Ronnie Dragoon, 63, chief executive of Ben's Restaurant Group Inc., began as a political science major and community organizer through Volunteers in Service to America, finding winter coats and food subsidies for needy kids.
Now he's the visionary who launched one kosher deli on Long Island 40 years ago and grew it to six Ben's locations with a workforce of more than 300, takeout counters, dining rooms and an off-premise catering division that recently hosted an event in Washington, D.C.
An early user of computers, he installed them in his shops in 1978, a decision that saved $500 a week by establishing accountability for each item that left the kitchen.
He now itemizes tickets directly from the deli counter, so patrons can immediately check their orders as they wait.
After he turned 50, Dragoon teamed up with Scott Singer from Hebrew National, who is now president of Ben's.
Your favorite menu item?
Believe it or not, it's brisket. And pastrami.
Together in one sandwich or separately?
What do you look for in new employees?
A positive attitude, aptitude, teamwork, hospitality and flexibility.
How do you make the right hiring decisions?
We have an integrity test. We follow that up with a hospitality assessment test from a national testing firm, and they [test for] aptitude, and it's pretty vigorous. I think it takes about an hour and a half. If they're interested in scamming the system, I don't know if they'd put that much time and effort into going through our process. They could find other places that would just hire them on the spot.
What's your management philosophy?
I'm basically the steward of a larger family. I appreciate input from the workers. They're on the front lines — as I was for many, many years — and they know the pulse of the customer.
What's your secret to being a good leader?
There isn't anything that I've ever asked anyone to do that I haven't done or wouldn't do, even at an older age as opposed to when I was in my 20s and 30s and 40s.
How do you choose your locations?
Greenvale I knew because in Baldwin I kept getting outside, off-premise catering from the North Shore. I realized most successful restaurants on Long Island are on east-west roads, not north-south. In Manhattan an avenue is much more desirable, but I'm only about 200 feet off Seventh Avenue, so I built a tremendous marquee that you can't miss, almost like a movie theater marquee.
What are some key pieces of advice you've listened to that have made a difference?
Menu items — the customers have some good advice. People are asking for veggie burgers and more vegetarian items, and I'm going through the menu again to suit the times with gluten-free and vegan.
What he does: Serve kosher cuisine, “keeping a tradition alive in a rapidly changing world.”
Employee: 310 full time, 120 part time; on Long Island, 150 full time and 30 part time.
Roles: Servers, bus staff, hosts, cashiers, catering mavens and counter people, porters, line cooks, prep cooks and chef.
Revenue: $22.8 million