Casapula looks back at 20 years in the sandwich biz
For Al Casapula, owning Al Casapula’s Subs, Steaks and Pizza has been a dream come true. Having it become what is has over its 20-year lifespan has been a dream surpassed.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Casapula. “Never in a million years did I think it would be what it is today. It’s incredible.”
He started the restaurant in the building that was formerly the Willey Store in Millville, when it still had gas pumps outside, in 1988. He had been living in Wilmington and vacationing in the Bethany Beach area, and was looking for a place to buy. He and his wife were going to eat at the place, then called Skeeters, but left because it was “rough-looking.” A real estate agent friend then called and told him of a place that was for sale, which turned out to be the very same Skeeters.
“I thought, ‘Are you nuts?’” said Casapula. “But the price was right. So, we made an offer and they took it, and they agreed to hold financing — so it was meant to be.”
He said he tried to bring character to the “rough” building, with its crooked floors and tired interior.
“I hung a sign that said, ‘Please excuse our wop-sided floors,’ and people loved it,” shared Casapula.
The new restaurant was open in time for Memorial Day weekend, and it was an eye-opener for the new business owner.
“Friday, I started with one boy helping me and I hired one local lady,” he recalled. “I ordered 12 dozen rolls, and I ran out of rolls. One guy came in, and I told him I didn’t have any more rolls. So he left and went home, and came back with three rolls, and gave me them and said, ‘Make me a sandwich,’ and told me to keep the other two.
“I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ I didn’t know what I had myself gotten into. Money was real tight then, so I called my family for help,” Casapula said. “So, on Saturday, I had cousins and aunts and uncles down to help, and I ordered 45 dozen rolls, and we ran out of them. On Sunday, I ordered 45 dozen rolls, and ran out again. And I haven’t looked back since.”
Casapula always thought he would own a shop or a construction company. The sandwich business has been in the family since his grandfather’s brother opened the original Casapula’s in Elsmere some 50 years ago.
Over the years, Casapula has owned several franchises of the shop — at one point he had stores in Georgetown, Ocean Pines and Fenwick Island. But he has since gotten out of it. He now concentrates on his only store, in Millville, where he moved in 1991, and which keeps him busy six days a week.
He credits his wife and family for being understanding, as the business takes a lot of his time. He is proud of the fact that he maintains an award-winning year-round business and that it’s able to cater to local residents. He has watched the community grow and has been able to watch people and families grow as well, all within the confines of his restaurant.
“In the beginning, I was homesick. So, for the first couple years, I would drive back and forth every day [to Wilmington],” he said. “After Labor Day, the business was nothing like in the summer. It was so bad then, there was a support group at St. Ann’s for people who were having trouble adjusting to the winter.
“But, I’d never go back now,” he emphasized. “I’m blessed a million times over to be able to live here. The customers are great, and I’ve made so many friends. We’ve had people come in as kids who grew up, and now they bring their kids in.”
Over the years, the menu and location have changed, but the general idea to serve great sandwiches and conversation has remained the same. And that consistency has rolled over into his staff as well — some of whom have been with him 13 or 14 years.
When not busy with the restaurant, Casapula likes to travel, and he and his wife enjoy sharing America and its goodness with the foreign workers who come for the summer. A few summers ago, he started a ministry where he would give out bags with toiletries and a ticket to come and eat pizza at Casapula’s one night a week, so the foreign workers could meet each other — so they would have “good memories” of their time here.
One summer, he and his wife had four girls from Lithuania come and stay with them for the summer and work, and they “were like daughters,” said Casapula. He said he hasn’t touched base with what will happen this summer but will most likely have some sort of get-together on Monday or Tuesday nights for foreign workers. In past years, the group has grown to where they would meet at Mariner’s Bethel and had trips organized for sightseeing at the end of summer.
Casapula has enjoyed the past 20 years, but he said he would eventually like to be able to pass the restaurant down to one of his sons.
“I have a couple of years left in me. But, if they want it, they know the door is open. And if they don’t, that’s OK, too. I’ll just put a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign in the window and sell it,” he said, laughing.
Over the years, Casapula has run into people in places such as Puerto Rico, Florida and St. Maarten’s who recognize the Casapula’s name.
“It’s the biggest name in Delaware [for subs],” he acknowledged. “It’s funny. All I do is make sandwiches. But I love what I’m doing. And one of the best parts is the customers. The friends I’ve made. I love what I do — thank God I do, or it’d be horrible! It’s been a great ride.”