April 22, 1998Former IU student serves up success, sandwiches at Dagwood's
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The sandwiches served up in Dagwood's Deli and Sub Shop, 116 1/2 S. Indiana Ave., are fat -- literally and figuratively.
They are fat in the literal sense because the sandwiches are chock full of meats, cheeses and vegetables. And they're "phat" figuratively, as in their taste. For the past five years, Dagwood's has been named best sandwich by The Bloomington Voice.
"It's been love at first sandwich," said senior Jeff Lowe about his four-year relationship with Dagwood's. "I bring people from out of town here. (Sometimes) I order from other places, and it just doesn't have the Dagwood's special sauce."
The man behind the special sauce is IU alumnus John Santos, founder and owner of the popular sub shop that opened in 1985.
Right before Santos graduated from IU with a business degree in the mid- '80s, he took a trip to Florida. Ironically, it was a midnight snack in a Subway chain store that provided the impetus for what eventually became Dagwood's.
"It was real late at night, and I had the munchies," Santos said. "I went to a Subway and thought, 'Man, this is really good food.' There wasn't any place like that at the time in the Midwest. The subs in Bloomington weren't the fat, stubby type."
Two factors piqued Santos' interest in opening his own business. First, he enjoyed his experience running the Residence Halls Association student services, the organization that rents out refrigerators and fans for students who live in the dorms.
Second, he loved going to school at IU. Santos realized he had very little desire to leave Bloomington after graduation.
"I had a job offer in San Antonio which I was going to take until I decided I had too many friends still in Bloomington," Santos said. "I was getting depressed about leaving and looking for an excuse to stay. (Dagwood's) wasn't supposed to be a full-time job, but as soon as we opened, I realized it was going to be a lot busier than I thought."
The name "Dagwood's" was the result of a brainstorming session he had with several friends. The group was trying to come up with names synonymous with subs, and they admired the way the character Dagwood made his enormous sandwiches in the comic strip "Blondie."
Dagwood's first day of business was a Sunday in March '85, right after the students returned from spring break. The store was tentatively scheduled to stay open until midnight, but the heavy volume of business dictated otherwise.
"As soon as the students came back, we got so swamped we ran out of food at 8 p.m.," he said. "I answered phones the rest of the night apologizing. Our regular delivery wasn't scheduled until Tuesday, and we had a lot of work looking for food just to get it open again Monday."
Because Santos put so much money into opening the store, he didn't have enough left for a sign. All that announced Dagwood's presence to the outside world was its name on the window, drawn by a friend of Santos who was an art student.
"Back then, it was a hole-in-the-wall. It still kind of is, but back then it was really a hole-in-the-wall," Santos said with a smile.
Since Santos opened Dagwood's, the competition for Bloomington's sandwich dollar has become stiffer. Several franchises including Subway and Blimpie have sprouted up in the city.
Despite Dagwood's popularity, Subway doesn't usually do anything special to offset the local competition, said Jay Fharda, Subway multi-unit operator.
But one shop that does knock heads frequently with Dagwood's for the sandwich dollar is Brad's Bagel and Deli, 1799 E. 10th St.
Santos said Brad's has changed to emulate Dagwood's during the years. But John LaBella, owner of Brad's, sees it a different way.
"They have real good sandwiches and a strong following, (but) they copy every move we make," LaBella said. "Every time we change our menu, they change to mimic ours. Every time we change prices, they change prices."
Since opening, its profits have almost quadrupled, but Santos' primary goal remains the same.
"The biggest enjoyment I get is when people compliment me on how good the sandwiches are," Santos said. "The satisfaction of people liking what you are doing is so much greater than any monetary rewards that you get off it."