BY David Klein
A mixture of ancient legal quirks and modern business practices help keep a labor of love alive at Ben’s Kosher Deli, which has six locations in the New York area, and another in Boca Raton, Florida.
Though one wouldn’t know it, the family-owned deli actually has two owners. During the workweek, Ben’s is owned by Ronnie Dragoon, the man who founded the business more than 42 years ago. However, from a little before sundown on Friday until Sunday morning the restaurant is leased to Luis Angel a long time employee of the restaurant who works in the Boca Raton location.
The switch of ownership is to circumvent an issue Dragoon would face as a Jew — doing business on the Sabbath — which could cause some more observant patrons t0 call into question their ability to eat there. Therefore it’s sold on the weekends to Angel who is not Jewish.
While there are many kosher restaurants in New York City, this business practice is fairly uncommon. Most kosher restaurants, with a mostly orthodox Jewish clientele, have no reason to be open on the Sabbath. Ben’s on the other hand has found itself in a different position. Over the years the role of the Jewish deli has diminished, according to Dragoon who remembered when he grew up the kosher deli was right behind the synagogue and community center as a central hub of Jewish life.
“Once in the New York area there was a kosher deli in every town. Now you’ll have to go through three or four before you find one,” said Dragoon.
The kosher palate is also expanding. Varying ethnic cuisines, like sushi and Mexican food, are becoming more popular, while traditional Ashkenazi fare, such as corned beef and pastrami, that were brought over by immigrants in the early 20th century are falling out of style. “Every generation that moves away from that immigrant experience are less loyal to the Appetizing store, the Jewish Bakery and the Kosher deli. That’s why they’ve all disappeared,” said Dragoon.
Today kosher-observant Jews only make up 20 to 25 percent of Ben’s clientele across all their locations, and selling the restaurant once a week is a capitulation to that reality. “If we weren’t open on Saturday we wouldn’t be open at all,” said Angel who added that maintaining business seven days a week helps them keep their prices lower than other restaurants.
Roberta Miller, who visited the Midtown location on West 38th Street, said it didn’t make any difference to her that Ben’s was kosher, because it serves good food and is affordable. “We like their kind of knishes and the menu and the prices,” she said.
So why does Dragoon keep his restaurants kosher when most of the diners could go either way?
Rabbi Paul Plotkin, who certifies that Ben’s adheres to kosher dietary law, said Dragoon values the deli tradition. “He does it because he wanted people like me, conservative observant people, to have the chance of a clean lovely restaurant, high quality at a fair price. It’s almost like a mission of his,” he said.
Dragoon himself said it more simply, “For me it’s about keeping the tradition alive and at this stage in my life, at 68, I’m not about to rock the boat.”
Gini Gallagher, from Bel Air, Maryland, has a tradition of dining at a kosher deli every time she visits the city. “It’s New York, love em’,” she said. “Have to have a corn beef on rye while I’m here.” Despite not being Jewish, she thinks Ben’s is “higher quality” because it follows kosher dietary law. “I seem to want to go to kosher delis. I would go to ones that aren’t kosher, but I like kosher delis,” she said.