BEN KRAVITZ' CONQUEST OF THE NEW WORLD
There were DPs fifty years ago and they, too, found this a strange and wonderful land. One of them was a young Lithuanian who had two great assets: a passion for work and the recipe for Ben’s Smoked Meats. This is his story
AT MONTREAL’S Metcalfe and Burnside Streets, directly behind the Sheraton Mount Royal Hotel, there’s a place called Bens De Luxe Delicatessen-Restaurant where more than 8,000 customers daily come to pack themselves into a 150-chair capacity space, pausing an average of precisely 12 minutes to consume a smoked beef brisket sandwich on rye with a dill pickle on the side and, of course, a cup of coffee.
Other sandwiches are served there, and soft drinks. You can order pastrami, salami, corned beef, liverwurst or smoked whitefish, or you can have a steak. But eighty percent of the customers —who range from elegant socialites in evening clothes and silk toppers to ragged bums, from businessmen breaking away from a smoke-filled convention room to ladies of pleasure resting their weary feet, from blase college boys and their chattering co-eds to starry-eyed tourists seeking a glimpse of sports or theatrical personalities whose autographs adorn the restaurant’s walls—will end up by ordering a hot smoked-beef sandwich, dill on the side and coffee.
The sandwich will cost them thirty cents, the dill will cost a dime and the coffee another dime. Between two slices of round rye bread baked especially to Ben’s specifications the dark red smoked meat, slice upon slice, almost half an inch thick, protrudes from the sandwich, and its tantalizing aroma is akin in quality to its taste which some people say is akin to nothing less than ambrosia in a kosher form.
Paul Whiteman has called Ben’s “the place where I fall off my diet.” Veteran vaudevillians Benny Field and Blossom Seeley called it their “other home.” Burl Ives threatened to compose a song in celebration of Ben’s, and Charles Laughton has passed his august English approval. A restaurant owner in Miami offered to buy Ben’s smoked-meat recipe on a royalty basis. A magician playing a date in Hong Kong wrote to tell Ben that the Chinese owner of the establishment where he was playing had been in Montreal and thought that Ben’s smoked meat was superb. A skiing party from Boston, passing through Montreal on the way to the Laurentians, wrote in advance to order large quantities of sandwiches to he picked up between trains. Sally Rand sent an eyebrow-raising
Christmas card. A Kirkland Lake businessman wrote an urgent letter confessing that he had boasted so vigorously of his expert knowledge of smoked meat that he had become committed to throwing a party to prove his point; he needed an immediate shipment from Ben’s. Outside a large San Diego, Calif., restaurant there is a sign, “Ben’s —-3,018 miles northeast.”
All this has had singularly little effect on the proprietor of Ben’s, a 71-year-old slight grey-haired long-faced man in white coat and apron who greets his customers at the door or wanders almost aimlessly from table to table, mopping up spilled coffee here, removing a dish there, filling a water glass, lending a hand to hard-pressed waiters whose job it is to keep the customers fed, satisfied and moving. When Ben Kravitz came to Canada 55 years ago he was happy and grateful that at last he had found a country where he could work as long and as hard as he wanted to without anyone stopping him. His only grievance today is that his wife, his three sons, his son-in-law and the 110 employees who call him Pop seem to be in a gigantic conspiracy to prevent their beloved boss from continuing to put in the hours and do the kind of work which has given him his deepest satisfaction. Already they have cut down his 20-hour w'ork day to a mere 17 and if they had their way they’d reduce it still further. Because for all the success that has come his way in recent years Ben still has a heart like a balloon, has never learned to say no to a panhandler and is essentially the same person as the boy of 16 who earned two dollars a week at his first job in Montreal.
The story of Ben Kravitz, his wife Fanny, daughter Gertrude and sons Solly, Al and Irving is one that has a remarkable parallel with the story of New Canadians today. For it is more than the story of a successful restaurant owner. It is the story of how a |>enniless immigrant family licked the New World through extraordinary courage, sagacity and humanity; of how the family became both commercially successful and fine citizens.
