In the early days, to get a sandwich at Ike’s named in your honor, you had to be a friend, relative, idol, or somebody on Ike Shehadeh’s “frenemy” list. Nearly 100 stores and 900 combinations later, and the process, while more wide-ranging, isn’t all that less discerning. Celebrities and athletes flood Shehadeh’s social DMs. Family members bug him. Employees who clock five years are given the chance to make one. If somebody invents a combo that can’t be passed up, like the “Meatless Mike” (vegan meatballs, marinara, pepper jack), it might get in the lineup, too.
But sandwich naming logistics aside, as the 2007-founded brand approaches the century milestone, the fact it still matters so much is telling, Shehadeh says. While some restaurant brands tap famous figures to endorse their products, Ike’s has the opposite effect. “Actually, the honor is getting the sandwich,” Shehadeh says. “Being paid is getting the sandwich named after you.”
It’s been a non-conforming story since the beginning. Shehadeh wanted to get in business for himself and escape the corporate arm. He had one parameter: If he was going to trade time for money, as is often the case in startups, Shehadeh needed a career where he wouldn’t quit because he wasn’t getting rich.
On the list he sketched was “feeding people.” The original Ike’s had a full espresso bar and opened from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. It lived inside an old ice cream shop. So Shehadeh stood outside and gave away dessert. When the store opened, it was the first thing customers asked for. Ike’s served wild milkshakes before the category went mainstream with companies like Milk Bar and Black Tap. There were also breakfast sandwiches, bagels, croissants, and salads.
Yet over time, the only thing customers left reviews for were sandwiches. Since the store was only 400 square feet, Shehadeh decided to make room for the product “people were actually buying.” Salads left. So did Lattes (Shehadeh didn’t have to wake up at 7 any longer).
As three-hour lines snaked outside, Ike’s knew ice cream had to go, too. In went another sandwich table, and the brand morphed from an all-day café to strictly a sandwich joint. That happened in about eight months.
Shehadeh’s playbook was basically that he didn’t have one. Everything came from demand and reaction. When one store was packed, with two-hour waits during the week, he decided Ike’s needed another so it could stop saying no. By Year 3, there were three. “It wasn’t to make money, even though I knew that would eventually turn into money,” Shehadeh says of growth. “It’s not like I wanted to do it for free. But I would do it for free. And I thought, in the mission of feeding people, rejecting people wasn’t what I wanted.”
There were times tourists showed up after closing and asked for a sandwich before they headed home. Shehadeh turned the oven back on. “That’s how much I was into sandwiches,” he says.
Ike’s second restaurant opened at Redwood Shores through a partnership with Oracle. The third in the Forbes Family Café space at Stanford, a space where the money was donated by the Forbes family to bring the brand over.
“It was a combination of demand, but also I didn’t know that opening three stores in three years is something remarkable,” Shehadeh says. “It’s just opening three, one-store locations.”
As he bounced around locations, Shehadeh hired people to handle tasks that would have kept him from doing what he set out to do. He brought on employees for scheduling, payroll, and other administrative efforts—most out of pocket. Ike’s wasn’t profitable for roughly two years. If you count Shehadeh not getting paid, it was losing money, “because every time money came in,” he says. “I’d hire more people.”
But the investment freed Shehadeh up to stay creative and pass out sandwiches instead of getting bogged down in the office. And that’s been his job since about 2012— Shehadeh leads the culture, marketing, and connective elements of the brand, and the business aspects are directed by others, like CEO Michael Goldberg, the former COO of Fresh Brothers Pizza who came over in 2019, and VP of development Adam Rinella, an industry vet who served as SVP of development at SBE Hospitality before joining in summer 2021.
“I’m a glorified mascot or sandwich passer-outer, or a chef, even,” Shehadeh says. “Those are my roles, and to be the front-facing-forward person. But also, all the food is through me and all the connections and collaborating with folks are through me, whether it’s a celebrity or somebody who is on their five-year anniversary.”
