Catching up with Ike

April 22, 2011, 12:37 a.m.

Catching up with Ike
CELESTE NOCHE/The Stanford Daily

It’s a little after 11:30 a.m. on a drizzly Sunday, not exactly go-time for academic buildings here on campus. But in the Huang Engineering Center, a strange hodgepodge of people are queuing up around a plastic countertop — families with young kids, unshaven frat boys in ragged sweatpants squinting in the fluorescent lighting, mousy looking chemical engineers. And the 10-deep line is probably the shortest it’ll be all day. Some people go to church on Sunday mornings, but everyone here has come to worship at the altar of Ike’s Place, the sandwich shop that opened in the engineering center this past fall.

Recently, I met up with the über popular sandwich place’s eponymous owner, Ike Shehadeh, to find out a little bit more about a restaurant famously touted as actually too popular for its own good. By the time Ike’s opened on campus, it had already attained a sort of legendary status in the Bay Area food scene. The original Ike’s location, in San Francisco’s Mission District, boasts a staggering 3,164 Yelp reviews — most of which range from gushing (“SOOOO good”) to fanatical (“It was better than sex!!”). In fact, the original Ike’s became so popular it was forced to shut down after homeowners nearby complained about the mobs that would wait outside for hours at a time on weekend afternoons just to buy a sandwich, turning the stretch of sidewalk outside the small storefront into a bacchanal street fair during mealtimes.

Catching up with Ike
The Menage A Trois with halal chicken, real honey, honey mustard, barbecue sauce, pepper jack, swiss, and cheddar. (CELESTE NOCHE/The Stanford Daily)

It’s a problem that continues to plague Shahedeh even here on campus. Every time a Stanford student has raved to me about one of his sandwiches, they’ve also had to throw in that you need to budget at least two hours to get one because of the wait. I regularly hear people debating the most strategic times to go (for the record, Ike himself recommends 3 p.m. on Monday through Thursday or 10 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday for impatient patrons of the Stanford location).

But while Ike admits that the insane popularity of his franchise contributes to the line, he also says the care that goes into making each sandwich explains a large part of the wait.

“The wait naturally gets long during peak hours,” he explained. “But at Subway, you can get a sandwich in 10 minutes. That isn’t what we’re doing here.” He’s also fond of saying that an Ike’s sandwich is the antithesis of a Big Mac — they’re intensely customizable and made from scratch each time.

To help ease the wait, Ike’s recently came out with an iPhone app that allows customers to order sandwiches in advance and then stop by the store to pick them up at an assigned time. It’s unclear if the iPhone app is actually an effective way to score an Ike’s sandwich in under 30 minutes, but it’s an innovative touch nonetheless.

The iPhone app also reflects Ike’s deep commitment to brand promotion. Ike Shahedeh may make widely acclaimed sandwiches, but the appeal of Ike’s Place runs beyond the culinary offerings themselves. Walking with Ike through San Francisco, I was surprised by the number of people who stopped and waved at him. The man himself has become a piece of San Francisco — and now, with the opening of the Stanford and Redwood Shores locations, Bay Area lore. When his beloved San Francisco Giants (whose players are the namesakes for many sandwiches on the menu) miraculously made it to the World Series this past year, Ike posted an appeal on his website asking for tickets to the games in exchange for a sandwich named after the donor; people clamored at the chance to become a small part of his sandwich mythology. Perhaps most excitingly, Ike just started shooting the pilot for a reality TV series based on his burgeoning sandwich empire. Although he has yet to obtain the rights to film at his Stanford location, the cameras will be following Ike and his team in the new San Francisco store as they come up with new sandwich ideas and struggle to keep pace with the hungry masses’ insatiable demand.

“It’s a polarizing business,” he explained, referencing the controversy over his sandwiches’ popularity that inevitably boils up in residential areas. “And there’s actually a lot of drama” in the kitchen. Still, he tries to keep a low-key perspective about the whole experience “I still don’t think I’m a celebrity. I make sandwiches,” he said emphatically. “I’m just a guy who started a business that people like.”

Ike has no formal culinary training– “just my tongue,” he said with a shrug. Ike started out informally, making sandwiches for himself out of leftovers and smothering them with what has since become his infamous “dirty sauce” (the ingredients remain top secret). The first iteration of an Ike’s sandwich was the Teriyaki chicken wasabi mayonnaise sandwich, still a top-seller — he says it’s a sandwich he “wants to impress people with.”

Suggesting that a busy Stanford student set aside two hours in the pursuit of a food item their mom used to pack into a Power Rangers lunchbox every day before kindergarten isn’t exactly an intuitive move. But having been to Ike’s pretty regularly since its opening on campus, I find myself forced to repeat the party line: the wait really doesn’t matter, these sandwiches are just so good. And you never know — maybe Ike will give you a cameo on his new reality show.

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