Thursday, November 5, 2009
After 36 years, Erik’s DeliCafé locations continue to stack up like the meats on their sandwiches: On Monday, Nov. 2, the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony in downtown Monterey at the recently opened 28th location on Munras Avenue in the Trader Joe’s center. The 27th outpost opened in Seaside’s City Center last year; Salinas claims the area’s most venerable shop in the Santa Rita Plaza across from Northridge Mall.
A major reason the chain keeps adding links is that each location functions similarly to the original mom-and-pop operation that occupied 600 square feet.
Pacific Grove native Erik Johnson first opened Erik’s in 1973 in Scotts Valley with an outlay of $429. Johnson’s father would stir up slow-simmered, homemade soups and his mother and sister prepared deli items and baked goods. Johnson would often drive back and forth from Scotts Valley to Monterey in order to stock up on his father’s savory stews.
The down-to-earth staff and healthy food prepared from scratch without any preservatives – at reasonable prices – was the selling point then and now.
“S.Q.C.I.,” Johnson says. “Service, quality, consistency and integrity; that’s why [Erik’s] continues to be successful.”
Johnson contends that addiction to excellence meant Erik’s made no money in its first five years.
“I didn’t focus on the dollar, just the quality of the food,” he says.
The quirkiness of the sandwiches, and clever names like Marrakech Express ($6.49), which was the first of 14 different varieties, made the flavor more fun.
The names also make it easy to remember your favorite; mine is the Sweet Liberty ($5.99). The towering heap of turkey breast, Swiss cheese, red bell peppers, red onions, tomatoes and sprouts is piled on nine-grain wheat bread, and smeared with Erik’s sweet hot mustard, a revelation in the condiment realm.
The pasta salad ($2.29/small, $3.49/large) is a must, and accompanies virtually every meal I eat at Erik’s. The tri-colored pasta, mixed with sliced black olives, is soaked in a proprietary solution featuring olive oil and garlic. The pasta salad is also one of the standard ingredients in the house salad ($3.49/side; $5.49/full).
And the soup, still made from the recipes Johnson’s dad used, offers failsafe satisfaction ($3.29/cup, $4.29/bowl, $5.99/pot, $6.49/sourdough bread bowl, $8.99/quart to go). Erik’s soup staple is the “Texas Jailhouse” chili. It’s not an ordinary meaty and spicy chili; it features more of a bean-focused formula, drowned in a mild, tomato-based sauce.
Spice lovers can look to the “Kickin’ Chicken,” at least for a limited time. The southwestern stew bursts with unpeeled red potatoes and veggies, and has a real cowboy kick to it.
In the increasingly vegetarian-sensitive world, Erik’s takes pride in its meatless menu. The hearty vegetable soup – made with garden-fresh veggies and vegan vegetable stock – is a rewarding choice even for carnivores.
The Natural High ($5.99) is another tasty vegetarian selection: It’s an oven-heated wheat pocket stuffed with Monterey jack, cheddar cheese, avocado, sprouts, tomatoes, red onions, Erik’s “special goo” – crafted from 20 mostly secret ingredients – and an unexpected flurry of sunflower seeds.
The salad selections include three innovative choices, with the chicken gorgonzola ($6.99) topping my choice chart: A leafy garden salad mix awaits below a gang of grilled chicken breast, gorgonzola cheese and dried cranberries. The salad is topped with honey-maple walnuts and fat-free raspberry vinaigrette.
As far as fresh baked desserts, Whitney Lee, shift supervisor at the Erik’s in Seaside, describes the chocolate chip cookies ($1.49) as “melt-in-your-mouth goodness.”
Lee has worked at Erik’s for more than a year. She’s not only an employee, she’s a member of the fan base, which is out in force at 12:30pm on a Wednesday.
“[Erik’s] has a homey setting; it’s clean, the customers are nice, there’s good service and it’s healthy,” Lee says. “Best of all, there’s no grease.”
Little things help perpetuate that feel. On the wall behind the cash register hangs a photo of Johnson wearing his trademark, red-checkered chef’s hat, ascot, apron and a bearded smile. At all the locations drinks are served in mason jars, food is delivered to your table and the staff knows the needs of repeat customers.
“There’s a police officer who comes in here a lot and always wants a side of ranch dressing to dip his sandwiches in,” Lee explains. “Now I have it ready when he comes in.”
In a country where 2.2 billion soup-and-sandwich combos are consumed every year, that familial friendliness – parlayed with the homespun recipes, high quality breads and meats and the awfully good “goo” – make this company stand out.
ERIK’S DELICAFÉ 570 Munras Ave., #70, Monterey. 646-1515. • 840 Broadway Ave, Suite B-1, Seaside. 393-1818. • 1980 N. Main St., Salinas, 449-7272. • All locations open 9am-9pm Monday-Saturday, 10am-8pm Sunday.