Ike’s expanded by 14 stores in 2022 after growing by six in 2021 and seven in COVID-saddled 2020. That carried the chain to 94 year-end outlets, with plans to cross 100 by Q1 of next year.
Average gross sales at affiliated-operated restaurants last year were $986,436 per store, with 48 percent of units meeting or surpassing that figure. The highest 10 percent of locations averaged $1.628.320 million. For franchises, of which there were only six headed into 2023, those numbers were $611,152 and $1.300.151 million, respectively.
Ike’s expanded to seven states, including its home California market (the brand was founded in San Francisco)—Utah, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Texas, Florida, and Colorado.
When Rinella arrived, the brand had already opened five stores and had six on deck for the rest of the year. At SBE Hospitality, he worked to identify new store sites for multiple brands, oversaw construction and facilities for the company, and set budgets that resulted in overall costs reduced by 20 percent. What he noticed about Ike’s, he recalls, was the chain busted category hallmarks. Unlike other sandwich brands, which are often defined by convenience, people sought Ike’s. The Dutch Crunch bread with Ike’s Dirty Sauce and hundreds of options were destination markers. That made Ike’s real estate plan a bit different than most.
In his past job, Rinella says, he’d approach development with a radius. Essentially, draw a circle the company was comfortable placing stores. But Ike’s could erase that construct since it didn’t seem capable of cannibalizing itself. “Which, in fast casual, quick service, is pretty unheard of us,” he says, “especially in sandwiches.”
To put it plainly, people get in their cars and travel for Ike’s. Rinella has tried to be proactive given he doesn’t have to seed demand. The company searches for second-gen space to get open as quickly as possible.
One of Rinella’s roles is to build relationships across markets with landlords and influential brokers, he says. This way, as tenants’ leases come up, Ike’s begins to have conversations before the location is ready to turn over. “We can get way ahead of that,” he says. “Identify those opportunities off market before they’re available to anybody, negotiate these leases, sign these leases, design them, get them permitted.” And when the previous lease runs its course, Ike’s hopes in and opens within eight weeks.
Ike’s has opened nearly 30 restaurants in two or so years. “And we have a pretty big pipeline ahead of us,” Rinella says.
What’s in a sandwich (name)?
Shehadeh was a fan of Quiznos and some of its outlier DNA, like toasting bread in those days. But he wasn’t in love with how the chain named sandwiches. Akin to peers, from local delis to four-digit franchises, you’d order what you were eating. Steak and cheese. Tuna melt. Etc.
“I thought it was lame,” Shehadeh says.
Ike’s had a menu before it had a concept. It was 25 sandwiches, 10 veggies, and 10 breakfast. Those 45 options gave Shehadeh a lot of chances to break convention. His brother, sister, mom, dad, and childhood friends all got sandwiches. Generally, a sandwich might just remind him of somebody and, more often than not, he says, the muse would agree with his choice. And then, to an earlier point, if Shehadeh didn’t like somebody, he might make light of that in sandwich form as well.
The end result was a menu with options like the No. 1: Elvis Keith, with Halal Chicken, Teriyaki, Wasabi Mayo, Swiss. Or No. 6. Hot Momma, with Halal Chicken, Buffalo Wing Sauce, Ranch, Provolone (all sandwiches are served hot with dirty sauce).
Beyond his circle, however, Shehadeh started studying the neighborhood he was going to open in and draw on his past. MLB legend Barry Bonds was his favorite player growing up. The No 25. Barry Bonds is made with Turkey, Bacon, Swiss.
What ended up happing is athletes would walk in and see a teammate on the board. They’d want in. Today, Shehadeh says, his list of people asking for a sandwich in so lengthy Ike’s is scheduling drops in advance so a flood of options doesn’t land at once.
