Carl Wallin is a veteran of Erling Jensen's, Jarrett's, and most recently, Cheffie's Market. His current culinary assignment: reinvent Miss Cordelia's Deli in Harbor Town.
"I started [at Cordelia's] six months ago," he says. "But we've had to change things slowly. Before [me], Another Roadside Attraction catered the deli, and that's what people were used to. That was what they wanted, so it was hard to change. I tried to do some complicated food at first, but it didn't sell."
Over time, Wallin steadily altered the menu, adding a few new items at a time while trying to please the store's regular customers. Change, to this point, has been slow and steady, but the pace is about to pick up.
"Where we are sitting now," Wallin says, referring to Cordelia's break room, "this will all be my walk-in cooler. And we start knocking out the back wall in two weeks."
Miss Cordelia's, the tiny, overstuffed grocery, is expanding into an adjoining building. The new space, which has housed a string of coffee and smoothie shops, will become the store's new, improved deli.
"I can't believe I'm going to get to work on virgin equipment," Wallin exclaims. "For me, it's like a dream. Nobody ever gets to work with brand-new equipment unless they have a fortune to spend. The store is going to be twice this size. It will be wonderful."
Wallin seems the least likely person to become ecstatic over something as mundane as a new oven. He was a commercial airline pilot in Sweden before an injury he received in a hockey game grounded him for life. He went on to teach aviation in American colleges before the food bug bit.
"My wife and I drove past this new restaurant at lunchtime," Wallin says. "And every day there was a line out the door. I wondered what they had that would make people stand in line to eat. I wouldn't stand in line to eat." And that's how the pilot, ski-fanatic, and hockey player became a restaurateur.
Miss Cordelia's is a traditional community grocery. As the only market on Mud Island, it has a built-in clientele, and Cordelia's employees know their customers by name and by habit.
"It's an intimate relationship," Wallin boasts. "If there is something that one of our customers wants, we will get it for them. We keep a list."
Wallin conducted a community survey asking downtown residents to name their favorite sandwiches. He also went next door to the Montessori school to ask the kids the same question.
"We got 90 entries," Wallin says. "I made them all and took them to downtown businesses. I asked the businesses to grade them, and from that we picked 14 sandwiches and four kids' sandwiches. The kids like the ooey-gooey stuff. You know, with honey."
On the opposite end of the spectrum from "ooey-gooey," Wallin has been working with nutritionists from the Hope & Healing Center to develop a healthy, heart-friendly menu as well. There will be a gym opening across the street by the end of 2004, and all its health-conscious patrons have to eat somewhere.
The new deli at Miss Cordelia's will feature more than 100 items, boxed lunches, and specialty sandwiches, as well as a soup, salad, and sandwich bar.
"It will mostly be take-out," Wallin says. "But there will be some tables if you want to have your soup or sandwich here.
"We do not know the word 'no,'" Wallin says. "If we have it in the store and you want it on your sandwich, we will get it for you. We literally bring in what you want." That is, he says, the advantage of working in a grocery. "Our butcher has something like 25 years of experience. Our produce man, the same thing. It's just a great place to do something like this."
Miss Cordelia's Deli will continue to operate throughout the renovation, and many of the jury-selected sandwiches are already available. The sandwich menu runs the gamut from items like "The Big Stinky," with ham, turkey, provolone, red onion, tomato, red wine vinegar, dill pickles, jalapeno pepper, and spicy mustard, to a plain ole BLT. Entrees change on a daily basis.
Bread choices include ciabata roll, focaccia roll, and croissants from the French Bakery.