By Dave O’Sullivan
The DeCicco family is well known throughout Atlantic County, especially in the world of sub sandwiches, so when they were involved in opening up Chico & Sons in Northfield a few years ago the venture was bound to become a success. And right from the start the little sub shop on Tilton Road has become a staple eatery in the town.
These days Karol Kulakowski, a veteran of 20-plus years in the food and beverage service in Atlantic City’s casinos, has taken over the day-to-day operations and in the past six months he’s helped build on the foundation that DeCicco family laid. Despite a nationwide pandemic that has nearly crippled the restaurant industry, Chico & Sons continues to thrive with bustling take-out and delivery service of their popular subs, salads and pizza. And soon restaurants in New Jersey will begin phasing indoor dining back into the mix as Gov. Phil Murphy announced that on Sept. 4 eateries can begin to open to 25 percent capacity.
Chico & Sons was actually ahead of the curve in some respects, as it revamped the front patio of the shop before the pandemic hit to accommodate some outdoor dining this spring and summer.
“This was a great opportunity with a local boutique sub shop, and being a part of this is a challenge, but it’s also a great opportunity. I came in right before the pandemic and I knew this place had a lot of potential. We’ve done a lot of upgrades, and we have many more to come. I saw a lot of potential when I first came here, and we’re going to continue to upgrade,” said Kulakowski, who took over as manager back in January. “We did the outdoor dining — not because of the pandemic, originally, we just thought it might attract people. We did the big banner (on the side of the building) and some landscaping, plus some other additions here and there and some new items on the menu.”
Chico & Sons is not far from the intersection of New and Tilton roads, which makes for a quick, convenient lunch stop for a lot of on-the-go business owners such as landscapers and cleaners, as well as for other workers up and down Tilton Road and throughout the surrounding towns. Kulakowski credits his friendly, knowledgeable staff with helping the business power through the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The toughest thing (when I started) was I was coming into an existing business, so I had to figure out how everything worked, which employees were good. We have between 12 and 15 people now and it’s all about teamwork, really. Everyone knows their responsibilities so I don’t have to be overly involved in everything they are doing, because they know what they’re doing, and we have the best staff,” said Kulakowski, a 38-year-old Ventnor resident who has one daughter, Olivia, with wife Monica, who is a small business owner in the area. “We hire local people who are dedicated, and whoever wants to stay, stays. I always tell them, I don’t fire people, they usually fire themselves.”
The key to any sub shop is, obviously, making a great sub, but Kulakowski and his staff aren’t just satisfied with that. They are constantly coming up with new ideas for menu items and they test everything before putting it to market.
“We want this to be a nice boutique sub shop. We have a lot of classic menu items but we also have a lot of other items that you can’t find anywhere else. Like ‘The Soprano’ which is roasted pork with red roasted peppers, sharp provolone, chimichurri sauce and pickled onion. When we make subs we have tasting teams and if they like it, we put it on the menu,” he said. “We have new additions that are dinner style, like chicken parm, eggplant parm, meatballs, sausage and peppers, and we have homemade desserts coming. We also have wings, Greek salads; six different varieties of foot-long hot dogs are coming, so it’s going to be really neat.”
There’s nothing small about running a small business, Kulakowski knows, and every day brings new challenges.
“It’s a very challenging job. A lot of people think that when you’re a manager you just sit at a desk and that’s how your day goes. But you have call-outs, you have things that go wrong that you have to fix, maybe you have credit card issues, you have to deal with paychecks, advance orders, deliveries — it’s a lot. I haven’t had a day off yet, but when you’re part of a business like this, it’s 24/7. You’re always thinking about something, it’s always on your mind. You might forget about the business for an hour or two, but then you are right back at it,” he said. “But it’s a great experience on every level, customer service, customer satisfaction, interaction with the employees and vendors. It’s very educational, you learn things every day. Everybody who comes here loves our food, otherwise they wouldn’t come here, so we’ve been very successful. I’ve seen the growth since I’ve taken over — and I’m not saying it’s just because of me — but I see the growth and we get a lot of compliments about the appearance of the building and everything we have going on inside.
“Food and beverage competition is everywhere,” he added. “We’re not at a main intersection so we have to boost our advertising maybe more than another sub shop, but we have good products, good food, and that’s what brings people back. Our goal is to make sure we have returning customers.”
With the summer winding down there will be less population in the shore area, but Kulakowski said that’s not going to stop Chico & Sons from continuing to find new ways to be successful.
“Of course I want to see an increase in volume, like any business owner or manager, but so far we’ve been very successful,” he said. “People know we have good food here. We’re going to lose the summer people, but in November and December you’re into the holiday season and I believe we’ll continue to be busy. We do catering to a lot of offices as well as families.”
And if trying to manage every aspect of a sub shop on a daily basis isn’t enough, Kulakowski also has to deal with the trials and tribulations of raising a teenage daughter. Olivia turns 15 this month and is beginning her sophomore year at Atlantic City High School, where she’s a key member of the Vikings’ swim team and also is a very successful swimmer with the Egg Harbor Township Seahawks club team. But he deals with teenagers on a regular basis as employees at his shop, and he said sometimes the younger generation can get a bad rap. He’s really enjoying seeing his daughter grow into a successful high school student and athlete, and soon the family will begin the task of trying to figure out Olivia’s college path.
“Forget the restaurant challenge, having a teenage daughter is the biggest challenge,” Kulakowski said with a laugh. “Nowadays, with the electronics, they are very advanced with that stuff and I’m actually shocked at how good they are when it comes to work and taking care of their responsibilities. People think teenagers are on their phones all the time, but they do their jobs well.
“Watching Olivia grow and succeed in sports and school, that’s very rewarding because it means somewhere along the line you’ve done a good job as parents.”