Sandwich shop overcomes challenges, remains local favorite

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer November 30, 2011 09:07 pm

Betty Baker, owner of The Sub Shop, on Fourth Street, says the shopís menu hasnít changed much over the years, mainly because itís worked so well. The locally owned sandwich emporium has survived many challenges, including two          relocations, the death of Bakerís husband, and competition from national chains. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
Betty Baker, owner of The Sub Shop, on Fourth Street, says the shopís menu hasnít changed much over the years, mainly because itís worked so well. The locally owned sandwich emporium has survived many challenges, including two relocations, the death of Bakerís husband, and competition from national chains. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer

Betty Baker, a Summerville woman who runs The Sub Shop on Fourth Street near Washington Avenue in La Grande, said she did a “happy dance” when her sandwiches were voted the best around in a local contest.

Maybe the news won’t make world headlines, but it’s important to Baker, who kept on with the business after losing her husband and partner in 2004, and takes an obvious pride in what she does.

“I have a little thing I tell my regulars when they ask about our sandwiches,” she said. “I tell them the secret ingredient is love. They must believe it because they do keep coming back.”

Baker was born and raised in Lewiston, Idaho and lived for awhile in Spokane before moving to Union County in 1973.

Here, she married Daniel Baker, who had a background in grocery stores and worked as a delivery man for Frito Lay. Together, the Bakers made a go of  a 132-acre farm near Summerville.

In 1996, Daniel came home with an idea. He suggested he and Betty buy The Sub Shop, a spot on his Frito Lay route. Some lively discussion ensued.

 “I said no, he said yes, and he won out,” Baker said.

The business was then located on Elm Street, next to Cherry’s Florist, and owned by Dwayne and Glenna McLaughlin. As part of the deal, the McLaughlins provided Betty Baker with three weeks management training.

But the real learning came shortly after that, when forest fires broke out in the region and The Sub Shop got busy providing lunches for firefighters in the field.

“We were coming in at two and three in the morning to fill those orders. I guess after that I knew I could run a sandwich shop,” Baker said.

Barely a year after the Bakers went into business, The Sub Shop moved from the Elm Street location to a building near the corner of Fourth Street and Jefferson Avenue, in present day Max Square.

Things went along smoothly for awhile, but then, in 2002, the building, owned by the city of La Grande, went up for sale.

“We wanted to buy it, but we lost the bid,” Baker said.

And that posed a challenge, since there weren’t many suitable locations in the downtown area. The Bakers had no place to do business, and their plight made local headlines.

 “People were really upset that we had to move,” Baker said. “We had a whole bunch of support from the community.”

As things worked out, Figaro’s Italian Pizza decided to close its store at 1903 Fourth St. right about then. The Bakers liked the location, though in order to get it, they had to agree to buy Figaro’s equipment.

The couple took the deal and started over in the new spot. Then real tragedy struck. In 2004, Daniel died from cancer.

Baker said losing her partner and  loved one forced her to examine her life and make some decisions, but she added that she never thought about giving up the business.

“I had thoughts about whether I should go on living in the country — which I did, in the end — but I didn’t think about closing. This is my life, my job,” she said.

But going on alone wasn’t easy, she added.

“Daniel helped me here a lot,” she said. “I had to add another employee just to do the stuff he would do, and that didn’t even count getting things fixed.”

If forced relocation and Daniel’s death wasn’t enough to put The Sub Shop under, neither was competition from national chains specializing in sandwiches. Since the Bakers bought The Sub Shop, two chains have opened three stores in the area.

Baker’s customers, consisting mainly of college and high school students and people from downtown businesses, might drift away when a new place opens, but over the long haul, The Sub Shop abides and remains a local favorite.

“After awhile it kind of mellows out. The customers come back,” Baker said.

The Sub Shop sells sandwiches, salads, ice cream and beverages, much as it did when the Bakers first decided to go into business. Baker said she never has seen the sense in making major changes.

“We’ve added some sandwiches, but the basic menu’s stayed the same. Some come in and want me to change it, but I’m not going to. What we’ve done has worked,” she said.

Baker regularly employs a staff of six, and can’t reckon the exact number of people she’s given jobs to over the years.

They’ve been an assortment of college students, moms single and married, and grandmothers at times. Baker has four daughters, and all have worked in the shop.

 Baker said that when the time comes for her to retire, the shop likely will stay in the family.

But that’s a long time off.

“I’m probably going to go on working for awhile,” she said. “I really like people. If I didn’t have people to see and talk to, what would I do?”