The ‘Wich Sitch @ Driftwood

C Magazine dives into the history of one of the most popular lunch spots for Paly students. Driftwood Deli is more than a market, it’s a community.

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Anyone driving down El Camino in Palo Alto could easily miss the turn off into the tiny parking lot of the hidden gem, Driftwood Deli and Market. In fact, one might even mistake it as a part of the neighboring hotel. But once entering the store, you may encounter a crowd that fills the small building. Driftwood’s raving popularity, apparent in the constant lengthy lines, may deter potential customers;  however, at Driftwood, the wait is worth it.

Now a hotspot for many local high school students, Driftwood has not always attracted the same crowd; in the 1950s, the deli store was considered a “Mom and Pop” grocery store. Roberto Mendieta, a Driftwood employee for over nineteen years, first started working at the store when he was twenty-seven years old. He reminisces on the store’s history: before it was a popular place for Palo Alto teenagers, it was merely a neighborhood deli that promoted a sense of community in many ways. Mendieta reflects on the ways in which the deli has responded to changes within the community. “Over time it has changed quite a bit. Back then, [the usual customers were] neighborhood people, old timers, [and] they have already moved away,” Mendieta said. “But all [their] kids grow up and have kids and eventually move away as well.”

Within 40 years of its initial opening, Driftwood’s crowd had already changed drastically. In contrast to the more grocery-oriented customer base, Driftwood’s crowd was primarily comprised of men stopping in after their workday to take advantage of Driftwood’s specialized inventory. “We actually used to sell adult magazines,” Mendieta said. “We would have dads come and purchase milk…but then they would go straight to look at the magazines!”

Driftwood also underwent a considerable transformation regarding its central purpose; Mendieta explains the concept of the deli that Driftwood is today. “Back in the day it used to be a grocery store, then it switched hands and became a butcher store, and over time it started to become a deli.” The man who led this transformation was Steve Rezvani, who gained ownership of the deli in 1987. Rezvani is responsible for overseeing the significant changes, including making the deli the beloved lunch spot for high schoolers, businessmen and visitors, generating business and leading Driftwood to its current success. One thing that makes Driftwood such an iconic part of Palo Alto is its stagnancy in the community. The shop has remained in its same location next to The Creekside Inn since its beginning, surviving a rotation of businesses that surround it.

In addition to this crucial aspect, Driftwood is most famously known for its product—the sandwiches. Mendieta states that there isn’t a specific equation to the invention of their well-renowned sandwiches but instead many of them come from the customers themselves. Their extensive menu, which covers the entirety of the wall behind the deli counter,  offers numerous unique meals. However, Mendieta says that the deli only used to sell normal sandwiches. Initially, Driftwood only had three chalkboards displaying sandwich options, but this all changed when a customer named Jimmy asked for a personalized order. Mendieta recalls when this customer ordered what has now become a popular sandwich offering at the deli. “He ordered [his sandwich] so many times that he started telling his friends saying, ‘I have a sandwich at Driftwood, you should go try it,’’ Mendieta said. His friends began to come to the deli, asking for ‘Jimmy’s sandwich’, and it became so popular that Driftwood employees decided to name the sandwich ‘The Jimmy’s’. “We didn’t have enough room on the boards to put it up,” Mendieta said. “So we added another board for new sandwiches.”

Similar to The Jimmy’s, another popular sandwich among Paly students, The Kevin’s, has a similar origin story. “Kevin, who [worked] for Merrill Lynch, used to order a different sandwich every day,” Mendieta said. “But one day he came in and was like ‘I want a barbecue something.’”

Together, Mendieta and Kevin created a sandwich with barbecue beef, bacon, mayonnaise and hot sauce. After trying his new creation, Kevin, similar to Jimmy, started telling his co-workers about his sandwich. “They would come in and ask for what Kevin likes,” Mendieta said. Soon after, The Kevin’s joined The Jimmy’s on the Driftwood boards.

These two sandwiches are not the only customer creations that appear on the menu. Sandwiches such as The Cable Car and The Heaven on Earth are also popular sandwiches created by regular customers. Driftwood employees love to come up with new sandwiches and encourage customers to come up with their own as well, “If any customer comes up with a sandwich and it’s good, we put it on either the menu or the special of the day,” Mendieta said.

Walking in, Driftwood might be mistaken as a family business due to the vibrant welcome of employees who seem as close as a family, “[Steve and I] have been working together for so long that we have started to sound and look alike,” Mendieta said.  Something that Driftwood and its employees take great pride in is the continuously welcoming atmosphere that the shop holds. “I think it is the family atmosphere, because everywhere else is a chain store, as [the] Starbucks down the road,” Mendieta said.

Mendieta always picks up the phone-in orders and if he can recognize the caller’s voice, he greets them warmly. “When people come here, I want [them] to feel like [they] are not just a customer, but that [they] feel welcome.”

Over the past 10 years, Mendieta has seen Driftwood take off. While Driftwood has experienced longtime success, in the age of the Internet and Yelp reviews, its business has increased at an exponential rate. People visiting Palo Alto or Stanford University that are looking for fast and easy meals are immediately drawn to Driftwood, as it boasts an astounding 4.5 stars and a plethora of ravishing reviews on Yelp. With such booming business, the owners have considered expanding; “They [the business partners] did want us to open up another one,” Mendieta said. “But the thing is if we open another one then [customers] would want to see us there, but if [they] don’t see [the employees they know], I think people would be disappointed.”

For constantly returning customers, it would be hard to let go of the family feel that Driftwood provides. Driftwood employees take pride in the fact that they can easily recognize customers and remember their specific orders, and they don’t want to lose the sense of community that stems from those interactions. While Mendieta and his team are still considering branching out and opening another store, it would come with many costs. “You have to hire new people and teach them the ropes and how to talk to people,” Mendieta said. “I think it would be cool if we could actually venture out on another bigger project but right now, Steve and myself don’t really have time to do that.”

Though the idea of expansion is tempting, Mendieta is attached to the rhythmic nature of the deli. “I kinda want to keep it the same as it is,” Mendieta said. “I feel like we could move to a bigger place but it wouldn’t be the same.”

Though the future of Driftwood is unclear, the Palo Alto community will not be losing Driftwood Deli anytime soon. Like many other towns, Driftwood fills the role of the one shop that embodies the livelihood of the people around; the town would not be the same without it. The employees that work at Driftwood care about the little things, like checking if their customers want more toppings on their sandwich or asking about their families. “When you order here, we make sure to double check and I think that makes a difference,” Mendieta said. This sense of community Driftwood has instilled in the Palo Alto community has become immensely crucial to the culture, and it will remain a pillar of the high school experience for generations to come.