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Hillsdale’s newest sandwich shop has a liquor license, but owner Derek Spiteri isn’t sure he’s ready to use it.

Derek Spiteri stands behind the counter at Handmade. Facebook

Spiteri obtained a liquor license this spring, but as it approaches its first birthday, Handmade has developed along the sandwich line, being voted No. 10 on MLive’s list of the best sub shops in Michigan. Now, Spiteri said, he looks to improve speed of service in a restaurant that bills itself as both a quick lunch stop and a high-quality community eatery.

“‘Becoming a restaurant’ is kind of the story of what’s happened here. I’m buying pieces of restaurant equipment that improve our efficiency. But it’s taken a full year to settle down,” Spiteri said. “Handmade is evolving into a shape that it didn’t have nine months ago.”

With Spiteri’s background at Checker Records, he said he envisioned the shop as a stop for sandwiches and drinks, with a menu that would include an array of craft beers, including a coffee-flavored brew that he had planned as his signature.

But expanding the menu to include alcohol is about more than signing a piece of paper: Spiteri needs someone to sell him the beverages, customers who are willing to buy it, and a business model that will accommodate it.

“The liquor license is all set to go, but now I’m looking for a distributor,” Spiteri said.

Larger distributors are asking him to buy 500 units a week, and he doesn’t have that much room in the cooler.

He doesn’t have time in his schedule, either. Spiteri is busy making sandwiches, catering events, and buying new equipment that will make the serving process faster after a promising summer that cemented the shop’s place in the community.

“I was painfully aware that when the students left, we’d be less busy,” Spiteri said. “But there was less drop off than I anticipated.”

Handmade’s quality and variety are selling points for Angie Pytel, a visiting professor of chemistry.

Pytel claimed that she’s designed the perfect Handmade sandwich: It’s an Italian dip on warmed French bread. Sometimes, she chases it down with nitro-brew cold coffee.

This semester, she plans to switch up her office hours by holding meetings with students at Handmade and Rough Draft, the coffee shop across the street.

The fact that she can’t buy a beer at Handmade doesn’t ruin any of those plans, Pytel said.

“Honestly, when I go there, I don’t miss it,” said Pytel, who has been at Hillsdale since 2003 and remembers when Oakley, the previous name of the property Handmade now occupies, used to sell a variety of beers. “Handmade has become more of a lunch place. People get their sandwiches and then go back to work. And the beer isn’t going to make the sandwich taste any better.”

Handmade’s growing popularity both for drop-ins and catering orders is a blessing and a curse; wait times can stretch past 20 minutes on weekdays. To alleviate that issue, Pytel developed a strategy: she avoids the rushed lunch hour completely, showing up around 2 p.m. so she can have a quiet meal and get some work done to the tune of Handmade’s home-curated music playlist.

“The only thing holding them back is the capacity to put out sandwiches faster without losing their quality,” Pytel said.

Spiteri said he is working on improving speed of service by hiring more employees for the fall and purchasing more efficient equipment for the sandwich line in order to accommodate people with tight schedules.

Dylan Lottinville, a junior economics major, has established himself as a regular at Handmade — he ate there almost every day before the campus cafeteria opened. When something went wrong with his order two days in a row, Spiteri gave him his next sandwich on the house.

“A couple times the wait was really long, and he apologized the next time,” Lottinville said. “It’s nice when someone knows you, cares about you, and recognizes you.”

And the possibility of having a beer with his Santa Fe sub with spinach and jalapenos?

“I was just talking to my friends about this the other day,” Lottinville said. “I think it would be kinda cool. I’m not sure if it’s a huge draw, but it would be cool and unique. But it would change their image, since they’ve become more of a lunch place and a family place.”

The appearance of new businesses in town has helped Spiteri to discover and develop this niche. When Rough Draft opened, Spiteri said he began focusing more on researching creative flavors and combinations, such as pistachio lattes and espresso on ice cream.

The variety of unexpected flavors is part of what keeps people coming back, Spiteri said.

“It’s a nice mix of the college and town communities coming together,” Pytel said. “Derek is so passionate about his sandwiches. He can be as busy as he can be, and if someone comes in there and they look like they’re new, he’ll explain the menu and how it works … It’s just very sweet.”