Keeping it simple
Straightforward sandwiches are the stars at small Palo Alto shop
Simply Sandwiches owner Rob Wimmel says he doesn't need to advertise for his business, a 250-square-foot sandwich shop on Ash Street that even he describes as a hole-in-the-wall place.
"We never felt like we needed to advertise because we're tucked away in a little corner and the only reason you'll ever know we're there is from the line out the door," he said. "That line is our advertisement."
The strategy seems to be working for Wimmell, who says his shop off California Avenue in Palo Alto has sold more than 700,000 sandwiches in 26 years and survived a recession that took a 25 percent bite out of business.
But he doesn't think his business has been hurt by its size, which helps him and his wife, Jeannie — the shop's only workers — add a personal touch to sandwich making.
"We must know hundreds of people by their first names, and they come back because we know them and they know us," he said. "It's the most important part and it makes it really fun to come to work."
While a close connection to the community is crucial to the shop's success, Wimmell said he couldn't operate without his wife, in part because of her remarkable memory. "Jeannie is basically the secret to our success," he said. "People will come in who we haven't seen in five or 10 years and she'll know what their first names are and what ingredients they want in their sandwiches.
"Typically we'll have a line out the door and she'll see someone who she knows in line and have their sandwich made for them by the time they get to the counter, without even asking."
The shop's small size is also a boon to the business financially. Wimmell said he pays normal market values for his location's mortgage, but the fact that his shop is so small makes it relatively cheap compared to surrounding venues.
Wimmell bought the shop from friends in 1985, when each of the menu's five sandwiches cost $2.25. Now they're typically around $5 to $7.
"We started it as a sideline business and then this little hole-in-the-wall became the best business we owned," he said.
At the time, Wimmell owned four Supercuts hair salons in Florida and San Jose, and Jeannie Wimmell operated Simply Sandwiches. In 2004, he sold his Supercuts locations and went to work for his wife.
Rob and Jeannie met in Berkeley in the early 1970s, when she was studying biology and he was studying business. He became a buyer for U.S. Steel and other businesses and she became a geophysicist at BP until she was laid off.
"It was either that or move to Alaska," he said of his wife's layoff. "We a bought a home in Danville and raised two kids there. My aspirations were always for my own little business and it worked out well."
Wimmell said that in 2009, the recession took a quarter of the business because of high vacancy rates nearby. To get by, the Wimmells began offering catering to businesses and took no vacations until business began to improve in 2011.
"A lot of young people started coming back who were working for high-tech and we've seen a turnaround that elevated the business back 25 percent," he said. "In 2012 we're expecting even more of an increase."
Catering still doesn't represent a large portion of the business — only 5 to 10 percent — but Simply Sandwiches has regular catering accounts with Stanford, Palo Alto Medical Center, Palo Alto Union School District and Hewlett Packard Co.
During the shop's 26-year history under the Wimmells, it has never expanded and never hired employees, but Wimmell said that's OK.
"We've thought about it in the past but decided against it; I'd need another wife," he said. "Making sandwiches isn't the most exciting thing in the world. It does get a repetitive but we're more than compensated by the people and customers who come to see us — some of them go back to 1985."
2435 Ash St., Palo Alto
Hours: Weekdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.