Ithaca c-store owner enriches his community one sandwich at a time.
Back in 1978, the ratio of convenience stores to gas pumps wasn’t 1-to-1. Or at least that’s how Albert Smith remembers it. When he and his wife, Cindy, opened his Ithaca, N.Y., convenience store in June of that year, he included a small sandwich counter but no gas pumps. Today, his Shortstop Deli is a standout in a crowd of fuel stops. Smith has managed to thrive without entering the gas industry, largely thanks to the sandwiches he started with. Of the roughly $2 million Shortstop Deli makes a year, $1.3 million is made via two slices of bread.
Smith’s fate seemed entwined with the college town from the start. An Ithaca native, he attended Cornell University, majoring in food industry management, and got a job with H.J. Heinz Co. upon graduating in 1971. After three years of learning the retail sales ropes, he went to work with his father and brothers as an independent wholesale beer distributor for the next five.
“The last part of that time, I was also working on developing a c-store with a foodservice presence,” Smith says. “I wanted the heart of it to be a sandwich deli.”
He leased a 1,600-square-foot space in a residentially zoned area of Ithaca at the edge of the town’s main commercial district, got variance codes to put in a c-store, and opened for business. A Yankees fan, Smith named the store Shortstop Deli. Topps baseball cards inspired the logo—an abbreviated SS inside of a baseball.
After 12 years, Shortstop Del i expanded, adding 2,600 square feet. Walk in the store today and you’ll see a deli counter POS area directly in front of you. Snack items and groceries distributed by McLane Co. are off to the right in 25 feet of two-sided gondola shelving, along with 16 cooler doors. But all that is there only to help Shortstop Deli sell sandwiches. Smith says his product offering is more easily defined by what he doesn’t sell— beer or tobacco—than what he does.
“It just wasn’t helping us sell sandwiches,” he says. “Age verification in a college town becomes very tough. Lots of confrontations asking for identification. When we eliminate tobacco and beer, anything we have can be purchased by any age.”
And people of any age can enjoy a good sandwich.
“We call it our 34-year-old test kitchen—the sandwich business inside a c-store experiment,” he says.
‘Best of Ithaca’
Shortstop Deli has been voted customers’ favorite sandwich business in the Ithaca Times “Best of Ithaca” awards for the past 25 years—and for good reason. Smith has made sure to maintain quality as his business has evolved. It started with a 4-foot unit. Orders were taken at the front and made in the back. “It worked well for us for a while, but eventually we wanted to grow,” Smith says.
So he brought the sandwich unit up front, allowing the sandwich maker to interact with the customer, and extended it to 18 feet. He added Lincoln Impinger conveyor ovens and, with them, a variety of hot subs to the menu. The deli’s No. 1 seller is the turkey sandwich, made with Butterball Just Perfect meat. Customers can also order side salads, freshly baked cookies and soft drinks, the latter for as little as 9 cents with the purchase of a sandwich. And they are encouraged to browse while they wait.
“Customers fill out a sandwich slip, as opposed to a verbal order, and then they are able to shop the store while the sandwich is made,” Smith says.
A landmark in the deli’s evolution came in 2000 when Smith bought Hot Truck, a Cornell University icon parked in front of a campus dormitory. Hot Truck, which started in 1960, is famous for its pizza subs, which Smith soon added to his Shortstop menu. “Make a pizza on a chunk of French bread, run it through the oven and fold it up as a sandwich,” he says. “That’s the general idea.” He added chicken subs to the Hot Truck menu and replaced canned mushrooms with fresh ones, but otherwise he let the tradition stand as was.
“If you know any Cornellians, give them a call and ask them about the Hot Truck. They could tell you,” Smith says. Today, the Hot Truck makes roughly $136,000 a year, about 10% of Smith’s total sandwich business.
If the university tradition doesn’t draw college crowds, Smith’s hours just might. In April 1980, he made the move to 24/7 hours and has been open every minute since. “I love talking to young people in their 20s in my store and telling them, ‘Hey! Every minute you’ve been alive, we’ve been open for business.’ ”
The ‘Good Guy’
When the store opened, Cindy Smith was at home with the couple’s children, but when the last one went to school, she went to work. “She is the heart of the store,” Smith says of his wife. “If someone needs help—a customer, neighbor or employee—she’s there. She’s the good guy of Shortstop Deli.”
Cindy’s “heart” has ensured the deli seeks to hire diversity that reflects the Ithaca population and that it’s involved with local youth groups and athletic teams. Starting with the Cornell lacrosse team in 1979, the store has offered travel meals at cost to local college and high school teams for athletes traveling to and from away games. “When our kids were athletes, away games meant no food or junk food,” Smith says. If an athlete can’t pay, Shortstop offers the meal for free.
The deli’s marketing is defined by service to the community as well. “Our advertising is this: Mrs. Jones is a regular customer and her daughter is going to be in a dance recital. She comes in to see if we want to go into the program,” Smith says, “and we go in the program, but it’s really more to support Mrs. Jones and her daughter than advertising.”
The Smiths have been in business long enough to remember life before scanning and POS software, but soon they’ll be moving on. They’ve decided to sell the store and retire in the next few years. Their ideal buyer? Someone who has been highly successful with many c-store locations but has never developed a foodservice presence. Their “34-year-old test kitchen” has given them lots of wisdom to pass on.
“We’ve gone through all the mistakes,” Smith says. “We’ve found out what works in a c-store environment.”
He says people should know up front that foodservice is going to increase their payroll. “You can’t have just one clerk,” he says. And he also thinks that going proprietary, having full ownership and control over your foodservice business is the best route. But his top advice? Fully commit to it.
“The key is to make a commitment all the way at the top—your CEO, your CFO. Otherwise foodservice doesn’t stand a chance,” he says. After 34 years at Shortstop Deli, Albert and Cindy Smith understand something about commitment.
“There’s nothing easy about the c-store business. But you have to be committed to making it go.”