Big G’s Deli History
One early morning in the spring of 1986 my alarm clock went off at 2:30 a.m., and I began my first day of work at my new sandwich shop, Big G’s. It was a long day, filled with stresses and a few scary moments, but from the instant I unlocked the door until we closed, it was exciting and lots of fun! I went to bed that night very tired, but charged with the satisfaction that I had given my first few customers the best service and food that I could muster. Today when someone asks me why I chose this business, I really have a hard time answering their question. I guess I could say that the food trade simply felt natural and right for me. In our world food is a necessity, a reward, and a punishment. It’s a habit, a compulsion, an addiction! We buy sell and trade it. In some cultures we actually use it as money. Food is the fuel for our existence; it nourishes us, and in some cases destroys us! It is frequently on our minds and in our conversations. Food is a large part of our weddings, funerals, graduations, and is the central focus of parties and holidays. We generally rate our vacations by the quality and quantity of food we enjoyed. Food itself is the reason for thousands of celebrations around the world. We have eating contests, cooking contests, cooking shows, cookbooks, and on and on and on… Food is everywhere…It is the living things that are sacrificed to allow us to live, it is life…
And today food is my business. It took all the experience, creativity, and God given abilities that I could find in myself, lots of hard work and a ton of luck.
Starting in the late 60s, I worked my way up from washing dishes at Colby College, to doing salad prep and helping the baker. After high school I was hired as a full time cook at Colby. I worked there for several years learning the basics of food service. In the early 70s John Martin Manor Restaurant opened and took the Waterville area by storm. I was hired as a cook, working mostly on the broilers and as an expediter on the line. I had the honor of working with the best crew ever! As a matter of fact, five of us have gone on to run our own businesses. Around this time I became more and more dependant on drugs and alcohol. They became my daily relief and prevalent in all by activities. I believed that their use was necessary for my jobs and lifestyle. A few years later I learned the truth.
I was the chef at a summer boy’s camp for ten years during this period. During the next few years I drove a tractor trailer rig and worked as a carpenter and mechanic part time, along with a full time cooking job. I decided in 1977 to try food service management and for two years I worked at a prep school in Western Mass.
There, I learned a lot about the business from a different perspective. As the director of 25 employees and in the middle; between my company and the school management; I was able to sharpen my “people skills” and learn how to stay a couple steps ahead of the competition. I worked 10 to 12 hours daily and was always attending weekend management seminars. My free time was dwindling down fast and I was really wearing out myself. My relationship with my family suffered and eventually they moved back home. Despite all this, I was advancing very quickly and getting offers of better positions every time I got together with the bosses. Finally, in the spring of 1979, the absence of my family and other mounting stresses took their toll, I bugged out. I left the school and started working with a couple friends at a Deli in the Berkshires, very similar to my present business. I started to go downhill quickly, I guess the use of drugs and alcohol since High School was taking its toll. It wasn’t long before I was back home and very close to my “bottom”. I started cooking again in local restaurants but my drinking and drugging was out of control. In November of 1979 my Dad and a friend convinced me to get help. I checked into the drug and alcohol program at Seton and spent 30 days working on myself and learning about my malady. Since then, I have managed, with much help, to stay away from the “Dark side…”
Supported by friends and family, fueled by the desire to succeed, and trying to have all the fun I could in there somewhere, I started to create Big G’s Deli back in 1986.
I bought an old two story building, located at 18 Monument St. in Winslow ME that had a second floor apartment and retail space on the ground floor. The building had originally been constructed as a candy store with upstairs living quarters. Later during prohibition it doubled as a bootleg outlet. In the 60s it was “Norman’s Meat Market”, and later in the 70s a local grocery store. The last business had been a used furniture store, and there were probably a few more ventures that had come and gone over the previous 90 or so years! When I became its newest owner, I found the downstairs burnt out, gutted, and filled with rubbish and junk of all sorts. The upstairs apartment was a mess. Cats had taken over the master bedroom and the foul smell of their excretions permeated the whole upstairs! Most of the rooms were badly painted, streaked with wild colors. The plumbing leaked and most of the windows were cracked. The place had no driveway, no front lawn, and the building itself was only a few feet from the street. The tiny back yard was crammed with the heaps of useless rubbish, remnants of the business ventures that had all passed away as time elapsed.
The chimney was falling apart, the outside of the building was covered with 3 different kinds of siding, and the whole yard was overtaken with the nastiest bunch of weeds, shrubs, and small trees that I have ever seen! For some strange reason, I loved it! The real estate agent assured me that if anyone could make an eating place out of that mess, it was me! I figured that he was quite desperate to unload this property! Phil and I ended up negotiating a great deal on the price and he actually helped me with all sorts of problems I encountered during renovation. This man really did believe in me and has encouraged and congratulated me on the success of Big G’s over the years.
Immediately after the real estate closing, I attacked the upstairs, preparing it for living quarters. In a couple weeks we were able to move in and I started creating “Big G’s” downstairs.
I gutted the entire downstairs and separated the space with a counter. Behind the counter I installed a gigantic 10 burner used stove with 2 ovens, an old fridge that would give you a shock if you touched it and another object at the same time, a couple old microwaves, and a bunch of additional used equipment I would need.
On the other side of the counter we decorated with whatever was cheap and looked comfy. This included a TV, a huge couch, plants of all sorts, and tons of pictures. We also managed to get in a couple signs and a coke cooler. I covered the worn and wounded floor with carpeting, installed a few used lights, and moved in an ancient five hundred pound radiator for heat.
I stuck a sign on the front of the building that said “Big G’s Deli and Sandwich Shop”. We were informed by the town that because of the lack of parking places we couldn’t have inside seating, so I put a couple big picnic tables out on the sidewalk.
