Ideal’s Sandwich & Grocery | 2108 Angier Ave, Durham 

If you’re trying to find Ideal’s Sandwich & Grocery, don’t bother looking for a sign—look for a line.

The shop’s exterior looks exactly the same as it did sixty years ago, save for some fading, with a 1940s red-brick facade and a roof-mounted board posing a large Pepsi logo next to the words “Andrew’s Kountry Kitchen.”

The only indicator that the building isn’t abandoned is a modest chalkboard in the window listing the new restaurant’s hours—and, if you’re there around noon on a weekend, the Disneyworld-length queue of customers streaming out the door.

Ideal’s has sold out of sandwiches nearly every day since it opened, two months ago, on Angier Ave in East Durham. The shop’s rapid rise in popularity was perhaps most surprising to its owners, Ian Bracken and Paul Chirico, who say their lack of branding was intentional; they declined interviews with the press, refrained from spending money on marketing, and left their storefront untouched in hopes of staying underground. Temporarily, at least.

“We wanted to wait until we were more presentable,” Chirico says, explaining that he and Bracken were waiting to receive money from a Durham revitalization grant and couldn’t yet cover the costs of the deli case, coolers, and other fixtures that would make up the shop’s grocery section. They didn’t want to open in stages, but grant money was lagging.

“So we said, ‘let’s just open with sandwiches,’ Chirico says. “We’re not gonna advertise, we’re not gonna tell anyone, we’ll make an Instagram post and that’s it.”

This post then led to two truisms: One, there’s nothing more alluring than something that doesn’t want to be found. Two, never underestimate the power of a good sandwich photo.

The sandwiches at Ideal’s, with their oozing cross-sections, are droolworthy, partly by nature—in classic, North East deli fashion, they’re offered on hoagie rolls or pressed focaccia and stratified with even portions of meats, cheeses, and condiments—but also by nurture.

The bread is baked fresh by Bracken every morning (“We make bread for sandwiches, not sandwiches out of bread,” is one of the shop’s mantras) and to call it merely a “vehicle” for the sandwiches’ ingredients would be a grave injustice. Eating an Ideal’s sandwich sans bread would be like carving the minerals out of a geode; sure, the insides can stand on their own, but the outer casing is integral to the magic.

Regarding fillings, Chirico says there are two main tenants: “even amount of meat, cheese, and whatever else is in there,” and “condiments on both sides, all the way to the edges.”

On the Uncle Primo, for example, a generous shmear of herbed mayo flanks equal portions of fresh mozzarella, prosciutto di parma, and arugula salad, each matching the width of the sandwich’s crown jewel, a fried-to-order chicken cutlet.

Chirico and Bracken’s affinity for North East-style sandwiches is rooted in their upbringings; they were raised in New York and Boston, respectively, and each has one Italian side of the family.

Their shop is named for Bracken’s grandfather, Ideal Saldi, whose own story, though also conveyed on the shop website, is too compelling to omit here: born on April Fools’ Day (alongside a twin sister named Idea), Ideal Saldi formed a union for the paperboys at six years old and hasn’t slowed down since; now eighty-seven, he works full-time running his own greenhouse. Bracken calls him a “true inspiration of humility, kindness, and hard work,” and hopes to sell roses at Ideal’s in his honor.

Chirico and Bracken started tossing around the idea of Ideal’s more than ten years ago. In their early days of friendship as classmates at the Culinary Institute in New York, they frequented a deli and sandwich shop called Rossi’s, where they developed a fondness for both the cuisine and the friendly neighborhood atmosphere.

If they ever ended up in the same place, they vowed, they would start a business that emulated Rossi’s.

“A few years ago, I called Ian and was like, ‘Hey, I’m moving to Charlotte,’ and he was like, ‘Wait, I’m moving to Durham,’” Chirico says.

Chirico spent a few months in Charlotte helping his brother open a cocktail bar, but as soon as he and Bracken decided to make Ideal’s a reality, he started renting a house in East Durham.

While searching for a location, they discovered the vacant building on Angier Avenue in East Durham that formerly housed Andrew’s Kountry Kitchen, a family-run restaurant that closed more than a decade ago. Before making the purchase, they talked to other business owners on the street, including Joe, of Joe’s Diner, the Russells, of Russell’s Pharmacy, Derrick, who owns The Nest, and Jason, from CFB4Life.

