was it the media or the meat that made ike’s famous?/photo by scott james

Empire of the Bun: Ike’s Unlikely Conquest

First he triumphed over NIMBY San Francisco neighbors, then City Hall. Now he’s bested a fast food giant. Still gonna dismiss this guy as just another 15 minutes of media contrived fame?

Talk about a David and Goliath story.

Ike’s, the once tiny San Francisco sandwich shop that became a hugely controversial foodie and media sensation, just beat out the behemoth of all sandwich makers: Subway.

In the next few weeks, Ike’s will take over one of the most coveted locations in Los Angeles, replacing Subway at 1151 Westwood Boulevard, right next door to UCLA in the city’s Westwood Village neighborhood. Ike Shehadeh, the eponymous sandwich shop owner, revealed the location in an interview, which until now had been kept secret out of respect for the Subway employees who will be displaced — he thought they should get the news from their employer, rather than read it in the media.

“They were trying hard to keep us out of that spot,” Shehadeh said of the battle with Subway (and other suitors) for the lease.

How Ike’s won the prime location is just the latest chapter in a saga that has captured the public’s imagination — an unlikely success story born of the social media age that has come to epitomize the reasons why San Francisco is both simultaneously admired and ridiculed.

Ike’s secured the Westwood spot after a campaign on Facebook that encouraged fans to email the property owner, asking her to rent the space to Ike’s after Subway’s lease expired. It was a risky move that Shehadeh admits could have backfired. “If she was going to get mad, she wasn’t going to rent to us anyway,” he said.

Instead, Shehadeh said, the landlord was impressed when she was flooded with 1,000 emails in favor of Ike’s. Such passion…for a sandwich shop? Soon the deal was signed.

When it opens it will be Ike’s first venture in Los Angeles, part of an expansion of at least five new restaurants opening this year, making for a total of 15, most in Northern California. A possible new shop could also happen soon in Tucson, Arizona, creating Ike’s first out-of-state eatery. The company now has 400 employees (like Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer, Shehadeh personally approves every new hire), and although Ike would not speculate on his empire’s value — it is a privately held company — it is likely worth in excess of $20 million today, with a potential of…?

“Ten billion dollars,” Shehadeh laughed.

And it all started in 2007 with sandwiches being sold out of doorway on 16th Street in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. There wasn’t even a place for diners to sit.

Some mistakenly believe that Ike’s extraordinary success has happened, in large part, because of news media attention — that the medium (and not the meal) is the message.

And I’m often credited with and criticized for much of that because I first reported on Ike’s in the mainstream news media, breaking the story in 2010 in The New York Times about a controversy that nearly drove the restaurant out of business. That story — about how crowds for sandwiches had become so large that neighbors complained that Ike’s had become a nuisance and should be closed — morphed into a months-long legal battle and full-blown public and media obsession in the Bay Area. I joked in my writing back then that Ike’s was the sandwich that ate a neighborhood. But, in reality, it was a story that gobbled up the media.

That’s because the Ike’s saga had all the boldface elements of San Francisco’s classic, intransient dramas.

Here’s how the tale goes:

Ike had once been homeless (homeless!), but had managed to scrape up enough money (entrepreneur!) for a miniscule shop for his delicious inventive sandwiches (foodie!) with funny names (quirky!), but on his first day he failed to make a single sale (failure!) and went home and sulked for a few days (emotional!), but then returned and sold a couple sandwiches (comeback kid!), then a couple more (go get ‘em!), and then word spread (grass roots!) until hoards of hungry fans filled sidewalks (WTF?!) and neighbors complained (NIMBY!) and the city moved in to shut the business down (cruel government!), but Ike fought back (fight the man!) and ultimately prevailed.

Mix into all of that San Francisco’s underlying love-hate relationship with anything that becomes popular — even things created in San Francisco.

It’s a controversy that has enormous appeal to so many types of Californians — liberals, libertarians and conservatives can all be equally outraged. But the popular storyline fails to fully explain why Ike’s took hold in the first place.

The truth is that before any mainstream media attention, Ike’s was one of the first successful brick-and-mortar new businesses to be substantially helped by social media. Thousands of regular folks posted reviews on Yelp, making it the city’s top rated restaurant – a remarkable feat, considering San Francisco’s snobbish culinary culture with one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita in the world.

So the crowd was already there when I simply walked by and noticed it. That’s when I wrote that first newspaper column, and since then I’ve been associated with the Ike’s story.

SFWeekly even went as far as to say that I covered “Ike's Place the way a White House pool reporter covers POTUS.”

That’s a funny line, but while it’s true the story become a widespread Bay Area news media sensation, I actually only wrote one column for the newspaper solely devoted to Ike’s. That’s right — just one. I included the restaurant’s travails in two other columns about city backlashes against popular establishments, plus one sentence in a piece about restaurant permits — hardly overkill in a column that ran weekly from 2009 to 2012. I also wrote online blog postings when there were significant developments in the Ike’s case.

The irony of being so closely associated with Ike’s is that my boss loathed the story. No, not my editors at The New York Times. But in 2010 the Times formed a partnership with a local start-up newsroom called The Bay Citizen, and I began reporting to new editors in San Francisco.

The time of that newsroom transition also happened to be at the height of the Ike’s legal battle. The Bay Citizen’s marketing folks took me aside to tell me that Ike’s was, by far, the most popular story we were covering — and that readers craved more. So at the next news staff meeting to discuss upcoming stories, I gave an update on what would happen next in the case.

The editor-in-chief threw a tantrum. He hated the Ike’s story. Then in a humiliating rant that went on for several moments (other staffers remember it to this day) he said he never wanted anything reported on Ike’s again.

So with my coverage so dramatically killed you’ll excuse me if I find it tough to agree with the notion that I’m somehow personally responsible for Ike’s success. I’m not saying media attention didn’t help,but that level of glare from the news spotlight has been long gone for years, and yet the company is thriving and expanding. So, in the end, it must involve more than just headlines.

What’s it all really about? First, the sandwiches are a genuine foodie delight. Using a clever technique, the bread is baked as the sandwich is made, and ingredients are generous (calorie counts pending), including some of the largest number of options anywhere for vegans and vegetarians. Vegans are some of Ike’s most devoted and vocal fans.

And then there’s Shehadeh himself, the diminutive, shaved-head Leo Buscaglia of sandwiches. Ike is a hugger, and he greets his customers with a warmth and appreciation that other food impresarios (sorry Thomas Keller) might be wise to emulate. In the year’s I’ve known him, Ike has been an avid devotee of personal self-improvement courses, and in the foodie realm, where customers are increasingly told to shut up and just be grateful for the opportunity to pay, Shehadeh’s persona represents the polar opposite. The company’s slogan is “Love & Sandwiches.”

As a result, everyone likes — no, loves — Ike. That was apparent as we sat down for our interview over lunch at Starbelly in The Castro. A steady stream of fans stopped by our table to say hello to Shehadeh, appearing genuinely tickled to have a moment with The Ike.

Yes, Ike has become that famous from his sandwiches — it’s not unusual for him to pal around with other Bay Area celebrities, including stars from the Giants and 49ers, some with sandwiches named after them. Shehadeh is also regularly featured on foodie television shows.

He said he gets about 100 serious offers a year from people who want to buy the Ike’s company or franchise his restaurants, a prospect that could make him instantly rich. For the moment, though, he’s doing it his own way, just a store at a time.

“I’m not going to say there’s going to be a thousand,” Shehadeh said when asked about how large Ike’s could get — after all, Subway has 39,000 restaurants. “If a thousand happens. Then that’s what happens.”

Watch out, Jared.