130 N. Front St.
Prices: $2 – $8
Anyone strolling downtown most likely will walk by Chop’s Deli. It’s prime real estate, directly on Front Street, which makes it foot-traffic friendly. Inside is a place of nonchalant pride. Without even a sign to indicate its name, Chop’s stacked its way into the heart of downtown Wilmington on something much more impressive than an ad campaign: the approval of the people.
“People really enjoy turning people onto Chop’s,” Chris Graham, brain-father of the downtown eatery, says, “because they know the person will call them back and go ‘Oh, my god!’”
He’s right. Since my first visit, I’ve told anyone and everyone who likes sandwiches that they have to go. Right then. The question is: Why? The answer comes in many parts, all of which stem from only one source, the owners, Chris Graham and Brad Corpening.
The two met working part-time, late-night shifts at another downtown culinary staple, Dixie Grill. Working side by side, they each noticed the other’s pride for the quality of food they were producing. They weren’t simply slinging burgers. They were serving edible masterpieces, and they were damn proud of it. Their hard work-ethic bonded them, and when Chris found a space to open his dream deli, he knew Brad was the right fit. Apparently, Brad knew it, too. Chris’s proposition simply went: “Hey, wanna open a restaurant?” Brad didn’t miss a beat: “Sure, man, what do you have in mind?”
From there everything was a touch-and-go experiment. The shop came with the tables, equipment and a deli case, but they lacked the most important component—a menu. Chris tackled the collaboration with one philosophy: unique sandwiches and soups. He wanted to push the limits and come up with interesting new flavors. Looking for inspiration, he reached into the past of his bartending days, when he would stare at the labels of ingredients until new concoctions would mix together in his mind.
“A lot of it is just shit luck,” he says, downplaying his genius. “A little of that, a little of this, and a little more of that can go a long way. I just start putting things together and trying things out, and usually it’s delicious.”
Just shit luck? I don’t buy it. Neither does Brad. “Putting the menu together was incredible,” he says. “Chris has years of kitchen and general-cooking knowledge, where he can take a bunch of random ingredients and put them into something that’s just crazy. He puts flavors together in ways that I would have never thought of, and it all comes out delicious.”
The key to Chris’ culinary creativity is logic. A meal is only as good as what it can be made with, so it all begins with the ingredients, which are of the utmost quality at Chop’s. Everything—the meats, cheeses, condiments—are made by Boar’s Head, a company who adds no preservatives, nitrates or chemicals. Thus keeping Chop’s products natural and energizing instead of inner-thigh-add-ons. The produce comes from the Riverfront Farmers’ Market every weekend, yielding those awesomely fresh soups, such as cream of eggplant and turnip. Also, three times a week Sweet & Savory delivers a new batch of breads. Basically, nothing is being thrown onto a sandwich or mixed into a pot that isn’t fresh off a slicer, cart or oven rack.
Still, simple logic is ham and cheese on white bread. Chris’ logic is the Malmo: ham and cheese spread (pimento cheese with pecans, chopped ham and olives), maple-glazed chicken, red onion, tomato and mayonnaise on multi-grain. Or the Constantinople: a towering sandwich of corned beef, pastrami, oven-gold turkey, Swiss, red onion, roasted red peppers, and fruit chutney on rye and three-cheese semolina. Yes, that’s two breads for one sandwich.
“Constantinople was one of the most fought-over cities ever, right in between Greece and Turkey,” Chris explains. “You’ve got this sandwich that if you look at it from different sides, then it’s a different thing.”
While Chris may be the man behind the menu, Brad is the face behind the counter: awesomely fuzzy sideburns and a communal greeting to everyone who approaches. “Hey! I am Brad, what’s your name?” he says every day, to every customer. Even more impressive, he almost always remembers the person—and that trend is transcending.
“The people that are eating in here two to four times a week are seeing some of the same people that they otherwise would have never spoken to,” Chris says, “but now they pick up on their name, and we see them addressing each other. I’m like, ‘How do you know Pete?’ and they’ll go, ‘From in here.’ That is what a community downtown deli needs to be. That’s what a deli is.”
Already a classic, Chop’s has put a 21st-century spin on the delicatessen. While all businesses seem to have a Facebook page these days, Chop’s uses theirs to fine-tune their customer appreciation and engagement by picking out a random friend each day and giving them a free meal—just because.
Unique sandwiches. Communal atmosphere. Outgoing staff. Chop’s took basic deli staples and warped them with distinctive adjectives, setting it apart from any Jim’s or Joe’s. Yet, none of it could be done without the passion and philosophy of Chris and Brad, who work not for themselves but for us.
“The way we do it, we don’t make as much profit of off one item,” Brad tells me. “We make that one individual item damn good, so that the person has it once, loves it, and is gonna come back.”
Word-of-mouth advertising seemingly serves Chop’s and its diners well.