It's 10:15 a.m. and there's already a line forming inside an unobtrusive corner market in an Oak Park residential neighborhood. White people. Black people. Old people. Young people. Men in suits. Teachers. Truck Drivers. They're all in line waiting for the same thing: some love.
"I'm gonna hook you up, Baby," Ernie Hassan tells each customer with affection and attention that he shows towards every customer -- whether they're a first-timer or a regular for decades -- and puts into each individual sandwich.
Ernie is the proprietor of Ernie's Market, a hidden gem of a sandwich shop in the middle of an Oak Park residential neighborhood that many don't know about yet many flock out of their way to indulge in his old school style deli sandwiches. It's an art he learned from his grandfather and father ever since he could reach the slicer. His family had a store at Peterbourgh and Cass in the city. That's where his mom met his dad. In 1950. Ernie's dad bought the current location at Capital and Republic in Oak Park where Ernie has been pounding the pavement with "street eatzz" ever since.
Ernie greets every customer by name. If it's your first time, he calls you Baby, makes you hold out your open palm, hands out a bunch of Hershey Kisses, and then introduces himself as a friend for life.
"Well, sometimes people are having a hard day or have a bad attitude," Ernie says. "When I give the some love and kisses, they always smile and leave here in a better mood, Baby."
Sandwiches come in three varieties: $3, $4 and $5. There's no menu on the wall, and the fillings are dependent upon whatever meats he decides to slice to order for the day. One day the turkey is oven-roasted and the next day it may be smoked. He handpicks everything he puts between two ends of a bun -- even the buns themselves.
The bread delivery guy comes in and lays out the packages of onion rolls that were ordered for the day. Ernie tells him, "I love ya, Baby, but I can't use these buns." He asks me why he shouldn't keep them. I tell him that they were overdone and will taste a bit bitter. I pass the test and Ernie sends them back but still has that smile and goodness on his face.
"I always have to have the best for my friends," he says.
All late morning and early afternoon long, Ernie puts on his cheerful song and dance routine while carefully layering the ingredients on fresh-baked buns in what he calls the rainbow effect -- a special order as to what ingredients goes on from first to last. Every sandwich is topped with his secret love spice mixture.
After Ernie cranks out sandwiches with his trusted assistant of seven years, Joann, he cuts them in half and shows off his creation just before wrapping it up to go.
First-timers don't get their work of art cut in half. Ernie wants them to eat it whole to get the full effect.
If a jaw-cracking mound of meat isn't in your diet, Ernie hooks up his vegetarian and vegan friends, too.
Just as luck would have it, a vegetarian customer, Chris Ryan, walks in and Ernie explains what he always orders: a sandwich made of sundried cherries, crisp tart granny smith apples and all the complimentary veggies any veg head would desire.
"I love it," Chris says. "It's all I get because he always hooks me up."
Another customer, Bruce Channel, walks in, and, of course, is greeted by name. He's been coming to Ernie's for the past 15 years. He tells Ernie he needs to take up skydiving so he can spread his love spice into the jet stream to make our world a happier place.
Ernie's Market is at 8500 Capital Street in Oak Park.
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