The Europe of Ben’s youth was a hostile and unhealthy world for Jews without position or influence; it was the Europe of the ghetto and the pogrom, as it was so Continued on page 68
Continued on page 68
Ben Kravitz' Conquest of the New World
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 29
recently the Europe of the concentration camp and gas chamber. Like the DPs of today Hen ran away from it dreaming vaguely of the opportunities and tolerance to be found in North America. And like so many DPs today he tound the North America of his dreams to be a bewildering and sometimes hostile place. In Montreal the latent antagonism between English and French often finds its outlet at the expense of the Jew. And in Montreal a newcomer from Europe must learn not one but two new languages if he would survive. Hen brought with him two priceless assets; an unquenchable energy and a great sympathy for human beings. They served him well.
Hen Kravitz was born near Kovno. Lithuania, in 1882. He was the last of seven children born to poor parents, and prospects for him were dismal. 'The only hope on his horizon was the fact that relatives on bis mother's side, the Joseph family, had gone to America. Settling in Montreal, they had prospered and in letters to bis mother they urged that Hen should try his luck in the New World.“ They offered to send a steamship t icket for him to Hamburg. Hen would have to find his own wav to Hamburg.
Hen’s First Job
'Transit visas were not available to poor Jews in those days either, and Hen set out from home, a big husky lad of 16, with all bis worldly possessions in a sack on bis back and a sizeable consignment of Lithuanian beer sent hopefully ahead, care of the steamship at Hamburg. He ran the Lithuanian-Polish border at night and the rifle* bullet which was sent winging after him by an alert border guard went through the flesh of his heel without breaking a bone. He limped through Poland and scuttled safely across the German border without incident. finally reaching Hamburg to find both the ship and the beer await ing him. He picked up his ticket and $16 in cash that accompanied it and on shipboard he engaged in a brisk traffic with fellow steerage passengers, doling out the beer at 60 pfennigs a cup. With the proceeds, and some spirited bartering in blankets and clothes, Hen ran up his capital of $16 to $110 by the time he reached Montreal and he was able immediately to refund tin; cost of his steamship ticket to his cousins.
One of the cousins bad a butcher shop and Hen got his first job there. In addition to the two dollars a week he got his board, and he felt pretty good about it. “It didn’t matter what they paid you,” he remembers. “The big tiling was that you had a job.” Hen set to work immediately trying to learn English and French, and when he felt that he could make himself understood, he got a job in another ! Joseph enterprise, bottling ginger ah* and beer at three dollars a week. Paying board of two dollars a week lie found that lie could still save money. Hut bis biggest financial windfall was in the winter when he worked shoveling snow for the tramways company which paid the fabulous rate of $2.60 a day, with a night rate of $1.76. Hen worked both day and night and took a loaf of bread with him for food, washing it I down with melted snow.
After four years in Canada Hen had a modest little fortune of more than $200 when be met Fanny Schwartz, j who had been in Canada about a year.
Like Hen, she had fled her country. Horn in Odessa, where* the pogrom was a popular Cossack sport, she had seen other Jewish people cruelly beaten and had hidden once in a pile of garbage to escape a similar fate. Her father had been desperate to get her out of the country before worse happened to her, and failing to obtain either passport or visa he had bundled her off with a hundred rubles. She too ran the border into Poland at night, crawling through a muddy ditch to escape the guards. Making her way into Germany, she was arrested for walking through a field of grain but was released with a scolding by a sympathetic policeman. Finally she got to Antwerp and eventually reached Montreal, where her step-mother had second cousins.
Fanny rested at her step-mother’s relatives for three days before she went out looking for work. She found a job right away. It was in a men’s clothing factory pulling bastings out of suits. Her first week’s pay was 76 cents. She paid two dollars weekly for board and room, and the board was Spartan. Hreakfast was tea and bread; the tea warmed over from the previous night. Lunch was bread with a piece of cold boiled lung the landlady got the lung free of charge from the butcher. 'This was varied on Fridays bv fish and once a week the landlady included a banana in the lunch. However as Fanny learned her job her pay was increased, at the rate of 26 cents a week. Hy the time she was earning two dollars a week she owed $18 back board. She had arrived in Montreal in July 1902 and when winter came around she had no winter coat. ’The boss noticed she was coming to work in a light summer suit and, learning the circumstances, lu* had a winter coat made up for her. She arranged to pay for it out of her weekly salary which bad now reached three dollars.
