When 18-year-old Benjamin Prelvukaj landed at JFK from Montenegro in the summer of 2000, he knew he was there to follow the American dream — he just had no idea of what that dream was going to be. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I figured I’d come here and see how this world works, knowing I’d find my way somehow.”
He also spoke “zero” English. “I got off the plane at the airport and said, ‘Hi, how are you; my name is,’ and that was it.” He never imagined he’d someday parlay steak and seafood into one of the hottest meal tickets in New York City, Westchester, and Japan.
Of Albanian descent, Prelvukaj had been living with his grandmother in the Montenegrin countryside and was the last of his immediate family members to emigrate to America. His mother and sisters were already settled in New York, having escaped the fallout from the war that was raging in Kosovo. His uncle was in the process of vacating an apartment in the Bronx, so the teenage Prelvukaj took over the lease and moved in by himself.
He completed his last year of high school at Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx (where he also took English language classes) while bussing tables in Manhattan. “I had to pay my bills,” Prelvukaj says. After six months as a busboy, he was promoted to waiter. And when he graduated from high school, he enrolled at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and then Baruch College for his senior year, still taking language classes and still waiting tables. “The first five years I was in America, I slept maybe 20 hours per week,” he recalls.
“I never get tired of steak. I could eat it every day.”
And, sometimes he does, with a French Burgundy from the wine cellar he keeps in his home in Ardsley.
But everything changed when he landed a job as a waiter at the legendary Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn in 2003. “I made $700 a day in tips. That was a game changer for me.” And it wasn’t just about the money. “[Peter Luger’s] was a well-oiled machine, and I thought I could do that, too. I wanted my own place.” His American dream was beginning to take shape as he was busy taking notes, “learning from the best in the business.”
At the tender age of 25, after just three years cutting his teeth at the epicenter of porterhouse and creamed spinach, Prelvukaj teamed up with his Luger coworker Benjamin Sinanaj, a fellow Albanian who also happened to be his sister’s husband, and together they opened Benjamin Steakhouse just steps from Grand Central Terminal. Prelvukaj remembers how tough that first year was. “I was the manager, the bookkeeper, the busboy. I went to the restaurant depot and bought all the groceries myself.” Plus, he adds, “New York City is very competitive.”
Yet, businesspeople, tourists, regulars, and celebrities lined up to pay $100 a head or more for the Benjamins’ signature brand of warm, familial hospitality served alongside cuts of USDA Prime beef. “They come for the ambience, the food, and the service. They have to know they’ll be taken care of when they’re here,” he says. “And they can’t have a bad meal. It has to be good every time.” That is why every piece of meat is hand-picked and dry-aged for a minimum of 28 days in their own facility.
Four years later, Prelvukaj took the successful mindset and M.O. he’d developed in the city northward, to open Benjamin Steakhouse Westchester in White Plains in 2010, with his business partner and brother-in-law still at his side. “I’m more a front of the house guy; he’s more back of the house,” says Prelvukaj. A near constant welcoming presence on the dining-room floors of his restaurants, he now splits his time at another NYC addition to the family, Benjamin Prime, as well as The Seafire Grill, a Manhattan mecca for highbrow marine delights (not to mention two Benjamin Steakhouses in Japan).
“I just love people,” he almost gushes. “I love seeing them enjoying a nice meal. As humans, when we’re hungry, we get angry. I love seeing them happy.” And, he loves being in the room as hands are shaken over big business deals and rare filet mignons.
As much as he loves people, he loves what he peddles. “I never get tired of steak. I could eat it every day.” And, sometimes he does, with a French Burgundy from the wine cellar he keeps in his home in Ardsley, where he’s lived with his wife and four kids for more than a decade. “To stay in shape, I ride my bike a couple of miles or walk every morning,” enjoying the small-town vibe of the area where he’s planted roots. He also joins his boys on the basketball court or in the lap lanes whenever time allows.
Before COVID, he and his wife (an American of Albanian heritage) took the kids to Montenegro and Albania every year to immerse them in one-half of their rich cultural background. “Not this year,” he says, sadly, noting how he spends more time at work in “survival mode” lately and less time envisioning his next grand opening. “Hopefully there are better days ahead,” he says, harboring a dream he knows everyone longs to share.