Ike’s Place: the making of a sandwich superstar

July 12, 2012, 3:04 a.m.
Ike's Place: the making of a sandwich superstar
Ike Shehadeh, owner of Ike's Place on Stanford's campus near the Engineering Quad, started from humble beginnings and created one of the largest sandwich empires in the Bay Area. (KEVIN TSUKII/The Stanford Daily)

Ike Shehadeh had reached his breaking point.

The 29-year-old San Francisco native had dropped out of college to start a supermarket business, only to see it fall apart a few years later. He was sleeping anywhere he could, including in vans and on friends’ couches– pretty much anywhere he could find shelter. For months, he even called an abandoned warehouse without electricity his home.

“I felt terrible,” Shehadeh said, reflecting on the experience. “I needed to get out of there. I wanted to make sure that I was going to at least try my business.”

So on Halloween in 2007, just three months after he was bagging groceries at a local Trader Joe’s grocery store, Shehadeh opened up shop in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood — a modest 400-square-foot hole-in-the-wall sandwich eatery. He called it Ike’s Place.

That first night, Shehadeh didn’t sell a single sandwich.

“It was one of the worst days of my life,” he said.

Nearly five years later, customers who gorge themselves on one of the 20,000 mouth-watering sandwiches that Ike’s Place sells every week may be surprised by the restaurant’s humble beginnings. Far more remarkable, however, is the journey of its owner.

“I remember a moment, about three months before I opened up Ike’s, I thought about all of the things that I thought about growing up — about being something special,” he said. “I realized that maybe none of it was ever going to happen, maybe I wasn’t going to be anything, maybe I wasn’t meant  to be anything.”

Since hitting that emotional “rock bottom” in July of 2007, Shehadeh has taken steps to rebuild his life through his burgeoning business. Although he does not dwell on those times much anymore, Shehadeh derives a sense of sustained motivation from his experiences.

“Right now, I don’t really look back upon my past as a negative at all. I find it inspiring, he said. “I find it humorous. I find it refreshing — that I was able to be in all those places and still have the ability to not let it keep me.”

Having escaped from those places, Ike started his own place, and revisited his childhood in the process.

“When I was eight years old, I remember I would always turn my leftover meals into sandwiches,” he said. “So when I was looking to get into the food industry, I just wanted to open up a sandwich place.”

And Shehadeh made sandwiches. Lots of them.

The eclectic menu, which features hundreds of distinct offerings, indirectly resulted from Shehadeh’s lack of spending money as a young restaurateur. When he first opened Ike’s Place, Shehadeh could only afford to “eat in” at his own restaurant.

“Eating three to five sandwiches a day, I was definitely looking for some more variety, so the menu started expanding,” he said.

Shehadeh claims to have eaten 1,000 of his own sandwiches in 2008, including the No. 1 Elvis Kieth (halal chicken, teriyaki sauce, wasabi mayo and Swiss cheese) sandwich for 90 consecutive days.

An avid sports enthusiast, Shehadeh has also invented sandwiches representing some of the San Francisco Giants pitchers, such as the “Matt Cain,” which was named ESPN’s greatest sports sandwich in the country for 2011. This past year, he developed a sandwich in the likeness of a San Francisco 49ers player in exchange for NFC Championship tickets.

“It was a good trade… for both of us,” Shehadeh chuckled.

Apart from the variety present in the menu, many other elements of Shehadeh’s life before fame have revealed themselves in Ike’s Place, including the one ingredient slathered onto all of his sandwiches: his secret “dirty sauce.” The “especially delicious” mayonnaise-based spread is a variation of a sauce he invented by accident while still the manager of his supermarket business.

“A customer came in and they wanted me to make them garlic bread, but I didn’t have the ingredients to make garlic bread– I didn’t have garlic,” he said. “And so we mixed this sauce. It was a little bit of every single spice we had in the deli.”

When he is not managing one of his eight Ike’s Place locations, Shehadeh enjoys studying neuro-linguistic programming (a branch of psychotherapy), acupuncture, Chinese herbs and leadership. “Wherever it is I perceive I have a weakness, I study that,” he said.

With two new Bay Area storefronts opened in the past two weeks, business is booming. But how far will Shehadeh take it?

“As long as there’s a demand, there’s going to be a next store; I’m really taking it location by location,” he said. “And if it stops today, I’d still feel blessed with a wonderful life.”

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