SAN FRANCISCO — As 2007 was drawing to a close, Ike Shehadeh looked out upon a dismal future. A year later, he was basking in foodservice success in an industry known for quick failures.
Shehadeh, 31, had been in real estate. Foreclosures in Northern California outnumbered home sales by a wide margin.
It was an equally difficult time for his mother, Huda, who after 12 years with Ready Pac Foods Inc. lost her position when the Irwindale-based fresh-cut produce firm downsized its marketing department.
Survival became Ike's Place, a sandwich shop with locations a couple of blocks south of Market Street in San Francisco's Castro district and in a semiresidential neighborhood, where it is tucked between a sometimes-open sushi restaurant and an auto repair garage.
Huda knew the fresh produce industry. Ike was a novice in foodservice.
"But when I was in college I became pretty creative," he said. "I just used whatever I could find in the refrigerator."
Meat, vegetarian and vegan
When it first opened in October 2007, Shehadeh was the only employee, and Ike's Place had 26 sandwiches on the menu.
"We now offer more than 200 sandwiches in three categories: meat, vegetarian and vegan," Shehadeh said.
The names on the menu are as creative as the sandwiches: Napoleon Complex; Menage a Trois; Fat Bastard; Ooey, Gooey & Louie; and Hot Mama Huda. Each contains Ike's secret Dirty Sauce.
The grand opening marketing plan was to hire a couple of high school kids to stand on nearby corners and hand out coupons good for a free beverage with the purchase of a sandwich.
"I had to put an end to that pretty quickly — I was selling so many sandwiches the free beverages were costing too much," Shehadeh said.
He also admits he called in reinforcements: his mother.
Today Ike's Place has a staff of more than a dozen, sells up to 1,000 sandwiches every week day and, with longer hours, sometimes twice that many on weekend days.
"We go through about 100 pounds of lettuce a day and about 80 pounds of tomatoes," Shehadeh said.
As most restaurants were struggling to survive the recession, Shehadeh added a second location early this year, and a third Ike's Place is planned on the Stanford University campus in 2010, he said.
Reinforcing his success have been news stories on Ike's Place on several Bay Area television stations, positive reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian newspapers, and more than 1,200 positive reviews on the Internet public review Web site Yelp. Ike's Place also was featured on the Travel Channel's "Man vs. Food."
"Ike's Place was born of the recession," Shehadeh said.
Equally as surprising as the sandwich shop's success is the lack of customer amenities. One step inside the door brings a patron to the order counter. A step to the right is a beverage cooler — no tables, no chairs in the roughly 35 square feet of public space. The company's administrative office — a chair and a laptop computer — is tucked into a corner of that space.
Customers place their orders and then wait outside for the sandwiches to be delivered to them. Many of the customers dine while sitting on the sidewalk, though there is room for a half a dozen of them at a couple of small sidewalk tables.
Shehadeh is working on an addition to his menu: 50 sandwiches each priced at $5 or less, he said. Also in development is a diet Dirty Sauce that he said will contain fewer than 12 grams of fat.
A fourth Ike's Place is in Shehadeh's strategic plan, but he is not scouring the city for a location.
"With all the publicity, the landlords are now coming to me," he said.
When that fourth sandwich shop opens, it just might have tables and chairs, Shehadeh said.
The Ike's Place Web site cautions customers to be prepared to wait up to 40 minutes for their orders, and scores of them do so — apparently for good reason.
As one reviewer on the Yelp Web site put it:
"It's what Quizno's would taste like in Heaven."