When an Intoxicating Sandwich Rules Big Decisions: Erik’s DeliCafe Catering
- Sarah Gurr
- 4 Min Read
When You Feed a Man a Good Roast-Beef Sandwich: Erik’s DeliCafe Catering
When word went around almost six years ago that a local deli was for sale, Sam Ashknaz’s heart began to pound. By luck, the notice had created a dose of suspense. The deli had made his favorite sandwich, an intoxicating roast-beef sandwich consisting of brawny roast beef, pepper-jack cheese, green peppers, and nutty alfalfa sprouts pressed between a toasted onion roll. You could say Ashknaz was a fan. That the deli was now for sale existed almost exclusively as a dare. He wanted the deli, he put a bid in, he got the restaurant.
Some lives are straightforward: a decision made, then followed through the course of one’s career. Ashknaz’s story is not straightforward, though it easily could have been had he remained in the technology sector with his former employer Hewlett-Packard. After years of this, he completely reversed his course and quit his job. “I wanted to own my own business. So that’s what I did,” Ashknaz said of his decision in 2012 to purchase Erik’s DeliCafe in Cupertino. “It’s been successful. I’m happy and I’ve never looked back.”
Ashknaz is intriguing. Most notably because in radically reimagining his life, he was brave enough to exceed himself and transcend expectations. It takes an amazing amount of flexibility, foremost toughness, to do that—particularly when your former life (enterprise information technology) seems incongruous with the new one ahead (operating a restaurant).
A Coat of Paint and Lofty Ambitions at Erik’s DeliCafe Catering
Rather than be thrown off balance by restaurant operations, Ashknaz delved into it, made it his. One thing he didn’t like about the restaurant he purchased was that it looked dowdy after thirty years of business, so he applied a fresh coat of mango-colored paint to perk up the walls. He remodeled the interior, adding new wood furniture and a sleek deli counter, which regulars applauded him for. Then in 2015 Erik’s DeliCafe expanded into catering.
“People were asking me more and more for deliveries,” Ashknaz said. “I thought, why can’t we get into that and start? Once we did, our business started growing by 20–35 percent, just with delivery.”
His pièce de résistance: An intricate quality-control system he developed to ensure that catering orders are always correct. “There are three tiers,” Ashknaz said, proudly. Under the system, his staff hover over orders and make their rotations checking tickets against lunch boxes and sandwich platters of geometrical arrangements. Every order is checked at least three times during production by a team who, ever faithful to quality and precision, ask themselves, Do I have everything, is this correct, am I making the right food, is the order complete? Even the delivery drivers honor the system: they’re accountable for driving off with the right kinds of soups and sandwiches. It sounds like a lot of work, but the system noticeably improved operations at Erik’s DeliCafe; complaints and mistakes tapered off.
Despite these changes the menu remains the same. Why fiddle with something eaters love? Erik’s DeliCafe continues to do American-style deli food, with refined adjustments on classic soups and sandwiches, like the Turkey Walnut Pesto, a sandwich that sings because of its house-made walnut aioli, a delicious nut-buttery garlic sauce, perfect for anyone who’s interested in being startled by a turkey sandwich.
The Future, No Longer a Mystery
Ashknaz is only five years into his work, but things are looking good. Erik’s DeliCafe in Cupertino has become a shrine to great soups and sandwiches and was just named a winner in ezCater’s 2018 “Best of San Jose” category for caterers. The restaurant has also been invited to showcase its food in March at the ezFoodFest in San Jose, a food festival sponsored by ezCater for the food and restaurant community. The success of Erik’s DeliCafe is proof that the risks Ashknaz took paid off.
I spoke to Ashknaz one morning right before lunch prep. I called him from the East Coast, and throughout the conversation he was polite, bright, affable, and insistent on how much he loves the clam chowder that his deli serves (“It’s thick, creamy, got a real seafood taste. It’s filling.”) and how much he appreciates his staff. He loves his staff so much in fact that he lengthened the tail end of our phone call just to praise them. He told me that it took some time to build the right team at Erik’s DeliCafe, but now he has this he’s grateful for their support. “My personal relationship with my staff is great, and we have great team work and an understanding. Our goal is to make sure that all our customers walk out happy,” he said.
By the end of our interview I only had one question. It was a personal question, one I almost hesitated to ask. “Why a restaurant,” I said, our time nearly up.
