Despite 55 years in business, three locations on the South Side, and three generations of women from the same family making roughly the same nine hoagies for all that time, the Real McCoy Sandwich Shop still packs in customers, like it does the meat and peppers on their signature sandwich.
That is to say, heavily.
Or more specifically, out the door, to the corner and down South 13th Street, and selling out its entire inventory, on their first day back from nearly a 16-month hiatus.
Shuttered since March 2012, the Real McCoy came roaring back to life July 1 in a new, third location at 1301 E. Carson St. That space previously was occupied by another longtime South Side haunt, the Pickle Barrel, which closed after a fire in March 2011.
Jennifer Gradnik is at the helm now, following in the footsteps of her mother, Kathy, and grandmother, Ginny Griffin, who started working at the shop shortly after it opened in 1958 and bought it from the original owner in the early 1970s.
The shop's first incarnation was at 2022 E. Carson -- now the home of a Subway, oddly enough -- before moving down the block in 1976 to 2010 E. Carson, which remained the Real McCoy's home until last year when the property changed hands, Ms. Gradnik said.
The shop was set to move into the new location almost immediately, but shortly after closing, Kathy Gradnik was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and died 10 days later.
"She was going to re-open the business," Jennifer Gradnik said. "After she died we weren't sure we were going to do it. God bless my father -- he said she would've wanted it.
"We went back and forth. I was thinking about going to nursing school, which is what I've always wanted to do. But I've worked here since I was 14. I just turned 40 and these people, a lot of these customers have known me since I played pinball standing on milk crates. I've had people come in and tell me they used to change my diaper," she said.
"It's really endearing, especially now that we have a 4-month old girl and my son's in preschool up the street."
The sandwiches basically boil down to this: a lot of meat and a lot of peppers. There are nine varieties. The namesake "Real McCoy" is made with ham and salami, with a hot pepper relish, oil, oregano, on a pillow of a Stagno's bun and served cold.
Other varieties include Polish Ham, Hot Sausage, Meatball, and Ribeye ($4 to $8.50 depending on size and style). Each is commemorated in a series of campy 1960s paintings done by a patron who Ms. Gradnik says went on to teach art around the world.
On their "first" day of business on July 1, the shop sold out completely -- twice.
Ms. Gradnik explained that she'd had 200 rolls delivered first thing that morning. By 1 p.m. she called Stagno's for 200 more. Patrons lined the sidewalks on a hot July day. Their phone rang off the hook. When it became clear that they'd run out again, she called Stagno's a second time and was rebuffed, so she gave out buy-one-get-one coupons for customers willing to return the next day. Ultimately, they had to lock the door so people would stop coming in.
She said her grandmother was skeptical: "She said, 'Jen, you better only order a hundred rolls for tomorrow. It's not going to be very busy.' I said, 'Gram, I don't know, I think we'll do pretty well.' She said, 'You call me at the end of the day and we'll see how many rolls you sell.' I'm so excited to call her -- that's more rolls than we've ever sold."
Mrs. Griffin, now 81 and retired, said she's thrilled the business is re-opened, but don't expect her behind the counter.
"I had enough of that," she laughed in the store's kitchen last Wednesday.
Now that's Ms. Gradnik's job, and it carries more meaning than it ever has.
"I'm sure later on when it slows down -- especially with my mom not being here -- I'll just sit down and cry," she said. "I've just never felt so flattered in my entire life. I can't believe how many people that have said, 'We've been waiting for you to open.' I just never realized how many people really loved us."
The Real McCoy Sandwich shop, at 1301 E. Carson St., is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; call 412-481-0566.
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @gigs412.