THE ADVOCATE ASKS: The Santoro brothers reflect on four decades of running the family sub shop, which closes next month
Editor’s Note: For this week, we sat down with Rich and Rob Santoro, brothers and co-owners of Santoro’s Sub-Villa, a popular sub shop on Essex Street off of Route 1 in Saugus, which announced to customers last week that it will be closing for good around Feb. 3. We asked the brothers to share some interesting stories about the business that their late grandfather – Robert Santoro, Sr. – began in 1954. Rich, 55, of North Reading, and Rob, 56, of North Reading, took over the sub shop from their late father – Robert Santoro, Jr. – about 40 years ago. Their family roots are in Stoneham, where they grew up. But they each have a strong local connection to the town: Rich’s wife, the former Joy Merrithew, and Rob’s wife, the former Candace Draper, are both Saugus High School graduates. Thousands of Saugus teenagers have worked for the sub shop over the years. With no children who can one day oversee the family business for a fourth generation, the brothers decided it’s time to say goodbye to Saugus and the loyal customers their family has served at three locations off of Route 1 for 65 years. Some highlights of the interview follow.
Q: Rich, tell me how it all began.
Rich: Well, my grandfather was in the tile business, and he was looking for something as a cash business. He and my father discussed it and they decided to go into the sub business, and that’s when they opened up in 1954, over here [where the Dunkin’ Donuts is]. And they got so big so quick that they had to buy the property where the Walgreens is now, and they built it up from there. My father took over. My grandfather retired in the mid 60’s. In the late 80’s, Rob and I started to take over gradually, and by the time we got over here in ’91, pretty much my father had retired and we took over.
Q: Now you guys are co-bosses?
Rob: Yup. We’re here every day.
Q: As you look back on the history of the business, what’s the most memorable experience for you?
Rob: Well, the most fascinating thing for me is the amount of people that still come here 40 years later – they are still regular customers – and the amount of kids that we’ve had work here, and they grow up and they get married and their kids work here. And we’re closing now, but they’re all coming in and want to be a part of it. It’s just been very humbling to us to see all of the people come back and wish us well.
Q: How many kids worked over here over the years?
Rich: Thousands. Just thousands of kids, and it’s not only the mother or father – it’s generations because they know it’s a great place to work. We’ll have a brother and a sister or two sisters work for us; they’ll grow up, have kids and they’ll come in. So, it’s always the story of “My grandfather used to take me here and my father started taking me here” and so on.
Rob: We’ve been getting a lot of that lately, customers coming in while we’re trying to work. They’re yelling back to us about their memories of this place – “When I was a kid, my dad used to take me” – and it’s good to hear. I wish we had more time to sit out and talk to the people, but we’ve been so busy. [During the interview, several customers came over and talked to the brothers and wished them well.]
Q: So tell me, Rich, what’s the secret to your success here?
Rich: A couple of things. My family created a quality product and stuck with it through the years, starting with the Piantedosi roll [Piantedosi Baking Co. in Malden]. We’re buying quality products, not skimping on it for the profit margin. We always stuck with this same, simple recipe, and, it’s just a good product – and “What would you like on it?” We start with that … and then the relationships with the customers and employees – generations of both – and that we treat them like family and it truly makes us a family business.
Q: So, you’ve been using the Piantedosi roll from the inception?
Rich: Yeah. Their bakery is like a hundred years old, but we’ve been with them since Day One of our business. We pick up our rolls fresh every single day and go through a lot of effort to keep a nice, fresh roll.
Q: Rob, what do you consider the secret to your success?
Rob: The secret to our success is the repetition of completing that product every time. When we make our sandwiches, like Rich was saying, we use quality cold cuts and nice quality roll. The secret is, 40 years or 50 years later, we’re doing the same thing we did from Day One: the same product – the same way we prepare it. And if you came in here 50 years ago and got an Italian sub, you’d get the same Italian sub here today, and that is our secret and that is why people keep coming back. That same quality product.
Rich: If it was up to us, we would have stuck with the 10 items on the menu – but while times change, you have to branch out into wraps and salads and side orders. You have to keep up with the demand.
Q: So, Rob, what’s the most popular sandwich on your menu? What’s the top dog?
Rob: I think it’s the Italian cold cut.
Rich: By far, the most favorite is our Italian. We’ve made it the same way with the same meats and the same bread since we began.
Q: What’s the busiest day of the year?