“I always wanted to own a restaurant. I’m a good cook and I enjoy eating. I make lots of good curries,” he offered.
The answer sounded a little too neat for my liking, and I think he must have sensed this from my lengthy pause. Then he shared this splendid bit: Central to his formative years are his memories of food. Many days as a child he stood beside his mother in the kitchen as she showed him a new recipe and the two cooked alongside each other to make classic Indian dishes. It was an education of sorts, but I got the sense from the lift in his voice that the experience had spun his senses around as only food can. For Ashknaz, it may be that food is his crucial connection. It made me wonder whether his journey from HP to restaurant life was in part an homage to the spirit of these days. I can’t say for sure, but if it is, he honors his mother and the boy who cooked alongside her.
When the frazzled and hungry go sniffing out for foodstuffs: Erik’s DeliCafe Catering
Ravenous lunch goers can still dream about fabled mountain-high sandwiches and have those dreams realized. At Erik’s DeliCafe catering, sandwiches are voluminous, layered with meat, vegetables, and smeared with creamy, tangy condiments. Here are some of their most popular catering items. The catering package serves thirty. Salads and sandwiches come in individual servings, box lunches, or group orders.
- The Casual Entertainer Package is a bevy of neatly packaged and sandwiched edibles. The package includes your choice of 30 assorted sandwiches, a house salad, your choice of a deli salad, and desserts. Sandwiches are simple, flavorful combinations, like Erik’s DeliCafe’s Rio Grande Club, a turkey sandwich topped with hickory-smoked bacon (with just a whisper of meaty smoke) and buttery pepper-jack cheese, and moistened with guacamole and a secret sauce, on toasted ciabatta roll. Add a round of carbonated drinks, and the afternoon becomes a joy.
- Sandwiches are the lifeblood of any productive office. That’s why we think Erik’s DeliCafe’s Classic Sandwich Box Lunches will bring a keener sense of purpose to the workplace. Far superior to the sad desk lunch, each box lunch contains your choice of a sandwich, chips, and a cookie (because adding a cookie works in everyone’s favor).
- If you need to turn to an occasion for comfort and joy, have at the Turkey Walnut Pesto Sandwich, patterned with pretty avocado slices, shaved turkey breast, Monterey Jack (the mild, ivory-butter colored cheese), crunchy sprouts, on top of a thick stripe of house-made walnut aioli, smeared on hearty 9-grain wheat bread. You’ll find people slinking off for seconds.
- Office workers who want to drown their sorrows in a pile of pastrami and turkey should order the Pot Belly, a sandwich that unifies textures and flavors. Erik’s DeliCafe piles the sandwich high: grainy tender pastrami alternates with slices of lean turkey breast, Monterey Jack cheese, bracing red onions, tomatoes, and crunchy locally sourced sprouts, all sandwiched in freshly baked sourdough. Those who’ve had the flavorful Pot Belly sandwich find themselves begging for it week after week.
- If you want to taste unbridled flavors, Erik’s DeliCafe’s Thai Chicken Wrap starts with a lemongrass-suffused tortilla, a tender parcel to the most beautiful offerings: hearty slices of chicken breast, buttery-ripe mango, red bell peppers, an aromatic trio of mint, cilantro, and scallions, peanuts for crunch, and a spicy peanut sauce for oomph.
- Erik’s DeliCafe also has soups galore for what ails you. The Butternut Squash, blended with sweet potatoes and finished with heavy cream, a dollop of honey, and woody fresh sage, can revive anyone at the office on the rainiest of days. Ashknaz’s favorite is the New England Clam Chowder, made with chopped sea clams and finished with fresh herbs, spices, and a hint of cayenne. The chowder is so powerfully appealing that even Ashknaz can’t get enough of it—even though he’s owned Erik’s DeliCafe for five years.
- Remember, finally, that people will happily sit through a sales pitch, so long as they are given a crisp cookie. At Erik’s DeliCafe, cookies are crisped perfectly, just so the edges darken. Order the Chocolate Chip Cookies, which serve a dozen, or the chewy Double Fudge Brownies. And maybe remember that sandwiches are best when washed down with a carbonated drink. The soft drinks are so cold they bead with condensation.
Intoxicating sandwiches can bring a keener sense of purpose to the workplace. Hungry?