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A Bens Waiter Reflects on 40 Years at Montreal's Bygone Deli Icon

Réal Cyr, 73, worked at Bens until the very end, minus a month

The Bens sign now resides in the CJ building at the Loyola campus of Concordia University
The Bens sign now resides in the CJ building at the Loyola campus of Concordia University
Randall Brodeur

How long did you work at Bens?
Forty years. I started in 1966, right before the Expo, and retired in 2006. The funny thing is, they closed a month after I retired. They had been on strike for a while and then decided to close mid-July of 2006.

Why were the employees on strike?
The conditions were bad. When it was run by the three Kravitz brothers [Al, Sollie and Irving, sons of founder Ben Kravitz], it was a great place to be. But when Irving, the youngest, passed away, his wife Jean took over and everything changed. [When Bens closed in 2006, Jean Kravitz told a reporter "we have come to the conclusion a single-outlet deli cannot thrive in the economic environment of a unionized payroll."]

"We were maybe over 100 employees."

What happened?
Oh, we were about 15 employees in the end. When things were going well, we were maybe over 100 employees if we count everyone who was on payroll. Our conditions were good when the three brothers were running the place. We had a great clientele, and a good menu. The portions were generous. The Kravitz family was very generous.

During the Depression era, Bens provided a breadline and Ben himself would serve the people who were lined up outside his restaurant. Ben Kravitz's sons were just as generous towards their employees. We had Christmas vacations off, three days for the Jewish holidays. But when Jean was in charge with her son Elliott, they only closed on Christmas day. We had no holidays. The food quality went down, the place wasn't clean anymore. But I keep the good memories. When I think of Bens, I only think of the good years.

"The quality of the restaurant went down a lot."

How did the restaurant run on 15 employees? Were the hours lessened? Were some people fired or did they leave?
The quality of the restaurant went down a lot so we lost a lot of our regular clientele. We used to serve all the people working at the radio station down the street, all the business people around. Bens was often so busy during the lunch rush, the clients would form a line around the block. But we gradually lost our regulars, and survived on tourists. Al still came every day to sit down. But he did not agree on how things were run. He would have a lot of disagreements with management. Elliot came by the restaurant sometimes but did not work there. Al sat at a table, but did not implicate himself in the business because of his age. It was sad to see.

Réal Cyr on the job

Sollie's third son was a busboy and helped with everything, but he had the same salary as the regular employees. The restaurant was open from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. on weekends. Then the hours reduced to 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a while. Then gradually we were closing at 3 p.m. It was very different from the past, when Bens was open from 7 a.m. to 5 a.m., and only closed two hours for cleaning. There was no more upkeep. Clients didn't come back and the prices kept going up while the food quality went down.

"The smoked meat was no longer prepared in house."

The smoked meat was no longer prepared in house. We ordered it from a company. It was pre-cooked and we warmed it up. We bought a machine to slice the meat. That wasn't the proper way. We used to have the smoked meat prepared in big steamers. We would slice it by hand. There was a way of doing it, which Jean never understood. She cut corners everywhere. For the last two years, we had no toaster in the place.

Let me give you an example. Our club sandwich for instance, we used to make it the real way: chicken, a nice slice of tomato, lettuce, bacon. Real fries, cut by hand and fried on the spot. We started serving our club sandwich with one slice of baloney, mock chicken, a thin slice of tomato, lettuce. The fries were the frozen, store-bought kind. We were embarrassed to be serving it to our customers. But the waiters got the blame. The customers got angry at us. They didn't come back. And the employees left on their own.

"We were embarrassed to be serving it to our customers."

I stayed to wait out my retirement. I was too old to start looking for a new job. So I did it. But it was sad to see. We were hoping one of the nephews would have been interested in keeping Bens going. We hated to see it end that way. If they would have been able to keep it going, we would have reached our 100 year anniversary. At 98 years, we were the oldest deli in the city.

Inside Bens

Did you meet many celebrities?
A lot of famous people would come to Bens. We had media personalities, politicians, writers, athletes, celebrities from all over the world. We were known internationally. I served Gérard Depardieu. I remember because I still have his autograph. But I have so many others. We were known for that, but I mostly remember the regulars. The lunch crowd. They were people who worked at the radio station. And a lot of Anglophone clients, with their families. My best friends were Jewish. I got along with them, I felt like they were family. Even though I am a French Catholic.

"If you needed anything, [Al Kravitz] would give it to you."

Can you talk some more about the three Kravitz brothers? What were they like?
Al was very hard-working. If you needed anything, he would give it to you. He ran the place. Irving was more austere, but again, if you asked for anything, he would never refuse. He eventually inherited the place, and he was my boss. Sollie was there but as 'acte de presence.' He wasn't as hard-working as the other two. But they were all very good people. They were good to us, and their clients. I still remain in contact with some of the employees. One of the employees who took care of the payroll is still working for Bens. She has a little office on Sainte-Catherine near de Maisonneuve and she takes care of the archives. I'm still in contact with Brian, a nephew of the family and his brother Murray, who both live in Dorval. They aren't married. They have a brother named Barry whom I haven't spoken to in a long time.

Which is your favourite smoked meat in town?
Oh, I don't go for that. I had one two years ago, a place near my house. I don't remember the name of the place, it was in a food court. A lot of the past employees went to work at Schwartz's. I have never had a Schwartz's smoked meat.

"It sounds funny, but I am not much of a smoked meat guy."

How much smoked meat did you eat in your lifetime?
Not much. It sounds funny, but I am not much of a smoked meat guy. First of all, the employees weren't allowed to order the smoked meat. There was a lot of other good things on the menu. They had spaghetti, all kinds of good sandwiches. They put smoked meat in their spaghetti sauce and their other dishes. The reason was because if the employee just took a bite and left the rest, the owners hated to see us throw it out. We couldn't run out of smoked meat. It was our specialty.

When you reflect on your career at Bens, what comes to mind?
I still have a box with all my good memories. When I retired, I remember one of the last things Jean said to me: 'Cyr, (that is what they called me) you are an honest man. You never took anything from the restaurant.' Because I guess some of the employees would try to take food and not pay for it.

Réal Cyr on the corner where Bens once stood.

"I watched Bens go down, brick by brick."

What's in your memory box?
Oh, I have autographs of famous people, pictures that children would draw for me on the placemats, newspaper clippings. I kept a photo of me that was in a newspaper article about the demolition of Bens. Le Journal de Montréal came to ask some past employees how they felt about it. We were almost as sad about the demolition as we were about losing the Kravitz brothers. When they passed away, I lost three brothers. That's how I felt. We were a family. I was with them for almost 30 good years. But when the building went down, it was just as sad. I watched the demolition on TV. I watched Bens go down, brick by brick.