Hut when Fanny went home to the boarding house that night in her new winter coat the landlady was furious to learn that it was to be paid off by weekly pay deductions while Fanny’s back-board bill stood at $16. Her own daughter needed a new winter coat on top of that. So Fanny turned over her new coat to the landlady’s daughter to discharge* her board debt. Next morning a mystified boss wanted to know what had happened to the new coat. When he learned of Fanny’s complicated financial difficulties lie ordered that another coat be made up and Fanny was able to consolidate her debts with a weekly pay deduction.
However, she got into further financial difficulties when she purchased an umbrella from an enterprising peddler. It cost a dollar, at 26 cents a month, plus an extra 26 cents interest. After the second month Fanny found that the umbrella was defective, and she flatly refused to continue her installment payments unless she obtained a new umbrella.
“I’ll sue you,” the peddler threatened.
“Go ahead and sue,” Fanny retorted. “I’ll declare bankruptcy.”
'The peddler finally replaced the umbrella and Fanny resumed payments.
Streetcar fare was no problem for Fanny. She left her boarding house at six each morning and reached the factory promptly at seven after a brisk walk. At night she was always horn« by seven. In slippery weather a girl friend at the factory. Rose Dorfman. who possessed a fine new pair of rubbers, always called for Fanny and they walked to work together with Fanny clinging firmly to the securely shod Rose. Fanny was happy. Like Hen she was overjoyed at the opportunity of working and now. making a dollar a week more than her board bill.
she felt she had the world licked.
The boss’ family took a liking to Fanny and invited her to move in with them. One night there was a fire at the house and among the neighbors who appeared to help with the rescue work was a handsome young man by the name of Ben Kravitz. Fanny was overawed by his remarkable command of the English language and he was smitten with the comely little roundfaced girl from Odessa. He shyly suggested that one day he might have the pleasure of taking her out for a five-eent sundae. With fluttering heart Fanny put him off. She would have to speak to the boss’ family first. She was no flighty girl.
“Ben Kravitz? Ah, there’s a good boy. And such a fine family he comes from on his mother’s side. The Josephs. They are important people.” Fanny was urged to make the most of her opportunity and one sundae stretched into another and then to the nickelodeon and long walks while Fanny babbled away. Ben cut his long stride down to hers and nodded and smiled, and then one day just up and asked her 10 marry him.
Ben’s financial stability was established by the fact lie had no hesitation
in producing the necessary $25 for the betrothal celebration. His love and generosity were quickly proven when Fanny, who had painfully saved six dollars for her betrothal outfit , lost the precious money and was rescued from her tearful plight by the open-handed Ben. Proud and bright-eyed, like a little queen, she posed for her photo wearing the long floor-length serge skirt with black braiding ($2.50), the black pleated silk blouse with white buttons ($1.50), the plain but serviceable slippers ($1) and t he neat leather handbag with chain ($1). For her marriage she was able to borrow the lovely wedding outfit of Rose, now Mrs. Greenspoon. She and Ben were married on Thursday evening, Nov. 3, 1904, at the Empire Hall at St. Lawrence and St. Catherine Streets.
They walked home from the wedding, two bright and eager youngsters. Ben had bought a basket of apples at the market, for they made the room smell nice. They set up housekeeping in the dining room of Fanny’s former employer and they paid six dollars a month and had the use of the kitchen. The honeymoon was brief* Ben was back at work next morning, a serious married man with new responsibilities. And when Fanny went to prepare his first lunch for him to take to the job she was mortified to find that she had not thought of a container. Ben laughed, and put the sandwiches in his pocket.
The ambitious Fanny wanted a home of then' own. Ben was still working at the bottling factory earning« steady $6 50 a week making syrup for the ginger ale and washing bottles, and six months after thoy were married they
rented a four-roomed house at $10 a month. Fanny painted it throughout and took in three boarders at three dollars each a week. “We didn’t eat steak every day,” she observes drily.
Their first boy, Sol, was born there in 1905. By this time Ben had decided to branch out for himself and he bought a horse and a delivery wagon. He was able to average as high as $10 a week delivering cloth to textile factories in the St. Lawrence district, carrying the heavy bales of cloth up five and six flights of stairs with the ease and careless strength of youth. He was big, and strong as a horse, and he worked like one, night and day. But one day he came from a delivery to find the horse and rig and load of goods vanished. He finally located the horse and rig near the docks, but the goods had been stolen. Ben made good every penny of the theft to his customers but it wiped out His savings of seven years, close to $500.