“We met everybody in the neighborhood before we bought the building to make sure nobody had an issue with us being here,” Bracken says.

Bracken says he is acutely aware of the gentrification that has pushed many longtime homeowners out of the area.

“The development around here is nuts, and there’s no stopping it,” Bracken says. “How can we help? We can buy a building and we can hold that shit down.”

In January, at the city council meeting where Bracken requested a revitalization grant, council members shared concerns over the shop’s proposed location—specifically, how he and Chirico planned to make their business accessible to East Durham residents.

Bracken told the council that “community building is the basis of our business,” stating that he’s committed to making Ideal’s affordable—they’ll always have a $5 sandwich on the menu, he said—and eager to connect with the neighborhood. Now, after being open for a few months, Bracken feels he’s kept his word.

“It’s very personable, you can just say what’s up,” says Bracken. “There’s no disconnect. Gentrification, in the grand scheme of things, is a giant disconnect between developers and the communities they develop in.”

Keeping prices low with rapidly rising food costs is tricky, he adds, but he and Chirico are willing to take the hit. And by including a grocery in their shop—which, upon receiving the grant money in August, is mostly filled out—Bracken and Chirico hope to provide the community with a resource that it’s been missing.

“Part of doing this in East Durham is that this is considered a food desert,” Chirico says. “We want to supply groceries to a neighborhood that doesn’t have any grocery stores.”

Though the shop is limited by space, its grocery area manages to squeeze in most of the basics—there’s fresh produce, milk, eggs, cheese, pasta, bread, and wine—as well as a number of imported Italian goods that aren’t available at chain stores. The deli case is still in the works, but once completed, will hold a variety of house-made salads, pasta dishes, and meats.

At the January meeting, council members had also expressed unease that Bracken didn’t intend to pay employees a living wage, to which he responded, “A lot of people get into that living wage thing by guaranteeing a specific amount of tips,” and, “If we have the profits to pay people $15 an hour, that will be the first thing on my agenda.”

In a conversation with the INDY this month, Bracken and Chirico echoed this sentiment. With tips, their employees are currently making close to $15 an hour, Chirico says, but until their numbers are more solid, they don’t want to claim to be paying a wage that may vary week to week.

“Once we’re making profit, all that profit is going toward raises for everyone who’s working here, and doing cool shit,” Bracken says.

Said “cool shit” potentially includes a rooftop garden, which they aim to start building in the spring. Chirico says they’ve been inspired by pharmacy owner Darius Russell, who’s “always volunteering his time,” and foresee the garden as a space to collaborate with Russell on holding nutrition and cooking classes for students in the East Durham Children’s Initiative.

Chirico and Bracken have also connected with Durham Tech to offer culinary school students externship opportunities at Ideal’s, and are working to impart as much cooking knowledge as possible to their staff.

“They have no problem being generous with the knowledge they have, the resources they have,” says employee Shay Hendricks.

When Hendricks came in for a job interview, they say, Bracken referred to them using they/them pronouns before asking which they preferred.

“As a person who is gender nonconforming and still learning what that means to me, that was very important,” Hendricks says. “That was something I wasn’t even receiving from people who looked like me. So for him to give me that not knowing me, it meant a lot.”

As of now, Hendricks is one of just two employees at Ideal’s, but two more will be joining the team in October, including a new baker who Bracken says will up their bread production enough that the shop will hopefully only sell out “very rarely.”

The new employees will also help Ideal’s work toward expanding its hours—the shop is currently only open about three hours a day, or until they sell out—to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week.

And, as part of shifting away from their stint as a sandwich speakeasy, Bracken and Chirico are working on putting up a sign that actually says their restaurant’s name. Bracken is getting married in October and, he says, Grandpa Ideal will be in town for the wedding.

“I know my grandfather’s gonna come in here with one hand in his left pocket, juggling change like an old Italian guy,” Bracken says. “My mom wants his name on the building by the time he gets here.”

They plan to refurbish the Andrew’s Kountry Kitchen sign so it looks the same but with new lettering.

“I like that it’s very unassuming,” Bracken says. “That’s our whole thing.” 

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