Rich: The day we announced we were closing.
Q: I meant the busiest regular day.
Rob: It’s Christmas Eve, because on Christmas Eve we have a lot of parties and we have a lot of catering, plus doing the regular business, and Rich’s wife, Joy, does all of the catering, and without her, we couldn’t do what we do. And she deserves to be in there as one of the key ingredients in our success.
Rich: She started when she was 15. I didn’t marry her until she was 25.
Q: So, she was here before she really knew you.
Rich: Right. That’s where we met. She started here as a high school kid and she moved up. She went to Newbury College and got a degree in culinary. She does all the hot food. … But while she’s busy with the platters and all the catering, the store is very busy that day as well, because nobody is cooking – they’re out shopping.
Q: When you look back – and I’m going to ask each of you guys again – what would be the most memorable moment for you? Did you have a celebrity here or something funny?
Rich: Really, I just can’t get past the amount of people who have come to us recently and retold the stories of the past: the times that they’ve been here and how they have cherished that as a family. I’m just so proud that we carried that tradition on. I think it’s just the last couple of days that we’ve really seen the outpouring of customers and employees that don’t want to see us go.
Q: Rob, what’s your most memorable moment?
Rob: We’ve been here a long time and both of us worked in our old store over where Walgreens is. When we decided we were going to move into this new building here, we closed up at 10:00 on a Wednesday night. We were wheeling all of the equipment over from across the street – pizza ovens and slicers – we were carrying them across and bringing all of our cold cuts and everything, and we got it all in here that night and opened up the next morning. And we started a new business here the very next day. We didn’t take a day off. We closed there Wednesday and opened here Thursday. We didn’t have a phone line here yet, and we sat my sister in the vacant building to answer the phone, take orders and then come over and tell us.
Q: Let me ask you, Rich, how many hours a week do you average?
Rich: We’re probably down to 50 or 60 now. We were up there at 70 to 80, because once we took over, we were there day and night.
Rob: When we were younger, we could do that [70 to 80 hours a week]. When we moved into this store, we started getting some night managers. Once we found a couple of people that we thought we could leave in charge, we started to cut it down so we didn’t have to do any more night shifts. We opened up in 1991 in this store, and here we are today in 2019, and we’re tired and we’re looking forward to retiring and being able to do things that we never had a chance to do, because this was an everyday thing.
Q: When did you decide you were going to retire?
Rich: It’s been about a year that we made the decision, but something we’ve thought about for about four years, and finally, last year, we decided we’ve got to set a date, because we don’t have another generation. Rob doesn’t have kids. I don’t have kids. So, our mind was kind of made up. We had no one to pass it on to, so we wanted to take our name and ride off into the sunset.
Q: How will you spend your retirement, Rich?
Rich: Between summers up here and winters down in Florida. We plan on traveling and just enjoying a day off and not having to worry about someone calling me and saying “The night manager is out” or “This one is out” or “You got to go get this.”
Q: Rob, how are you going to spend your retirement?
Rob: I plan on taking a couple of weeks right off the start to just sleep in and not have to worry about this place at all. Then, me and my wife talked about traveling and just go away to places and not really set a date to come home. Just go and enjoy, and if we want to stay someplace a little longer, we can. And that’s the biggest thing for us because every time we go away, we have to say “I can only stay a day and a half, and I have to get home.”
Q: What’s your favorite sub?
Rob: Mine is a steak and cheese.
Rich: It’s the eggplant parmesan.
Q: Are you going to miss your favorite subs when you are gone? Are you going to go to another place? How are you going to deal with that?
Rob: Oh yeah, we’re going to miss it, because you don’t see anybody out there making the subs the way we have. And if they did, they’d have to be like us – an institution that’s been here so many years. This has been our product and been our pride for so long.
Rich: We’ve been fortunate to own the building outright and to own the property outright, so we never had the lease hanging over our heads, so we could pass that on to the customers without having to raise our prices up.
Q: How many subs do you guys average a week?
Rich: About 500 a day – more on the weekend.
Q: What about on Super Bowl Sunday?
Rob: We do some catering that day. It also depends on who is in the Super Bowl. If the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, we are very busy.
Rich: If the Patriots are in it, it’s like Christmas Eve. And we make it a point to close. We close for the Patriots, so we can all watch it. We could actually wind up closing out by doing the Super Bowl this year [Sunday, Feb. 3]
Q: So, do you have any celebrities stop here for a sandwich?