Then the horse, which had been toughing it out with the growing Kravitz family—every second day the family fasted so the hoi'se could be fed —gave up the unequal struggle and died. Ben went out of the delivery business and went back to work for the Josephs. He got home each night around 11 o’clock after working all day in the factory and making deliveries in evening. By the time that AÍ was born in 1910 Ben was making $15 a week.
It was at this point that Fanny decided to take a more active role in building up the family finances. She decided to open a small shop in the heart of the clothing-factory district on St. Lawrence Boulevard. She bought a modest stock of canned goods, fruits, candies and biscuits. Ben made a counter of boards and erected a partition in the long narrow store that gave the family a room in the back. The rent was a staggering $18 a month and business was poor at the start. Ben brought home his $15 each week and that kept the store going. Then Ben had the bright idea which was to make the family fortune.
He had noticed that when factory girls dropped into the store they often asked for sandwiches. He remembered his youth back in Lithuania when the farmers used to pickle and smoke beef briskets that acquired a new tang and succulence in the treatment. He decided to try to prepare meat this way and to serve it in sandwiches. He bought the meat and put it in brine, then went out in the back yard and smoked it Over hickory bark. Before long his first smoked beef brisket was ready for customers.
But if the brisket was ready the customers were not. The meat looked black and dirty from the smoking and they were not tempted. Vainly Ben and Fanny begged them to try the sandwiches, at five cents each, or even a free sample. But this was not the kind of sandwich they knew or trusted. They ordered cake. The youngsters of the growing Kravitz brood took the sandwiches to school with them and the Kravitz family dined almost exclusively on smoked meat sandwiches and dill pickles. They were their own best and exclusive customers.
But Ben and Fanny persisted and finally one factory girl gingerly tried a sandwich after Ben’s patient pleading. She liked it and she told other girls about it. They tried the sandwiches and were won to the exotic fare. The business slowly began to improve.
Ben meanwhile continued his backbreaking schedule, working long hours in the factory, making his deliveries at night and then coming home late to prepare the meat and the pickles according to his own method. Finally
his schedule caught up to him and he doubled over one day, helpless with pain. He was hurried to the hospital with perforated ulcers. The 190-pound Ben came out of the hospital weighing 120 and went back to the factory the same day. The family needed the money. Irving was born in 1915. Fanny rented a room at a midwife’s for the occasion and stayed there a week.
Back on the job, she knew that the store which had soaked up all their money was their only salvation. She slaved away there, keeping it open until the last night owl had called and then catching a brief snatch of sleep in the back room she was ready for the first early-bird customer in the morning. Sol manfully did his share and AÍ, at five, had his regular chores. By 1916 business was good enough to encourage Fanny to seek more space. She negotiated the sale of their location for $700, enough cash to close a deal for a larger store with a $40 monthly rent but with three big rooms for living quarters in the back and a large basej ment, apart from the fixtures that she j got in the deal. It was just half a block away from the old store and the j customers faithfully followed the aroma I of hot smoked meat.
By the time Gertrude arrived in 1917 there was plenty of rognyfor the family [ and.Ben’s was becoming weffiknoWn I through the garment district. The j demands of the business were sufficient to require Ben’s full time now and he gave up his factory job. They kept the store open seven days a week, 24 hours a day and they did a thriving business day and night.
In 1929 with the arrival of the depression and the wholesale blight of the needle-trade business that supplied the bulk of Ben’s customers, the family decided on its greatest gamble to date. With business falling off, the family I decided to move from the needle-trades I district into the bright-lights area where there was activity at all hours. Ben rented a little grocery store in the parlor of an old house on the northwest corner of Burnside and Metcalfe and the family spent six weeks converting it into the new Bens Delicatessen ! Sandwich Shop. This was the gamble that paid off in the present prosperity j and international renown of Ben’s.
