Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Well-seasoned Sabo's returns to Queen City
Twinkies fans have waited since November for the MIA sponge cake to return to store shelves. That's nothing compared to how many years Queen City residents have waited for their next Sabo's sandwich fix.
Back in the '70s, the family-run business operated two shops, one on the east side of town and one on the west, where they popularized sandwiches rolled up in Syrian bread. That was long before wraps made with flour tortillas - a chewy, second-rate substitute - became a restaurant staple.
Sabo's and their popular seasoned French fries vanished in the early '90s, several years after the original owners sold the business. The name lived on only in Hampton Beach, where a Sabo's shop that has changed hands several times continues to operate.
Lisa Keating, whose uncles and late mother ran the original Sabo's, revived the brand in Manchester last month at 12 Lake Ave., just east of Elm Street and across the road from the Verizon Wireless Arena.
"Please welcome back Sabo's to the Manchester area. Yes, we are the original owners from back in the 70's with an added twist," the takeout menu says.
Part of that added twist is that Sabo's now also sells pizza because, well, because it can.
"The pizza confuses people. I've had people argue with me, 'You didn't do pizza, so you're not the real Sabo's,'" Keating says. "No, truly we are. I just bought the place with the pizza oven."
The Sabo's menu features hot and cold subs (most popular is the Italian), salads and "this and that," which includes fried pickles, chicken wings - and the aforementioned fries, listed on the menu as "Sabo's famous seasoned fries." Like Col. Sanders' 11 herbs and spices, the recipe for that seasoning remains a secret, and it's the memory of Sabo's that generates the most nostalgia, Keating says.
"There are two of us alive that know it," Keating says. "There are a couple of people who say they know the recipe, but when we sold the Sabo's (on Bridge Street) originally it was an altered recipe so it's not quite the same."
Sabo's Syrian subs, which are more than a foot long and come in only one size, are also a throwback to the '70s.
"Back then it was something that nobody ever did. Wraps weren't around then. Now a wrap is a tortilla, but we still use Syrian bread, and we still get it from the same place we got it back then before we had the bakery," Keating says, referring to a bakery her family once operated on Lake Avenue.
And while Syrian bread these days has been rechristened "pita" bread, it's not quite the same.
"Syrian bread is larger and thinner than the pita bread you see now in the stores. And if you go into a pizza shop where they have 'pita pockets,' it's pizza dough. It's different."
From the modest space the revived Sabo's now occupies, Keating has big dreams - to create a chain of them.
"It's probably a little bit far-fetched, but what we plan on doing is five in five years," says the Concord resident, who grew up on Manchester's east side. "We're talking to some other locations in New Hampshire."
In addition to the Granite State, she and her uncle, Richard George, one of the former owners, are also looking at Newport, R.I., and Provincetown, Mass., on Cape Cod.
Back in 1968 when Sabo's opened the original three stores, at Bridge and Union streets (now home to Julien's Corner Kitchen) and on 288 South Main St. (most recently occupied by Dickie Boy Subs) in Manchester, and at Hampton Beach, sandwich shops were mom-and-pop operations. Asked how the revived Sabo's will compete in the age of franchised sub shops, Keating displayed a matter-of-fact confidence.
"If you come here and you order chicken tenders, we're not grabbing them out of a bag. You're going to watch us dip them, batter them and fry them," she says. "Our meatballs aren't frozen. We make them here. "Everything is made here so you know you're truly getting good quality. We get our chicken daily so it's not something that is sitting in the cooler."
Keating, 44, has spent most of her career managing convenience stores and doughnut shops. After selling off Sabo's, her family operated sandwich stores under other names in various locales in Massachusetts. She had been itching to get back in the business when she learned from a friend about the empty Lake Avenue storefront. And after being locked up legally for many years, the Sabo's name was once again available.
"We saw it and within four days we signed the lease, and in a month later opened," Keating says. "It was quick. There wasn't any hesitation.
As for the name, there's no one named Sabo - pronounced SAY-BO - and never has been. The name combined elements of the original founders' last names: Saide and Boisvert.
Richard George, Keating's uncle, joined the company a year after its founding. He prefers to stay in the background these days, and said he helped revive Sabo's because his niece wanted to. "This place kind of fell into our hands. It was almost like a walk-in place."
Sabo's is open seven days a week at 10 a.m., closing at 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, at 8 p.m. on Sunday and at 10 p.m. - "or later" as the homespun menu says - on Friday and Saturday.
"If people are coming until midnight," Keating says. "I'll stay open until midnight."
Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.