And again, you could also just create an amazing sandwich—the Meatless Mike option was developed by somebody named, naturally, Mike. “That’s probably the easiest way; make me fall in love with your food,” Shehadeh says. “The second easiest way is be inspiring to me specifically. I don’t care what you’ve done. If I find it inspiring, that’s an easier way to get a sandwich named after you. And the last way is to be like a relative and beg me every single day for 15 years and then I’ll let you design one.” The final way, as noted previously, is to work at the brand for five years. That creation might not make it on the menu, but anybody in the know can order it.
While the options were once laid out in order by number, it’s veered over the years. Athletes ask for their jersey number, or their number backward, or their number repeated, and on it goes. NBA icon Steph Curry to NFL running back Austin Ekeler. There are sandwiches in the 3000s. Either way, Shehadeh says, he’s a believer in giving different builds, particularly vegetarian options, their own distinction so employees don’t get crossed up trying to substitute key elements. He saw that as an inefficiency. “There’s no mistake now,” Shehadeh says. “You say Handsome Owl [Vegan Chicken, Teriyaki, Wasabi Mayo, Swiss], you’re not going to get meat.” There are probably 300 sandwiches that could be vegan if somebody wanted.
CEO Goldberg says there were other things to shore up when he onboarded four and half years ago. The brand didn’t have the infrastructure in place to take it from a regional icon to a 100-unit concept and beyond (there were about 37 stores at the time). Goldberg set out to reinforce the cult fervor with something lasting. He put in an HR and accounting department. Ops team. CMO. Ike’s then moved its support center from San Jose to Long Beach, brought on Rinella, a senior VP of ops, store openers, trainers, and began to bolster the digital side of the business. Up next, he adds, is a robust POS system. Ike’s recently linked with Restaurant365 on its back-office work and tapped SOCi to bring visibility to reviews, from collection to response.
These moves will allow Ike’s to build on its organic base. Shehadeh says the Stanford opening and brand’s affinity with athletes scored some early, game-changing deals that have set the stage. Mark Appel, a former No. 1 overall MLB draft pick who pitched for the Houston Astros, opened an Ike’s in 2019 in the city’s Heights neighborhood. He opened a second in 2022.
Shehadeh says Appel called him after getting drafted and simply asked how they were going to get the brand to Houston. That’s how it arrived in Texas. NFL star and current analyst Richard Sherman, while with the Seattle Seahawks, sent an email along a similar vein. Former Sherman teammate Marshawn Lynch got the brand to Vegas, along with boxer Andre Ward. Ike’s went to San Diego because customers demanded it. L.A. because of UCLA.
It opened in Phoenix because Arizona State University discovered the brand while playing Stanford, and wanted one on its campus. “It’s like somebody influential says hey, we will make it happen, you just tell us what you need,” Shehadeh says. “It’s kind of like I want you, what do you want? I feel like the good-looking person at prom and everybody wants to dance.”
Rinella says Ike’s is now focused on infilling current markets, of which there’s no shortage of runway. SoCal isn’t close to tapped out. But thanks to the outreach thus far, it can look at markets like Phoenix down to Texas where there’s only a few stores and build outward. The company is doing due diligence in the Pacific Northwest, Nashville, and Charlotte. It’s a tandem view of bringing something different to new areas while riding brand awareness in established ones.
“For me, I think the brand is really at a tipping point,” he says. “We’re hitting 100 units next quarter. The sales are incredible. Even in our legacy markets, it just goes up and up. We’re building new channels, like catering, focusing on the digital part of the business has been huge. It’s getting beyond being regional. People know about Ike’s, even if we’re not near them.”
One of the interesting things about Ike’s is it’s a brand rooted in helping guests discover what they want. They’ll tell you what to eat versus laying out the options and letting you create it. That authentic path, Shehadeh says, has led customers to the variety and craveability of the menu, and to coming back. It’s a tick of the brand that’s not going anywhere, despite where it expands, he says. “The care for other people is athletic. The wanting of you to make sure you get the perfect sandwich for you is authentic,” he says. “So it does resonate really, really well with other folks.”