Here, smack in the centre of the ! hotel and tourist district just on the j fringe of the night club and theatre bright lights, two short blocks from Montreal’s heart of Peel and St. Catherine, the legend of Ben’s really began to grow. Celebrities of the theatre world discovered the place and their fans followed them. Along with Paul Whiteman, Benny Field and Blossom Seeley, Red Skelton openly plugged the place in his vaudeville ap; pearances at Montreal theatres. George McManus ran an outrageous plug in his comic strip, Bringing Up Father, when he depicted a billboard announcing, “You want to be strong? Eat at Ben’s.” Sir Anthony Jenkinson in his book, Where Seldom a Gun Is Heard, devoted a page to quotes from Ben’s whimsical signs: “Imported sturgeon needs no urgin’,” “Mary had a little lamb. What will you have?” “Use less sugar. Stir like hell. We don’t mind the noise.” Even Walter Winchell discovered Ben’s. Members of New York’s Metropolitan Opera making a Montreal appearance staged I an impromptu concert at Ben’s. It became the place to go after the last night club had closed its doors or for a quick bite between shows or a morning coffee and sandwich before starting the new day’s performance.
However all this did not happen overnight. There were long years of hard slogging, uncertainty and set-
backs for the whole family before Ben’s became finally established. Ben did not wish to see his children end their careers with an apron behind a counter. Sol had ambitions to become a clothing designer and got a job as a cutter in a clothing shop. AÍ wanted to be a musician and studied the violin. Irving took a college course. But they all helped in the store in their spare time.
AÍ was making brilliant progress with the violin, playing in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. But in 1929 he broke the little finger of his left hand in a basketball game and it remained permanently stiff. So he came into the store full time. Sol found there was a large and apparently unbridgeable gap between the job of a cutter and that of a clothes designer and in 1933 he came into the store. When Irving finished college with an accounting degree he told his father that he too felt he could be useful full time in the store with his training. Ben said, “Remember, son, I’m not asking you to come in. I’d like something better for you, though we need you.” In 1935 Irving came. And Gertrude became the store’s cashier until 1941 when marriage presented another career to her. Her husband, Herb Polaski, joined the firm in 1951.
What Point in Protest?
At the beginning of the new venture the burden fell chiefly on Ben, Fanny and second son AÍ. Between them they never left the store for five minutes. They cured their meat and made their pickles in the basement and they kept open 24 hours a day seven days a week. They bought a house a few doors away and when Fanny and Al went home to snatch a few hours’ sleep at night Ben ran the store alone. It was in the worst days of the depression but AÍ was puzzled that they were not doing better with their sales. Then, one morning he opened the Montreal Herald and saw a big three-column picture of Ben, taken at dawn, handing out sandwiches to a long line of destitute men. “It was only leftovers,” his father lamely explained.
AÍ knew his father well enough to realize that protest was useless and Fanny loyally supported her husband. The line-up continued through the depression and Ben continued to make up sandwiches and dole them out. As times improved the line-up gradually disappeared but Ben continued to be a soft touch for a hard-luck story, or a man with imagination. AÍ remembers that a certain Italian used to appear when the line was half a block long, just before the hand-outs started. He would take his place at the very front of the line in spite of angry protests from others who had been waiting, and Ben would always serve him first, to be greeted with a deep bow and a warm “Gracias, Señor.”
Another expert panhandler captured Ben’s imagination with his flowery and erudite speech. He was in tatters and Ben protested, “Such an educated man cannot be dressed like that.” He took the panhandler home and rigged him out in his own best suit. But two days later the panhandler reappeared in
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his old filthy clothes, but looking happy.
“What happened to you?” Ben asked. | bewildered.
“Who can beg in those clothes?” the panhandler answered, and dismissed the subject. Ben meekly fed him and listened in awe to his flow of words.
Isaac Ruvinoff, a talented professor of dancing, was suddenly bankrupted through a fire and Ben met him on the sireet shortly afterward and asked him to eat at the store. That was nearly twenty years ago and Ruvinoff is stii Ben’s mealtime guest complaining loudly and bitterly if the service falls below his rigorous standards.
The boys began to worry every time Ben disappeared from sight. He went for a short walk one winter evening in a smart new overcoat, came back in a ragged torn topcoat. He had swapped coats with a derelict on Dominion Square. “He needed it worse than I did,” Ben explained.
Buo Ben makes a sharp distinction between those who can’t work and those who won’t work and dishwashing lias always been his penalty for the latter when they tried to beat him for the meal check. “Sometimes during the depression years, it seemed we had more dishwashers than customers in the place.” AÍ remembers.
A shabbily dressed girl came into the shop one evening and ordered a bowl , of soup with bread. Ben watched how carefully she stretched out the bread with the soup and he sent over a steak and dessert to her. She objected, “1 didn’t order this.”
