Boondini’s sandwiches pile it high
by Susan Byrum Rountree | photography Eamon Queeney
A trip to Boondini’s Sandwich Superstore requires serious decision-making. With close to 45 sandwiches and seven salads on the menu, you could eat there every day of the week—some folks do—and not have the same thing twice.
Will it be The Secretary—fresh veggies and cheese on a pita with homemade cucumber dressing—or The Kaiser Bill—a hot sandwich, meat of your choice and two cheeses, served on a kaiser roll? That one’s self-named for Boondini’s owner Billy Williams, 68, who has manned the counter practically every day for the past 30 years. You’ll find nothing like Boondinis anywhere around, and Williams piles his signature sandwiches high with creativity. There’s the Slawd Amighty, roast beef or turkey on a kaiser with Thousand Island and slaw, and The Bureaucrat, hot roast beef on pumpernickel, created as a way to use more of that cucumber dressing. And fresh lemonade and orangeade, served over shaved ice. “We Make It Here” is the shop’s longtime slogan, and it’s true: Even the meatballs are handmade in the store.
Boondini’s began in 1977, when Billy Williams wanted out of a government job in Alabama. As a graduate student studying product design in the mid-70s, he’d devoured subs from Sadlack’s Heroes, the old sandwich shop on Hillsborough Street, and he thought he could duplicate the idea. He and a friend from Buies Creek rented a space near Campbell University’s campus–the first Boondini’s—borrowing the nickname of Williams’ step-niece. Boondini’s sandwiches are designed, not made, he says, piled high with ingredients that spill out of the edges. Soups simmer toward the very top of the bowl. Recipes have come from family and staff, but “we alter everything according to my taste buds,” he says. What makes the perfect sandwich? “It has to look good and taste good,” he says, pointing to the small posters he designed years ago describing how to make each one. In the mid-80s, a golfing buddy and customer offered to help him relocate his signature menu to north Raleigh. He found space and started designing—everything from the staggered wall line and slanted counter to graphics describing how to build each of the sandwiches—hiring an artist to create a wall mural filled with characters from children’s storybooks, a rack of Highlights magazines nearby. Grab a table, read while you wait or study one of the half-dozen maps on the walls pulled from the pages of National Geographic.
For more than 30 years, Boondini’s has developed a cult following in north Raleigh’s Celebration at Six Forks. Business professionals, high school students and families line up at the counter to give Williams their order. “Go ahead,” he says, scribbling in a shorthand only the staff can decipher (there is actually a book about how to read it). “People can’t believe I still take orders with pen and paper,” Williams says. But creating the perfect sandwich requires extensive training on how to even take that order. Some of the newer sandwiches on the menu evolved from the kitchen staff, who Williams describes as the best in town. The Mexican Chicken Sub grew from the lunch cravings of Boondini’s largely Hispanic crew, and now it’s a customer favorite. Dr. Lynn Wiggs, whose dentist office sits across the street, has been a regular at Boondini’s since it opened. His picture is on the wall. “The staff treats me like royalty,” he says. “You won’t find anything like his sandwiches anywhere.” Wiggs says that he has patients who schedule their dental visits close to lunchtime just so they can eat with him at Boondinis. “And then there is Billy himself,” Wiggs says. “I met him the first day. We have a standing $5 bet on every game State and Wake Forest play. It costs me $5 more than the food, every time.”
In three decades, Williams has created a “real community place,” as he banters with customers—especially Carolina and Duke fans—when they walk through the door. Unfortunately, it’s a community that may soon be looking for a new home: Williams loses his lease at the end of this year, and he hopes to retire. If it reopens somewhere else he hopes the new owner will be just as passionate. Once Williams is retired, he says he won’t miss the everyday. There’s golf and playing the harmonica and fishing on the agenda. But he will miss the community—and the sandwiches.