The Yellow Submarine, a Sparks sub shop, has a homey, neighborhoody feel to it, with the result that its regulars are very loyal, which may be a surprise for a tiny business in a strip mall. Michelle Howe-Stark’s perpetually upbeat manner seems to indicate she enjoys owning her own business. Gerald Ford was president when the business started. The shop receives almost uniform good reader reviews at online sites like TripAdvisor and UserInstinct. It’s located at 920 Holman Way.
I heard somewhere that you let your employees create their own sandwiches, and you put them on the menu for a month.
We do. We experiment. They’re around food, I’m around food. If I just go with what I think is right, how am I going to find out anything new? These guys come up with some of the greatest things. One of my employees came up with a really successful wrap, the Monkey Wrap. [They’ve] come up with all kinds of great specials, daily things that I would never have thought of. They’re the ones who got us on Facebook. I wouldn’t have done that. They’re just constantly coming up with great things.
You push a buy-local message here. You sometimes have a sandwich board out in front with that message.
Local business, my goodness, they’re getting pushed out. It’s Everywhere, U.S.A. You drive around, you see a strip mall, it’s got the same five, 10 businesses. Not that there’s anything wrong with those businesses, but what about the guys like Shelly’s Hardware and people like us and pizza parlors, and, you know, people that’ve been around with their niche. We can’t all be Walmarts. I like mom and pops. I am mom now.
How many of your customers are regulars?
Repeat customers? Percentage-wise, I would say 70 percent. But this year I think—actually, I think that kind of shifted in the last two years because we have—somebody’s out there doing word of mouth, because we have had so many new customers here in the last two years than I’ve seen in the whole time I’ve been here. …
How has the recession been for you?
We’ve been so lucky. It hasn’t hurt us a bit. Not a bit. But I think we’re in that niche where people will spend the money. … Plus, we’ve been here for 34 years.
What is it like owning a small business?
It’s hard. It’s a 24-hour kind of thing, but thankfully, I have wonderful people that are working for me. … Another employee just celebrated her 17th anniversary last weekend. … I consider myself a very fortunate owner. My husband has a full time job, but he’s great help to me. I’m kind of surrounded with a lot of good [people]. I take my days off and have my mental health time. You’ve got to delegate. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. … We get a lot of positive feedback—a lot. A lot of people come in and tell us. I mean, I’ve had people got to the trouble of calling us on the phone and saying things like “We appreciate you washing your hands as often as you do”—you know, weird little quirky things. It’s really neat. That just makes you more aware and I think makes you really want to try harder when you get that.
You seem not to worry about moving people out—you have board games, bookshelves.
Not at all—not at all. … I want people to come here and feel good and have fun. It’s not just money. Money’s important, obviously. I got to pay the bills. But there’s a lot more to it than that.