Bob, who I had been working with at John Martin’s, decided to help me with the menu and recipes. Bob was Big G’s first employee, ended up working with me for many years.
We started with a sandwich menu that I had pieced together from my experience working in different restaurants. A few of my ideas had come from the sandwich shop in Williamstown, Massachusetts that I had been involved in. I named some of the sandwiches after my favorite characters in politics, in the movies, and in history. Bob helped with the spelling and a little with the historical facts. He also gave me the assistance that I needed to carry through with my ideas. If it weren’t for Bob’s loyalty, encouragement, and common love for the business; I would never have opened. At thirty-four years of age and after only working for others, I was scared and concerned that I had not made the right career choice! When I thought the place was finally ready, Bob and I took my menu and went shopping at the local “Shop n’ Save” one morning to stock up on all the groceries we would need to open the next day. With sandwiches being the focus of the menu, we spent lots of time looking at different breads. We couldn’t find anything that was suitable for the sandwiches we had in mind. To this day, I can’t remember whose idea it was, but we decided, the day before we opened, that we would make our own bread! We scrambled the rest of the day and most of that night to come up with the right recipe. Very tired and covered with flower, Bob and I were about to give up when finally, sometime around daybreak, one loaf of test bread at last emerged as our winner! It was the perfect choice for our basic four varieties. It tasted great and was soft and pliable for sandwich construction, but it was huge! Should we cut the size? Would that spoil the consistency? We decided not to change a thing and at that moment the size of Big G’s sandwiches was born!
The next morning, April 21st, 1986, we opened. Almost all of our customers for the first week were relatives and friends. After a couple months of patient hard work, we started to see a small increase in the number of local customers. But business still wasn’t good enough to support us financially. I can remember sitting on the front steps with Bob at lunchtime and wondering when or even if we would ever make it. We watched cooking shows and listened to classical music as we schemed and planned. We thought about advertising, but no money was available. I could barely pay Bob!
Finally, in the middle of that winter we got our break! Four Colby College coeds happened in one evening and all ordered sandwiches. They sat on the floor eating and watching “Cheers”.
The next day, they brought their friends to try out the “Strange little sandwich shop in Winslow”, and within two weeks, Bob and I were hiring our third employee and making our sandwiches by the dozens. We had become a Colby dining phenomena! About a month after this, we started delivering our food and were discovered by the Scott Paper Co. Shortly after that, all hell broke loose…We outgrew 18 Monument St. within 2 years and ended up a few streets over on Halifax St. in Winslow ME.
The building there had been a neighborhood store and meat market, owned and operated by the same family for many years. It was rented as an Italian restaurant for a few years before we came along. This place was slightly better than our Monument St. location but still needed a few miracles to get it up and going. We cleaned it out, and I did the renovations myself. I built counters, got the hood system working, created a dish room, installed our ovens and mixers, and fired up the old walk-in. I bought a few pieces of new equipment, and decorated with all the old nostalgic junk my wife could muster. We moved one Friday in late July of 1989. We opened the next morning with the help of friends and family and started serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner!
Despite the old equipment, inadequate parking, lack of cooking space, and the small dinning room, we grew our sales and reputation faster than I could imagine! The Colby Graduation weekends brought huge crowds forming a line that stretched totally around the building! Customers came from all over the state to try Big G’s and before 4 years had come and gone the growing pains were back. We felt boxed in, with no space to grow. Even though most of our customers were patient and very forgiving, the lines and lack of seats had become an issue. Financially it would have been almost impossible for me to finance the big move/expansion that Big G’s now needed. I wondered what I could do to feed this monster that I had created, and I felt that it was getting more difficult each day for me to split my time between the paperwork and the physical work. I decided that I needed help with the financial part and started asking for some kind of assistance. I guess that my timing was right because within a few months I had a full partner, with deep pockets and the same kind of passion for Big G’s that I have always had! The other Jerry came into the picture in 1991.
We have been solid, trusting, successful partners ever since.
After working on a business plan, cleaning up financial issues, and getting comfortable working together, we decided that it was time to bring G’s to the next level.
We searched the Winslow/Waterville area for several months and finally found the present home of Big G’s. The original building was tiny, containing only a handful of seats and a very small kitchen. In the spring of 1993 Albert Deserosier and his sons, Mike and Renny began the construction with an expansion of the kitchen and an addition, increasing the dinning room to three times its size. Since then, we have enlarged the size of our building four times, stretched our parking lot several times and added loads of new items to our menu.
Through the years and all the moves and expansions, I feel that my original concept and style has been preserved. I have, and will continue to maintain the quality and presentation of our products as long as the good Lord allows…
In October of 2015 I had major heart surgery. It was successful, but a great warning for me to cut back and enjoy a little model making and horseback ridding, my two hobbies.
Today I work at the deli a couple days a week but I’m always around and available for my staff and customers. I still work at the management, staffing, and advertising. My partner, Jerome is there with me today as much as in the early days. We have become old friends and still enjoy our common bond. Big G’s!
My son Josh, who has worked at the Deli since he was a teen, has taken over many of my responsibilities over the last couple years. He is now a partner in the business and has become a truly priceless part of the team.
Today, my alarm still goes off at 2:30 am. My workdays are long and often stressful and a little scary. But each one always brings challenges, joys and great satisfaction. I hit the bed tired each night with a prayer that I can, through our staff and myself; once again feed and treat our customers with the same enthusiasm that was so very important back in 1986. To me, the greatest reward in this business is satisfied customers!
Thanks so much for all the years and may we enjoy many more together…