A bold new flavor on Grand

By Hazel Schaeffer

As seniors start thinking about applications for jobs and graduate school, one option that occurs to very few has already been tested by a recent Mac graduate: starting a small business. This month, Dan Esrig ’10 opened the Grand Sandwich, a gourmet-deli style shop one block off campus, next to the Italian Pie Shoppe. The restaurant is spacious, brightly lit, clean, and always has a game playing on the wide screen TV. A dark brown wood counter, gray floors and tables make for a sterile environment, but some vintage Mac photos and sports jerseys help liven things up.

Esrig first had the idea to open his business last fall, noticing that there was no place close to campus to get good food late at night. He decided to follow it through after other options like Teach for America didn’t pan out.

Despite the downturn in the economy, Esrig says he believes now is a great time to start a small business. Unfortunately, he found, the government was only giving out small business loans to people with more experience. Instead, he secured loans from individuals.

“Generally when you start a businesses like this, you look for the ‘three F’s’: friends, family, and fools,” Esrig said of his strategy for soliciting investments. “I generally went to friends and family.” Winning a poker tournament last spring also helped with the fund raising.

“It was a lot of fun . [and] a big help,” he said of the tournament, though most of the start up costs came from investors.

And to reduce the funds needed to open shop, Esrig saved money utilizing skills he learned from a summer doing construction.

“The craziest thing I had to do was take a jack hammer and break up the entire floor in the back corner by myself,” he said. “I had cuts everywhere because there was re-bar (metal bars inside the cement). It was awful, but when you’re done with something like that and look at it and there’s a smooth floor and a beautiful counter, it makes you feel good,” he said.

Esrig studied Economics and Geography at Macalester and said his education was instrumental in opening the business.

“An Econ./ Geography major is perfect for opening a sandwich shop,” he said. “You have the theoretical understanding of markets, the accounting part of business, some management. Then you have a good understanding of spatial analysis, mapping, and understanding of location and place. It’s unfortunate they don’t have cooking because then Mac students could open up restaurants everywhere.”

Though he said his family and friends thought he was crazy when he pitched his business plan to them, he says his professors were very supportive.”

Esrig says, “One of the most important things I learned from Mac was something [Economics professor Jeff Evans] said, which was, ‘You should always try to hire people who are better and smarter than you, because that way you don’t need to be around for your business to function.”

His advisor, Economics professor Paul Aslanian, who also taught Esrig’s mother, said Esrig’s career choice is “pretty unusual.”

“Most Mac Econ major are aspiring to go to work for Goldman Sachs or Wells Fargo or Teach for America or go get a Ph.D or work for a non-profit in D.C. doing policy work. And all of a sudden this guy comes in and says he wants to open a sandwich shop on Grand Avenue,” he said. “I think he’s the only student I’ve ever had whose had that entrepreneurial instinct, that he wanted to just graduate, walk across the stage, and start working on his restaurant.”

“I don’t know anything about restaurants for gosh sakes but I just cautioned him to really put together a business plan,” Aslanian said. “I also suggested to him that he should work in a deli, which he did, because it was sort of a dream but he learned from an insider’s perspective.”

Aslanian also set up meetings for Esrig with people he knew in the restaurant business, including the owners of the Russian Tea House on University Ave in St. Paul. They suggested having very cautious revenue projections.

“The other thing they told him is that you have to have something that’s unique because there has to be a reason for people to come back the second time .. You have to stand out,” Aslanian said.

On Wednesday the Econ. department had Grand Sandwich cater lunch. At the end of the meal, Aslanian asked his colleagues’ opinion of the food and emailed their suggestions to Esrig. Aslanian, who had one of Esrig’s sandwiches a week before, said there was a noticable improvement.

“Danny is very open to constructive criticism,” Aslanian said.

However the business or its menu changes, Esrig says he knows what his ideal market is, and that he’s willing to adapt.

“I think the Macalester market place will dictate how things work,” he said. “During exams if I see students are here ’til midnight every night and want me to be open ’til 2 a.m., I can. I don’t think that’s something you see very many businesses around here doing, that they are just willing to cater to students’ needs. I like feeling things out.”

For Esrig, adaptability has involved both harnessing customers and making do with unfortunate circumstances. In fact, he says, when his toaster blew out, it was actually a great stroke of luck.

“All the toaster did was dry everything out,” he said. “Now the toasted subs go in the Panini machine. Since then, business has gone up dramatically. That was the best thing that could have possibly happened because now the food is really good.”

At first, Esrig, who hails originally from Evanston, IL, wanted to open up a Chicago-style eatery with hot dogs and hamburgers but quickly decided it wasn’t an option because the ventilation hoods required for cooking over an open flame cost several thousand dollars.

“I got some good advice to keep it simple and just do sandwiches,” Esrig said.

Several of the items on the menu, including the baked beans, coleslaw and tuna, are family recipes.

According to the Grand Sandwich’s website, “My mother’s side of the family specialized in artisan breads, pies and other very Midwestern foods, while my father’s side of the family focused on classic Jewish deli cooking. Growing up, I learned a lot from both sides, even though my pie baking still needs work!”

Esrig, who says he is currently working 120-hour weeks, expects to go to business school in a couple of years.

“The restaurant business is not something you want to do for a long time,” he said. “To do this with a family would be impossible.”

But for now, Esrig is fully invested in his business, and hopes the Mac community will reciprocate.

“Macalester was a big part of [being able to open a business]. Hopefully it will continue to be a big part of it. As much as this is my business it’s a Macalester community business. It’s for the Macalester community.