Rich: Maybe over the years. My father used to say Wayne Newton [American singer and entertainer] would stop here.
Rob: We’ve had numerous hockey players – Boston Bruins players. We had Roger Clemens [former Red Sox pitching great]. Bob Montgomery [former Red Sox catcher and announcer] was a regular customer and he still lives around here. We see him once in a while, and he always has something to say about our subs.
Q: Do you have any customers that for them it’s a daily thing to have a sandwich here?
Rob: Yes. How about this: We can go wherever we want, and whenever we go away, we’ll have somebody come up to us and say, “Hey, Sub-Villa guys!” We don’t know their names, but we know what they get. That’s from frequent visits.
Rich: We have a guy who comes in every morning – bacon, egg and cheese. … Lately, we have some guys who come in, saying “Where are we going to go? Where are we going to go?”
Q: So, how many daily regulars do you have?
Rob: I would have to say we have 30 to 35 customers who come in here every single day.
Rich: We have some people from National Grid who are here in the morning. We open up at six, and we have a full dining room with them taking up our booths by 7:30 a.m.; so they come in five days a week, sometimes on the weekend.
Q: Rob, what’s been the most unusual request for a sandwich that you get?
Rob: I have one that you wouldn’t think about ordering. But I have a customer who would order a crabmeat sub with four packets of sugar on it.
Q: A crabmeat sub with four packets of sugar on it?
Rob: Yes. Sugar. To sweeten up that crabmeat. It’s a real sub. That’s what they wanted.
Q: Do they have it often or was it a one-shot deal?
Rob: No, that’s what they get when they come in. We got to the point where we would make the crabmeat and just give them the sugar and let them put it on.
Rich: The strangest one that I got … He wanted four stuffed shells in a roll as a sub. He wanted the stuffed shells.
[At this point, a customer interrupts to say that she came down from Maine and this will probably be her last visit.]
Rich: We get a lot of Maine customers. We have a few of them tell us that the first thing they do when they come from Logan [International Airport] is stop by here. Any time the Maine people have to drop somebody off at the airport or do business in this area, they pick up subs and go back. We always know when they are Maine people.
Q: Do you have folks come from other faraway places?
Rob: We had a customer who would faithfully come every year from Minnesota, and he would fly in and get 40 large subs, and we’d put them in a cooler with vegetables on the side. And he would check in at the airport and take them all back to Minnesota with him – these 40 large subs – Sub-Villa Specials.
Rich: Sub-Villa Specials, sort of a souped-up Italian cold cuts. The out-of-state business is mostly from people who grew up in this area and then moved away. We’ll get them from all over – Texas and Minnesota and Naples, Fla. They all want something shipped to them. When they come, they’ll usually stop first thing from the airport. They’ll make a point of coming three or four times and then taking a bunch back; so lately we’re hearing stories like that as well.
Q: What’s the most sandwiches that you have made in one day?
Rich: Probably [last] Saturday [after the news that they would be closing]. Probably 800 to a thousand, we’ve done. Sometimes, we’ll do a golf tournament, where we have to do about 400 in addition to what we would normally do. We can handle just about everything, as long as we know the day before, because we have to get our bread baked for us. If it’s a thousand subs, we call in a thousand rolls.
Q: So, if your family roots are in Stoneham, how did this business wind up in Saugus?
Rich: I can only imagine that our grandfather had the foresight of knowing what Route 1 would be today.
Rob: I guess he thought that our original location – where the Dunkin’ Donuts is now located – would be a good spot. And that’s when Route 1 was a dirt road.
Q: Anything else you guys want to share?
Rich: We want to thank the community for supporting us all of these years, for being dedicated customers; and it’s been a pleasure that our family has been a part of their family.
We have to have an honorable mention for my mother, who did the bookkeeping for years, and then my sister, Gail Eaton, took over. My mom [Lois Santoro] is down in Florida, and everyone she runs into down there knows her. She lives in the Villages.
Rob: I have to say what Rich said is spot on. We’ve been in business a long time, and we can’t thank the people enough for the repeated business and the overwhelming response that we got we announced what we were doing [closing]. They have come in and wished us well. It’s very humbling to us, because we honestly didn’t think it would be such an overwhelming response. We figured we’d do an article in the paper and we would go on our way. But it’s become much bigger than what we had thought, and we’re very grateful for it. After being a part of this for over 40 years, it’s our time to start enjoying our lives.