Starting this fall, hungry Hillsdalians will be able to enjoy sandwiches at Oakley again, with an added perk: Checker Records-inspired coffee drinks.
Derek Spiteri, son of Checker Records owner John Spiteri, plans to open a sandwich and coffee shop in the Hillsdale Street building that housed the sub shop Oakley until it closed in October 2014.
The restaurant, featuring specialty coffee drinks, a sandwich kitchen, and outdoor seating along the St. Joseph River, will open this fall after extensive renovations.
“The menu is still subject to change,” Derek Spiteri said. “I plan to offer some specialty coffee drinks. Fan favorites from Checker Records might show up, but there will also be new products: drinks and sandwiches not offered at Checker Records.”
When the Spiteris purchased the property in December, they knew they had a lot of work to do before serving their first sub.
“First, we need to give the building some love,” Derek Spiteri. “The building has a huge hole in the roof right now. We don’t plan on keeping the sun roof, so a new roof has to happen before anything else.”
But after replacing the roof, the place shows promise.
Derek Spiteri said he noticed that Oakley’s backyard offers a scenic view of the St. Joseph River, something many other restaurants in Hillsdale lack.
“The biggest change is going to be outdoor seating along the river, where it’s not such an urban view,” Spiteri said. “We’ll use the back yard for a place where people can sit outside and talk or study.”
Although the whole family will help with the new business, John Spiteri said his son is in charge.
“A lot of this is Derek’s own adventure,” John Spiteri said. “We do some sandwiches here at Checker Records, but we can’t do that on a bigger level. With the set-up there, he’ll be able to do more at a faster pace.”
Derek Spiteri earned a degree in business management from Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne University in 2014, but he said much of his business knowledge came from working in his parents’ coffee shop throughout his childhood.
“You have to grow a business organically, and you have to be consistent,” Derek Spiteri said. “I remember dragging around a red wagon at the farmers market begging people to try Checker Records coffee. It took awhile, but eventually it caught on.”
Even aside from necessary renovations, establishing a new business takes time and careful planning, Derek Spiteri said.
“I plan to open in fall with a new name, but I’m not in a rush,” Derek Spiteri said. “Right now, I’m in fact-gathering mode. I’m asking, ‘What did you love about Oakley? What do you remember?’”
Hillsdale College photography professor Doug Coon remembers seeing a lot of businesses come and go in the building since his grandparents ran a grocery store there from the 1950s to the 1980s.
“I spent a lot of time there as a kid,” Coon said. “Since then, at least three or four owners have tried a sandwich shop in the old Oakley building, and over the years, it’s fallen into disrepair. It’s just tough to keep a small business going. I think what works in towns like this is specialized businesses, stuff the big chains don’t do well.”
But Coon said the Spiteris’ local connections and business experience will help spread the word about the new business.
“I’ve known John for a lot of my life,” Coon said. “There’s a group of us who meet at the coffee shop down at Checker Records every Sunday. John and his wife are there all the time. You’ve got to put in a lot of hours to survive. Derek has the opportunity to make this thing work. He’ll put the time in. He’ll be there. A lot of it is word of mouth, and once a place gets a buzz about it, people go there.”
As Checker Records customers learn of the new sub shop, John Spiteri has had to field concerns about the Spiteris’ existing business.
“Checker Records is going to stay here,” John Spiteri. “They’ll be two separate entities, with the same good service.”
Derek Spiteri said the restaurant will blend the old sub shop and his parents’ coffee shop into something fresh and new.
“People loved Oakley, and we’re not trying to take that away,” Derek Spiteri said. “We’re going to use what’s great about that and what’s great about Checker Records in the new place.”