The Economic Theory of Sandwiches
Chelsea Deli Kicks Corporate Ass
One day, when the world is ready, I will unveil my Sandwich-Based Theory of Global Economics. Did you know that the rise and decline of George W. Bush's impact on the international stage perfectly mirrors the explosive growth and rapid deterioration of the Quiznos chain? It's true! And, as we will demonstrate here, you'll never find a starker case study of relative consumer advantage and satisfaction in buying locally than sandwich shops.
Consider Seattle's newest corporate sandwich restaurant, the downtown branch of Potbelly Sandwich Shop. The unfortunately named chain—promotional materials insist the name was inspired by the stoves, "warm little outposts where folks could share a meal and some conversation," and not the obesity epidemic—is now in 13 states and the District of Columbia, with Washington at the very edge of its western sandwich frontier. And, like every other multi-state chain sandwich shop, the food is roundly terrible.
Five bucks will get you the Pizza Sandwich—pepperoni, meatballs, mushrooms, cheese, and sauce—and the Pizza Sandwich, I suppose, will get you full. But the bread is awful; it's the same mushed-together wet- toilet-paper consistency of Subway's bread. The tomato sauce may as well be pureed canned stewed tomatoes, the mushrooms are slimy flavorless slugs, and the meat is mushy and gray. If you have another five bucks, you can get "A Wreck®": salami, roast beef, turkey, and ham, along with cheese that claims to be "Swiss." It is a disgraceful excuse for a sandwich, a heap of factory-tasting meat heated to lukewarm. The decor at the downtown Potbelly Sandwich Shop is dark and forgettable, with a couple inexplicable photos of Jim Morrison adding a touch of dorm room to the seating area. It's garbage food—empty calories served artlessly for handfuls of change to weary people who will, or at least should, hate themselves later. Midwesterners are supposedly crazy about Potbelly—which, if true, is too depressing to contemplate.
Compare the soul-crushing Potbelly experience to what you get at Chelsea Deli in Columbia City's beautiful art deco Weed Building (you'll know you're looking at the Weed Building when you see the word "Weed" spelled out in ornate font in a crest at the top). Owner Dave Harris created the Other Coast Cafe in Ballard in 2000 and sold it off in 2005, and the Chelsea could be a sister of the Other Coast. It's entirely pleasant, clean, and simple, rightfully making the full-stocked deli case the star. Also, like the Other Coast, the sandwiches are fantastic.
Rule of thumb: When you eat at a sandwich joint for the first time, always order the sandwich that's named after the restaurant. Even in a worst-case scenario, if the restaurant is terrible, the sandwich is probably served a lot more than other items on the menu, so the ingredients are turned over quickly and the sandwich will be fresh. The Chelsea ($6.25 for a four-inch sub, $12.25 for an eight-inch) is a best-case scenario. It's a thick pile of sliced house-roasted turkey on a dense, fresh hoagie roll from Macrina, topped with tomatoes, pepper jack cheese, and onions, then slathered in a spicy chipotle mayonnaise. Served piping hot—all the hot sandwiches come out of the oven at a punishing temperature, so expect your patience to be tested or the roof of your mouth to be badly burned—it's a meaty, sloppy delight, sweet and spicy in equal proportions. This is a sandwich you name after your restaurant, because nobody else will ever duplicate the balance of ingredients and flavors that make the Chelsea work.
Not every sandwich at Chelsea Deli is a home run. The VegOut ($4.25/$8.25), for example, is just an unexciting side salad (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, peppers, and Thousand Island dressing) topped with coleslaw and shoved on a bun. There's no center to this sandwich; it's an aimless, unsatisfying affair. (Vegetarians should note that any meat on the menu can be replaced with Field Roast; that's the way to go.) And the Banh Mi Thighs ($5.25/$10.25) is very good—the chicken is fresh and juicy and hearty—but there are other very good banh mi options in Columbia City for far cheaper. Chelsea should allow its neighbors their areas of expertise and add something new and unexpected, more deli-like, to the banh mi experience instead.
But most of Chelsea's work is truly memorable. The Italian Meat Loaf ($6.25/$12.25) is a euphoric sandwich. The base is a monolithic slab of house-baked meat loaf—somehow, this mixture of ground beef and sausage is spongy and dense without being at all greasy—which, when topped with provolone and a tangy marinara, becomes one of those sandwiches you reminisce about after it's gone. You'll find yourself thinking, It couldn't have been that good, could it? It was.
What economic lessons can we learn, then, from the juxtaposition of Potbelly and Chelsea Deli? We learn that a corporate franchise can spend a small fortune advertising its food, but it can't make the cookie-cutter experience anywhere near delicious. We learn that quality costs a bit more, but only a little bit. For about a dollar extra, a Chelsea sandwich will fill you up better and provide you with the glow of a meal made with real food, full of nutrients and flavor, instead of the desperate scratch-itching filler that Potbelly dishes out. And we learn that money we spend close to home rewards us on a variety of levels, whereas money we spend in corporate outposts gets sucked up into a continent-sized vacuum, empty and cold.