Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ben’s Best: A Legend Since 1945

By Michael Perlman, Rego-Forest Preservation Council Chairman & Forest Hills Times Columnist

Ben's Best founder Benjamin Parker & son Jay Parker
Few independently owned restaurants in Rego Park among citywide establishments hold the merit of satisfying taste palettes of New Yorkers since 1945. The days of seeing neighborhoods lined with mom and pop shops inclusive of delicatessens on every few blocks may have faded, but Ben’s Best at 96-40 Queens Boulevard is here to stay, according to second generation owner Jay Parker. Local delicatessens which now only exist in the memories of longtime residents are Sandy’s Surf, King Delicatessen/Boulevard Delicatessen, and the Pastrami King.

   Ben’s Best opened in 1945 and was incorporated in 1947 by its founder Benjamin Parker. His son, 62 year-old Long Island resident Jay Parker is the third generation in the kosher deli business. Reminiscing his youth, he said, “I would work for my father on weekends and ran the franks and knishes grill.” His grandfather owned a Hebrew National deli on 163rd Street and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx.  

   Some people attribute the dwindling of classic neighborhood delis to changes in demographics, modern tastes, or retirement. However, Jay Parker, who purchased the business from his father in 1984, values tradition while maintaining his faith in the future.  He said, “All neighborhoods change, but we looked far ahead. There is only one reason for success, but thousands for failure. You have to fertilize the soil you are growing on.” He explained his recipe of survival. “During the holidays we charge a little less for our products, since we have an ethical component to our business. The more the community needs us, the lower the price we set.”

   Parker takes Ben’s Best in the direction of private and corporate catering for events of all sizes, maintains an online presence, is open 7 days, and processes orders from anywhere in the United States. “We have 250 corporate accounts that we service all the time,” he said. Ben’s Best even catered Air Force One under the Clinton Administration.

   Parker takes pride in what’s more than a position, but rather a commitment. “It has been my life. I met my wife and closest friends here. Customers have been here for 40 years, and when they come back, they pick up the conversation from where they left off.” Businesses are destined to become a mainstay when their owners foster new relationships daily. “When you like what you do, it comes a little better,” said Parker. 

   “I have an obligation to keep the community strong,” said Parker, who has proudly served the Rego Park-Forest Hills Lions club and the Rego Park Merchants Association, and was also a past president of Rego Park Jewish Center.

    Another key ingredient is tradition. “Seventy years ago you walked through the door, and you got the same product you will get today. Consistency is the word,” said Parker. His personal favorites are goulash and his grandpa’s recipe of stuffed cabbage. Some patron favorites are pastrami, corned beef, chicken soup with matzo ball, and the Knishwich. Parker explained, “You won’t get a pastrami sandwich with sprouts and sundried tomatoes anytime soon. Corned beef should be corned beef. A little mustard and cole slaw, and we’re good.” Some foods that have been phased out are heart stew, lung stew, cholent, and jellied calves feet (p’tcha).

   Ben’s Best was a stop for notable figures such as Jerry Lewis, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Jacob Javits, Governor Pataki, Mayor Ed Koch, Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, and Architect Jack Brown. Ben’s Best was featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and will be featured in “Deli Man,” a documentary produced by Erik Greenberg Anjou, which chronicles cross-country deli owners who maintain the tradition.

   Enter Ben’s Best and one will see an appetizing counter with photos of notables and plaques on the wall. Just beyond, a 65-seat wood-paneled dining room displays historic Rego Park scenes. A painting of Benjamin Parker looks out at patrons with pride. A map reads “You’ve been in our home. Where is yours?,” and allows patrons to pin their residence. A classic wooden sign of a Judaic main street is another definitive element, often memorialized on Ben’s Best postcards. The famed logo depicts a man on a bicycle, who rides by a deli window. 

A classic menu

A current menu of a classic!

  Parker displayed a classic menu insert, potentially dating to the Mayor Lindsay Administration. It boasted a 99 cents Friday lunch special with no tax, and offered soup, golden brown filet of sole, French fries, cole slaw, tartar sauce, dessert, and coffee, tea, or Coke. The menu featured an Amstel Holland Beer logo and a sketch of a fisherman on a boat.

   Reflecting upon the past while sensing the future, Parker stated, “Every day is a challenge to get better than the day before. Whatever you learned on Monday, you bring to work on Tuesday and add to it. Now I am focused on the next 70 years.” He continued, “For our 50th anniversary, we rolled the prices back. Maybe for our 75th anniversary, we will do the same.”

1 comment:

  1. Ben's recently catered my cats' anniversary party The food was delicious and plentiful, the presentation very tempting and the party a huge success. I'll be a Ben's fan forever.