Hunter Pond opened the first East Hampton Sandwich Co. at swanky Snider Plaza in summer 2012, earning what seemed like almost an instantaneous fan base for his scratch-made sandwiches that put places like Subway to shame. As Pond prepares to debut his third location in Fort Worth, he spoke to Eater about building a sandwich empire and the importance of what's between the bread.
So congratulations on celebrating two years at Snider Plaza.
It's been amazing, but I feel like I've aged 20 years.
That's hilarious, because you must have looked five before. Do people ever question you because you look so young, like wait, are you the owner?
On the reg. Seriously. What's even funnier is like when I very first started and was hiring people, they'd come to the interview for the first time and they'd be like, Are you Mr. Pond? [deepens voice] Yes! So it took some getting used to it, I had to grow up quick. Luckily I'm not balding just yet.
East Hampton seemed like it was drawing long lines almost immediately after opening. To what do you attribute that?
I'm from Dallas originally and my main partner, Will Stroud, is born and raised in this area as well. So I think just [having local networks] got the early word out and then honestly, there was just such a void in the marketplace in Dallas for an upscale sandwich place. People for the last 10 years have had Jersey Mike's, Jimmy John's, Potbelly. So yeah, they hear about something like this and they get pretty excited about it.
If I ever wanted a good sandwich since I got back from college, I'd go get the Cuban from Jimmy's — that's a great sandwich spot. Besides that, R+D Kitchen, they have a great carnitas sandwich. Oh my god, it's so good. That's one of the things that inspired me to do this, I'm not even kidding.
Legend has it you dropped out of law school to start your sandwich business.
I went to St. Mary's law school for one semester. Hated it. I figured out really quickly that it was not for me, so I left to get into the restaurant biz.
Did you have a clear plan of what you wanted to do when you left law school?
When you're in law school and you're 1L [first year], they assign you these little study cubbies. And you're living in that cubby reading when you're not in class. It's hell. It's basically half of a cubicle, and it's in a law library so it smells like musty old books. Hour after hour after hour. So I would sit there and get distracted as I always do and I would look up the history of successful companies and concepts that I respected. I always thought I'd be good at it. I majored in business in college so I figured I'd have the necessary tools that it would take to start one of these things young. I wasn't yet married with kids or anything, so I figured let's go for it. Sink or swim.
Pond gets up close and personal with a fried chicken and jack sandwich. [Photo: Lori Bandi/EDFW]
You basically came up with the original menu yourself, despite not having any sort of culinary background. Where did you get inspiration for the sandwich lineup?
I wanted everything to revolve around the central theme of the meat being made in-house and having a unique sauce to pair with the sandwich. So from there, I just did a lot of research — so for example, I looked up what kinds of sauces go well with fried chicken. Of those sauces that go with fried chicken, which one really is unique enough that people will enjoy it? We make all of our aiolis in house, so we could make an aioli that's just basic, like a lemony mayo, but if we do a jalapeno cream style, that's pretty unique.
So where does the East Hampton part of the theme come from?
Everyone thinks of East Hampton as an upscale area and that's one of the reasons I thought it was a good fit for our concept. Our prices are probably 10 to 15 percent higher than the Jersey Mike's and Potbelly's of the world, and I wanted to make sure people understood they were getting a premium product out of that as well. You can still come into East Hampton and get out of here for lunch under 10 bucks. The lobster roll is expensive, but where are you going to get a nine dollar lobster roll? It's funny, I see people comment on Yelp about the lobster roll being expensive, but ours is the cheapest lobster roll in Dallas.
What would you say are the things that differentiate East Hampton from other sandwich shops?
I would say the signature thing would be our poultry, because our top seller is the turkey bacon avocado followed by the fried chicken and jack. The Cuban is killer, and so is the tenderloin sandwich, as well as the lobster roll is pretty popular, but besides that, it's a lot of poultry. And poultry's a year round thing and people crave it for lunch. When they find a poultry dish they like, they'll be loyal to it forever. So we take extra special care of the poultry. We're not trying to buy pre-made turkey filled with nasty stuff I won't even get into. We brine it for 24 hours, then we season it, we roast it, and we hand-carve it.
I mean, it's really everything that's in between the bread. If you go to Subway, Jimmy John's, Potbelly, all these places they bake their bread. That's what they focus on. But what qualifies a sandwich? It's all the ingredients between the bread, otherwise you're just eating bread. And I understand why they do it, they're in the business of making money and they need to have a really fast service and pump people through the line, high volume so they can pay their rent. So it's pretty much the exact opposite here. We're not gonna bake our bread, we probably never will. We have an awesome partner, we love Empire Baking Company. So what that allows us to do is go into spaces in high-profile areas like The Shops at Legacy and here in Snider Plaza and right on University in Fort Worth because we don't need massive kitchens in order to do our housemade ingredients and house-baked bread. We can outsource our bread.
Inside the Snider Plaza location. [Photo: Lori Bandi/EDFW]
Can you talk about some of the menu changes you've made since opening the first East Hampton?
The plan was to always add breakfast. Wwhen we first opened it was a shitshow. Not only was I wet behind the ears but we sold 146,000 sandwiches in our first year. So for a first-time restaurant owner, I was swimming in it. I barely made it out alive, pretty much. I've got to give credit to the team, I've got an awesome team. Seriously, I'm very blessed with that. So once we kind of got our head above water, which was just now about two months ago, we put on the breakfast stuff, which is basically build-your-own sandwiches. You can do a English muffin for a smaller sandwich, but during the weekends, we sell a lot of the big challah-style sesame seed buns. I get scrambled eggs with American cheese and bacon and spicy aioli and it is so bomb.
We also added sweet potato fries to the menu because we got so many requests for them it was ridiculous. Our housemade chips are polarizing — people either eat them religiously or they prefer to get a side salad, which is just heresy in my mind. But hey, if that's your thing. I've got to give credit where credit is due — one of my mentors is [restaurateur and real estate developer] Ray Washburne, and it was his final suggestion. Like look, if I was going to tell you anything, put sweet potato fries on the damn menu. [laughs]
So you've got two locations now with a third on the way. Beyond that, what's the future hold?
My partner Will and I are really focusing on the growth of the brand. The plan is to open seven more, to get to 10 stores. We think that as long as the real estate is made available, we'll be able to execute. I've been warned by the guys who taught me well so far not to grow too quickly, to make sure we have the infrastructure in place, so that's what we're focusing on right now so that when we do open seven more stores it goes seamlessly. We're not in any hurry but we think it can be accomplished within the next 2 years.
So how close to DFW are you going to stick?
We're going to keep it in Texas. We've been approached by people in Tulsa, Atlanta, New York, Minnesota… I had some guy out of London contact us. Flattering but I was like uh no, not right now. So we're going to stick to Texas right now — Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and go from there.
Dallas was really behind the ball on the sandwich game, other markets aren't — there are definitely some good gourmet sandwich spots around. But East Hampton is so different, I don't think the market share is too small for us to go into other markets that already have some gourmet sandwich spots. As long as the population is there and they respect a good sandwich [grins], then we'll do fine.
East Hampton Sandwich Co. will celebrate two years in biz this Friday and Saturday (September 12 and 13) with $1 sangria, Bloody Marys and mimosas and $2 mini lobster rolls at the original Snider Plaza location.