“It’s okay,” Ben explained, “we j always make it on the house for the thousandth customer each week.” 'The j girl took one long look at Ben’s homely smiling face and then burst into tears. She didn’t even have the money for the soup. She was broke and out of work. Ben got her a job with a clothing firm whose owner was a regular customer.
The biggest improvement in the firm’s finances took place when they persuaded Ben to abandon the cash desk to Gertrude. He had collected rubber cheques amount ing to hundreds of dollars. One day AÍ saw from a distance of five yards a girl offer Ben a decidedly peculiar-looking $10 bill.
He knew better than to interfere but when the girl left the store with her change AÍ turned up the bill. It was Mexican.
“You accepted this?” lie asked his fa f lier reproach fu 11 y.
“I didn’t have my glasses,” his father offered. “Besides, she was such a nice girl, and she probably needed the ¡ money very badly.”
In spite of Ben’s quixotic attitude : toward money the business grew steadily. In the early Thirties, long before the era of Pacifique Plante, who as city morality director in the late Forties closed down Montreal’s flourishing vice rackets, the district had its share of bordellos, and smoked-meat sandwiches were popular with waiting | clients. ’This catering service later developed along more legitimate lines into an important part of Ben’s operations. Conventions and sales conferences are frequently graced by | Pen’s smoked-meat sandwiches and dill pickles.
During the ’Thirties as the business gradually grew strong roots Ben continued to punish himself with long hours, working each day from five in the morning until past midnight. They were able to afford a maid by now and one day Ben came quietly home and j asked the maid, “Would you please call the doctor?”
The maid called the doctor on the phone.
‘‘Ben himself asked for me?” the | startled doctor queried. She confirmed j
it. “He must be bad. I'm sending an ambulance right away,” the doctor said hastily.
Ben was hurried to the hospital where Fanny was recovering from a broken ankle. She was to leave that day but the doctor told her gravely, “You had better come downstairs. Ben is here and he’s pretty sick.”
It was perforated ulcers again, complicated by a ruptured appendix and peritonitis. The doctor doubted that Ben would survive the operation and Fanny looked upon her grey-faced husband with sinking heart.
Ben came out of the operation, life feebly flickering. He seemed to have lost the will to live. On the second day following the ordeal the doctor spoke to him sternly. “Ben,” he said, “they need you at the store.” It was only then that Ben began to rally.
The doctor estimated it would be six months before Ben could move about and he questioned that he would ever be able to work again. But after three weeks of steady progress Ben began to fret and lose weight. So the doctor sent him back to the store. In his familiar white coat and apron again,
Ben quickly recovered. It was then that the family determined he would never again assume the load that had nearly finished him twice.
By now all three boys were active in the business and it was decided in a family conference to enlarge and remodel the premises which were hopelessly overcrowded most of the day. They doubled the capacity by purchasing the entire building. Yet it was not enough and a few years later, in 1949, they made their biggest gamble of all by purchasing a building diagonally across the street, tearing it down
and erecting a modern three-story building at a cost of $300,000. The top two floors were turned into office space and 3,000 square feet on the ground floor made a new Bens De Luxe Delicatessen and Sandwich Shop. The old Ben’s was retained; it is destined to be demolished in the city’s plan for the widening of Burnside Street. Meanwhile it handles the overflow from the new Ben’s, which has already proved inadequate to handle rush-hour crowds.
Faced with the realization that their wildest dreams had still failed to come up to the demands of an apparently endless reservoir of patrons, Ben and his family are now in the process of contracting for a new building to be erected alongside the new Bens De Luxe Delicatessen. It will double the present floor space to 6,000 square feet, doubling the nating capacity from 150 to 300 persons and give them a milliondollar structure.
During the war years when both help and supplies were hard to get Ben abandoned his seven-day week and 24-hour schedule in favor of a sixday week and a 22-hour day. In the family vote for the shorter week his was the only dissenting opinion and Fanny claims that on Sunday, when the store is closed, Ben looks ten years older as he wanders distractedly around the house with nothing to do. He still wears his white coat though, even on Sunday, and over her protest that callers will think he is the butler. The only event that makes him happy on Sunday is when there is something to do at the store, something to fix or repair. Yet he has always been notably inept at repairs. Whenever he disappears into the basement with a monkey wrench to fix a leaky pipe Fanny waits patiently for his despairing cry “Fanny, quick, call a plumber!”
