic times, high taxes and higher rents. As a result, many customers had no choice but to move out of New York and Mr. Dragoon was forced to close down some of his restaurants, including the original Baldwin location. It wasn’t until he visited Boca Raton, Florida and noticed all of the basketball courts popping up that he realized where a younger demographic of former New Yorkers were heading to escape the heavy expenses that burdened them on Long Island.
It was in 2004 that Ben’s opened up a restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida and rebuilt another in Carle Place, New York. Ben’s Boca Raton restaurant immediately attracted some of the original Baldwin customers who had patronized the restaurant and sorely missed the food and atmosphere of Ben’s.
“There were people with tears in their eyes when they saw me in Boca Raton, having missed Ben’s all these years,” Mr. Dragoon said. From November through February, he could be found working behind the counter, telling jokes and taking care of customers at Ben’s Boca Raton restaurant. “I’m the only Jewish guy in the world who goes to Boca in the winter to work,” deadpans the owner.
Today, Ben’s Restaurants employ about 300 people and generate approximately $20 million in sales each year, making Ben’s one of the largest Kosher food service establishments on the planet. In addition, Ben’s participates in many charitable endeavors. For example, the restaurant offers the Pint For A Pint™ Program for organizations planning a blood drive in which all donors receive a Ben’s gift certificate good for a free pint of Ben’s famous homemade chicken soup. The restaurant channels donations to many civic and charitable causes through The Ben’s Foundation. In addition, Mr. Dragoon is a longtime supporter and board member of The INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network).
Since the inception of Ben’s Deli in 1972, Mr. Dragoon has kept true to his philosophy of putting just about every dollar he earned back into the business. “I never cared about money. I just wanted lines in the restaurant,” he insisted. “My motivation was never about money but success.”
To this day, Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers is still dedicated to making personal connections with their customers and going above and beyond their call of duty. To Mr. Dragoon and the staff of Ben’s, it’s all about service, people and relationships. Given his natural ability to connect with people and make them laugh, Mr. Dragoon has no problem of obeying the restaurant’s mantra of “everybody leaves happy.”
For more information, visit www.bensdeli.net.