Editor’s note: Even the most devoted Thanksgiving turkey enthusiast eventually needs a change of protein. To that end, Rivard Report staff roamed the city to find hidden gems and longtime local favorites, and other independent eateries that serve slices of San Antonio’s manifold cultures. For more stories in our Escape the Turkey series, click here.
It’s midday, and the line is nearly to the door. Cooks clang their spatulas on a sizzling grill and call out orders by name.
With their footlong, butcher paper-wrapped sandwiches in hand, students, couples, and coworkers on lunch break seat themselves at tall wooden tables and benches that stretch from one end of the room to the other beneath vintage beer pool-table light fixtures.
That’s how it goes seven days a week at this Northside convenience store where – though you can no longer fill up your tank – you can buy bagged chips, snacks, and Slim Jim’s, pick up a fountain drink, six-pack, or bag of ice, play the lottery, and, of course, order a double-meat Philly cheesesteak.
“By far, one of my favorite quick-trip stops and Philly sandwiches in San Antonio!” said Amanda Spencer, who blogs about food and travel.
Gino’s Deli Stop n Buy is considered a quirky, well-kept secret among locals who appreciate good food at a fair price in a neighborly atmosphere. Owner Aleem Chaudhry purchased the store in 2004 – a gas station at the time – after coming to San Antonio by way of New York City and Michigan a dozen years earlier.
Chaudhry loves to cook, so when Valero and Shell gas stations moved into the neighborhood, he shut down the fuel pumps and fired up the grill.
“I knew I couldn’t compete with the big corporations,” he said. “But I knew they couldn’t compete with my food. No matter how hard they try, they will not be able to match my quality. It’s my passion.”
With the right team and training, Chaudhry has made Gino’s, named for a Brooklyn deli where he once worked, the only San Antonio restaurant on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat for 2018. The restaurant search app creates the list by taking into account ratings and number of reviews, plus quality and popularity.
“I don’t advertise,” he said. “I depend on word of mouth. I would rather invest in the food and customer service.”
Chaudhry said he buys all the bread he uses to make sandwiches from The Bread Box (locally owned by Tina and Kent Lucas), makes weekly trips to the Produce Terminal on the near West Side to choose fresh produce, and spends extra on top-quality ribeye steak, other meats, and six kinds of cheese.
The most important difference, he said, is customer service and how he trains and motivates the team of 11 cooks who work at Gino’s. Every day, Chaudhry tapes two $10 bills to a wall in the kitchen – a cash bonus the cooks can earn if they meet certain goals. There are tips and monthly bonuses, too.
“But they have to earn it,” Chaudhry said. “I see potential in people. I just have to motivate them.”
By design, the kitchen at Gino’s is open to the dining area and store so customers can watch the cooks prepare the food. They work fast, calling out orders and requests to one another – “No bell peppers … Salt and pepper?” – in an effort to communicate clearly and efficiently in the tight space.
Chaudhry is one of six children in a family that immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. He arrived in San Antonio in 1994 with only $100 in his pocket and went to work as a cashier in the same Stop n Buy he now owns. If Chaudhry is the heart of the store, his brother Azeem is the brains of the operation, he said, helping run the store, its website, and social media accounts.
Their efforts have garnered Chaudhry more repeat customers than he can count, with people coming three to four times a week. One elderly gentleman, whom the cooks good-naturedly refer to as “the stud,” visits weekly for a spicy Philly cheesesteak he shares with his brother. Chaudhry said 80 percent of his customers live within a two-mile radius, but he also gets about 40 new customers a day.
Some Gino’s regulars are Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu, so the ham Chaudhry serves at the store is turkey, not pork, and the pepperoni, bacon, and salami are made from beef. He said all his customers love the taste and fewer calories, as well as the vegetarian options he offers. Barbacoa lovers can get that delicacy by the pound or taco on Saturdays and Sundays.
Chaudhry’s personal favorites on the menu are the cold roast beef sandwich with mayonnaise, tomato, and American cheese, and the hamburger with cheese, onions, and a fried egg. He prefers his Philly cheesesteak with serrano peppers.
If the cooks get an order wrong or a customer is dissatisfied for any reason, the meal is free at Gino’s. “That’s just good business,” Chaudhry said. “If you don’t like it, it doesn’t make sense to me that you would pay.”
Only twice this year have customers taken him up on it because their order wasn’t quite right – one sandwich got mustard instead of mayo, for instance. “But that’s two too many people for me,” Chaudhry said.
Gino’s will not be open on Thanksgiving Day, Chaudhry said, because he knows business would be too slow. But the store, located at 13210 Huebner Rd., will reopen on Friday, Nov. 23 for lunch, dinner, and take-out.