While the family has persuaded Ben to cut his own working day down to a bare 17 hours, from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., on Nov. 3, last year Irving caught his father guiltily slipping out of his apron at 7 p.m., and he asked, “Leaving so early?”
His father apologized, “It’s our 49th wedding anniversary.”
Last year the boys prevailed upon Ben and Fanny to take their first holiday in almost fifty years. They engaged rooms at a smart New York hotel, made train reservations and packed them off for a well-earned rest. Two days later Ben was back at the store at 5 a.m. “It was lonesome down there,” he explained. The boys stopped trying.
Yet more than simple dedication to work is responsible for the remarkable growth and success of Ben’s. With it goes a thorough knowledge of the food business, from the purchasing of the best quality of foods to the most efficient handling of large numbers of people. In this knowledge the whole family shares. Ben himself still goes to the market at the proper season to buy cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, and farmers vie with each other for his business, for he pays the best price and expects the best products. He pays cash deposits for his orders and asks for no receipts, speaking a French that the boys swear only the farmers can understand. He also selects the choice beef briskets that gó into the smoked meat; he supervises the curing and smoking of the meat according to his own formula, as he does with the dill pickles that are only slightly less famous than the smoked-meat sandwiches.
Ben himself has contributed ideas for quick service, like the elimination of saucers with cups of coffee. Quick
service is the key to the amazing daily volume of customers that pass through the store. At rush hours there is always a line-up but people do not mind waiting h they know that the wait is a short one and that they will be served promptly once they have been seated.
The atmosphere of Ben’s is deliberately calculated to discourage long dawdling over coffee. While fullcourse meals are available, they are not featured. The lighting is bright to the point of glaring and waiters poun:e on you the moment you are seated. The volume of business per square foot of space is carefully calculated; within two years the volume in the new Ben’s exceeded the per square foot volume in the old Ben’s, though there is a greater feeling of elbow room in the new building. In the kitchen and in the supply rooms the most modern and efficient equipment is installed. Ben boasts he has the only air-conditioned garbage-disposal room in the country.
Tire family’s loyalty and affection for their senior member verges on fanaticism and they cheerfully attribute practically every favorable feature of tire store’s operation to Ben. But Fanny herself has played a major role in the growth of Ben’s and it was her word that was final in the lighting and color scheme of the new building, just as it was Fanny who watched and checked every move of architect, engineer and contractor. The boys tell how she stood by with a supply of assorted nails, bolts, nuts and screws to furnish the workmen and prevent them fiom using this excuse for going off the job. From the first day that they had to hire extra help Ben proved himself constitutionally incapable of firing anyone and it was the forthright Fanny who assumed this task.
But the boys themselves are up-todate operators aware of every development in restaurant merchandising that takes place in this country and the United States. Unlike their father they take holidays but the holidays are of the busman variety and they return with new ideas for the business. Sol, like Gertrude, inclines to his father’s slow gentle temperament.
It is not hard to recognize the decisive vivacious Fanny in both Al and irving.
To the 110 employees of Ben’s, the proprietor is Pop and Fanny is Mum.
Both Sol and Irving are married, with two children in each family; these with Gertrude’s two children provide Ben and Fanny with six grandchildren. Both Sol and Irving live in rented apartments.
Ben consistently refuses to admit he is slowing down but somet imes he takes little cat-naps during his 17-hour day. The boys are familiar with the pattern.
He brews himself a cup of tea with lemon, leans an elhow on the counter and pretends to be deep in contemplation. A guilty start and a quick look around always finds the boys looking in another direction. rl hus they support his gentle fiction.
Ben’s hearing is not as acute as it once was. Recently Irving advertised for a waiter. The next morning a customer came in, spoke to Irving, and Irving called to Ben, who was behind the counter. Ben heard, “Pop, will you get him a coat?”
Ben came from behind the counter and motioned for the man to follow him. Together they went down the stairs to the basement and Ben produced a broom. “Sweep the floor,” he ordered. The man dutifully began to sweep the floor and Ben nodded his approval, reached in a locker for a coat. Suddenly the man stopped sweeping and threw down the broom. “What the hell does a guy have to do in this joint to buy a coke?” he demanded. ★ 1