Focus on Philanthropy: Q&A With Donor Ben Katzenstein
Ben Katzenstein (center) is the fourth-generation leader of his family’s ice cream flavoring ingredients company, Star Kay White Inc. With him are his sons Alex (left), the father of Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital patient Amelia, and Gabe (right). (Photo credit: Council of Industry and Picture This Studios.)
Tell us about your recent experience at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital.
As a newborn, my granddaughter failed to thrive. During her first three weeks of life, her weight plummeted from 7 pounds, 11 ounces at birth to 6 pounds, 4 ounces. She went from the pediatrician’s office to one hospital after another. At last, Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital figured out what was wrong and how to address it. We were extremely fortunate that the remedy was fairly simple, but we did not know that during this ordeal. I think what came out of this was how fortunate we are, but with the realization that our result is not necessarily the case for many people.
You thanked our team with a generous monetary gift. Is that a habit?
I think the most satisfying part of life is helping others.
You also sent 7,000 boxes of chocolate-covered almonds to our WMCHealth Heroes. When did your custom of giving candy to local charities begin? Did your forebears at Star Kay White do this?
My first job, my first day, at Star Kay White, my then-95-year-old family business, was roasting almonds. As a recent graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, I thought these almonds would be wonderful coated in chocolate. One of my favorite sayings is: “Simple does not mean easy.” It took me 20 years to get the formula and process right. I would make industrial-size sample batches, starting with 100 pounds of almonds, which would yield between 200 and 300 pounds of chocolate almonds. These did not look great, but they usually tasted fine, so I started giving them away as gifts.
Eventually, I was fortunate to be mentored by Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma. Among other things, we worked together on perfecting the formula that I shared with you, my Double Dipped Chocolate Almonds. He named them. Honestly, they are too expensive to make to sell competitively in the marketplace, so I give them away as gifts during the holiday season.
I have long shared Double Dipped Chocolate Almonds with family, friends, customers, suppliers, local police, ambulance corps, volunteer fire companies and government. This year, as I was delivering these packages, wearing my face mask and focusing on social distancing, it dawned on me that I had not shown proper attention to the real warriors of the fight against COVID-19. I called up Nyack Hospital and donated to the nurses there. I realized that was not enough; there are more hospitals around here that need some appreciation. That is how I came to share my Double Dipped Chocolate Almonds with the Westchester Medical Center Health Network.
I also had a situation not long ago — 2017 to be exact — in the Rocky Mountains and Seattle, where I required a medevac helicopter and airplane, emergency surgery and many weeks of recovery and rehabilitation. My appreciation for all levels of medical personnel grew profoundly.
So these Double Dipped Chocolate Almonds are my small token of appreciation to medical personnel everywhere. By the way, back when my wife worked as a medical technician, she canceled our first date to procure a heart for transplantation. So, I suppose maybe I always had an appreciation of the special type of person who dedicates their life to helping others.
How do you see businesses supporting charities in the post-COVID world?
I do not spend much time thinking about what other businesses do. In my lifetime, I’ve seen too many examples on the wrong side of the ledger to believe that I can change other people’s moral compasses. It amazes me, from the top to the bottom of socioeconomic pyramid, where greed takes people.
I spend a lot of time focusing on what my company does. I believe with absolute conviction that the proper way to run a business is by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
As a boy, even though I was a poor student academically and without a good vocabulary, two words captured my imagination: entrepreneur and philanthropist. These are what I aspire to become.
I feel I have been especially fortunate in my life, and I want to share my good fortune with as many others who share this planet as I can. The more I give, the better I feel.
The Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth) is a 1,700-bed healthcare system headquartered in Valhalla, New York, with 10 hospitals on eight campuses spanning 6,200 square miles of the Hudson Valley. WMCHealth employs more than 13,000 people and has nearly 3,000 attending physicians. The Network has Level 1, Level 2 and Pediatric Trauma Centers, the region’s only acute care children’s hospital, an academic medical center, Primary and Comprehensive Stroke Centers, several community hospitals, dozens of specialized institutes and centers, skilled nursing, assisted living facilities, homecare services and one of the largest mental health systems in New York State. Today, WMCHealth is the pre-eminent provider of integrated healthcare in the Hudson Valley. For more information about WMCHealth, visit WMCHealth.org.