Sandwich Island sits in the northwest corner of the University Village International Food Court adjacent to an eclectic assortment of family-owned international restaurant options. For the last 20 years, Long Jang Wu has mixed her “made fresh everyday” potato salad, piled on meats and veggies on sandwich rolls, and served students, faculty members and South Los Angeles regulars.
Wu will make her last sandwich on May 31st, 2014 when the University of Southern California begins construction on the USC Village, a $1.1 billion redevelopment project that will transform the University Village into a “vibrant, pedestrian-oriented and safe environment.”
The USC Village will include new student housing, academic space and retail and entertainment offerings, according to USC. In addition, the redevelopment project will create 12,000 new jobs and the university plans to hire at least 30 percent of the jobs from local sources.
Though the university has attempted to help Wu find a new location for her popular sandwich shop, rental space near the university is limited and expensive.
“It’s very difficult to find locations for small businesses around USC,” Wu said. “The university tried to help us find a new location, but the good spots are either taken or too far away to keep the business we get from USC students, which is the most important.”
The university has given the restaurants in the International Food Court an option to return to the new USC Village in three years when retail spaces have been completed. The option exists, but the university hasn’t promised anything and Wu, who immigrated to the United States in 1982, hasn’t known much else other than Sandwich Island.
“I’ve been working here seven days a week for the last 20 years with my husband,” Wu Said. “Maybe we can rent a food truck temporarily, but it costs too much. The truck will set us back $3,500 per month and parking near the university will cost upwards of $1,500. That’s just something we can’t afford.”
On weekdays, Sandwich Island will serve upwards of 500 customers, the majority coming from USC, the largest private employer in Los Angeles County. You can find Wu’s daughter or son manning the sandwich station or cutting vegetables. And Wu is constantly trudging between the refrigerator and the register greeting regulars and meeting first-time customers.
Two large “Cash Only” signs are placed strategically at both the location to order and point of sale. Sandwich Island and many other businesses in the University Village International Food Court only take cash, choosing to avoid credit card processing fees.
“When we began, no one had credit cards,” Wu said. “The evolving technology and the processing fees, ultimately, scared us away from pursuing credit card options, but we definitely thought about the pros and cons.”
Though the cash only option hasn’t impacted Sandwich Island’s business negatively, the Great Recession sure has. When families or individuals struggle with paying the bills, they often take their lunch to work. The more people that take their lunch to work, the less business Sandwich Island gets.
In addition to the recession, an increase in competition, especially from the world’s largest restaurant chain, Subway, has impacted business at Sandwich Island. In a market where awareness is paramount, Subway has the upper hand. And with three locations within a mile from USC’s campus, purchasing a sandwich at Subway might also be more convenient for consumers.
Sandwich Island focuses on word-of-mouth marketing and with platforms like Yelp, the small sandwich shop tucked into a corner of the International Food Court has been able to stay competitive.
“I don’t know much about Yelp, but we have great reviews and that’s where a lot of our new customers learn about us,” Wu said.
On Yelp, Sandwich Island has 107 reviews with an average 4.5 out of 5 star rating. The reviews constantly compare Sandwich Island to Subway noting the cheaper prices and better taste of Wu’s restaurant.
In more than 20 years of business, Sandwich Island has only changed its prices four times. But with the volatility of wholesale meat and vegetable prices, which negatively impacts the bottom line of Sandwich Island, the lack of change might be surprising to some consumers.
“A few years ago, beef was $1.75 per pound,” Wu said. “Now beef costs $3.20 per pound. And the same with salmon. We paid $23 per pound of salmon last week, but I remember when we paid $15 per pound.”
When vegetables aren’t in season or when the weather is colder than usual and farmers struggle to keep up with demand, prices skyrocket. More importantly, prices rarely go down.
“The price of vegetables, in particular, seems to always be going up,” said Wu. “If it ever goes down, it never goes down too much.”
The fear of change, the impact of the recession and the idea of not having a job when USC begins to tear down the University Village constantly weigh on Wu.
“My mind is sharp, my memory is good and I think I can work at least 10 more years, but at my age, no one wants to hire me,” Wu said. “It’s very difficult to find a job and though I’d love to keep the restaurant, it doesn’t seem likely.”