Forty years after he purchased a fading Scotts Valley bakery, Erik Johnson found himself back where it all began, celebrating the success of Erik’s DeliCafe — a business he founded in a cramped, 600-square-foot space in the Kings Village Shopping Center that has grown to 32 locations throughout Northern California.
On Tuesday afternoon, a crowd gathered outside the original Erik’s DeliCafe in Scotts Valley to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the venerable chain of sandwich shops.
As the second day of a three-day celebration, 50 percent of the day’s proceeds were contributed to a local nonprofit — the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, and guests were treated to carrot cake and a Sandwiches With Character eating contest between mountain bikers and surfers.
And, at the center of it all, was Johnson, sporting the red-and-white checkered chef’s hat that has become his trademark.
Turn back the clock to 1973, and Johnson, then a 28-year-old real estate agent, found he was dissatisfied with his career and looking for a change.
“I was in the real estate business and I wasn’t making any money,” he said. “So I started to look for something small.”
He said he had looked into purchasing several different businesses, when he chanced into the Tartan Bakery, a small place in Scotts Valley that sold sandwiches, ice cream, and assorted baked goods.
“It was like a railroad car,” Johnson said, describing the tiny workspace.
He said he walked in on a Thursday, paid the owner $429 for her inventory that Sunday, and showed up the following morning to get a feel for what sort of business he’d gotten for himself.
“I came in the next morning at 11:30 and (the previous owner) just walked out the door,” Johnson said. “She said ‘I want out of here.’”
He said he stood there for a moment, then turned to the bakery’s one employee and said “Well, you better start teaching me how to make sandwiches.”
“I put on an apron and that’s how we got started.”
Johnson, who had no previous experience cooking or running a restaurant, said that the DeliCafe has been a family affair dating back to the early years when his father, Ray, would regularly make gallons of soups and chili; his mother, Dolores, would make carrot cake and other baked goods; and he and his wife, Judy, would often stay up nights shelling walnuts.
Customer feedback was the key to success, Johnson said, as many of the recipes went through a process of trial and error.
“(The business) was small enough that we could work out the recipes and grow,” he said. “Someone would say, ‘Hey! Tell your dad less salt next time.’”
Johnson cited the quality and consistency of the food served as essential to the business’ growth, including the famous Sandwiches With Character, usually named with a relevance toward the ingredients involved.
The first Sandwich With Character, “The Marrakech Express,” was inspired by the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song of the same name, and a ride that Johnson took on the actual Marrakesh Express train during a backpacking trip in North Africa in the late 1960s. The sandwich was introduced in 1974 and features Middle Eastern and Mediterranean ingredients such as feta cheese, pita bread, and Tzatziki sauce.
The business gained a following over the years, including customers like Robert Scott, of Boulder Creek, who has been a fan of Erik’s DeliCafe from day one.
“We were here the day they opened it,” Scott said. “We think it’s the best place in town.”
It’s not just locals either who have enjoyed the food at Erik’s DeliCafe. Over the years, the chain has hosted numerous celebrities and other luminaries — most notably the Dalai Lama, who stopped into the downtown Santa Cruz location in 1989 for carrot cake and tea.
The restaurant became popular enough that Johnson was able to take over the adjacent space — expanding the square footage of the original restaurant to its present 1,800 square feet — and open a second location in Capitola in 1976.
“I just focused on what was in front of me and it just grew as a result of what we were doing,” he said. “I have a passion for the business, the job, the customers, and the employees.”
As the company grew, Johnson, now in his late 60s, opened locations in Aptos and downtown Santa Cruz, which he still owns and operates along with the Scotts Valley and Capitola ones, and began franchise locations throughout the state — the most recent of which opened in Roseville.
As for Johnson himself, he said that he has enjoyed the success of his venture, and the opportunity to interact with customers on a daily basis.
“It’s the people, I just really enjoy interacting with people,” he said. “To me, that’s what keeps me going.”
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