This one hurts. Dominick Oliverie, a math teacher-turned-sandwich slinger, is ready to close up Great American Hero. The Dallas staple that has issued subs since 1974 will close by the end of this year or, ideally for Oliverie, by October.
News broke, as it often can, on Instagram, where Dallasites101 shared word that “the owner is ready to retire and move on,” which staff told them as they picked up food at the drive-thru. “At my age, I don’t even know what Instagram is,” says the 74-year-old Oliverie. “I don’t know how to get on your screen.” He didn’t want the news to come out for another three or four months. Now for the last few days, Oliverie has been fielding requests from local news outlets. (Journo pro-tip: send him a fax, not an email, and he’ll ring you back.) His response? “I said, ‘But you’re going to give me more business and I don’t want more business!’”
Oliverie is used to long lines, sure, but, “we always did well, but we’ve never done this well.” Now he’s working from 6 in the morning past 9 at night. Give this man a break! We’re going to push him into retirement sooner rather than later by loving Great American Hero to death.
“At my age, I don’t even know what Instagram is. I don’t know how to get on your screen.”
Oliverie moved to Dallas in the 1970s when his wife got a new job at American Airlines back when the DFW Airport first opened. And now it’s time to put down the bread knife. “I just said to myself back in February, to my wife, I said, ‘I’m gonna retire.’”
As a retired math teacher from New Jersey who figured he’d land a job somewhere like SMU, he didn’t know he was going to run one of Dallas’ most beloved sandwich shops for the better part of 50 years. He got into the sandwich business with his brother, Jerry, then got out of it. But soon after Oliverie opened Great American Hero on Main and Field in 1974. He opened in the current Lemmon Avenue space a couple of years later.
In the 45 years on Lemmon, yes, Oliverie has a lot of memories and history—and many firsts. He ticks them off one by one. Do not question his trend setting.
First to offer gluten-free before it was trendy. First to watch out for nitrates and trans fats. First to have real sugar in the sodas. The first to bring Haagen Dazs to Dallas back in 1975. Then when the ice creamery franchised, he called up another up-and-coming ice cream shop. “I remember reading the paper about a little firm out of Vermont, who went to California and beat Haagen Dazs as far as the best ice cream.” He got on the phone with Ben of Ben & Jerry’s, who told Oliverie they didn’t want to get big. Less than a year later, Great American Hero was the first to have scoops of Ben & Jerry’s. The shop was the first to have a Dyson hand dryer, for which this very magazine gave him a Best of Big D win in 2008. Again, Oliverie read about it in a paper—“U.S. News or something”—and someone came in from England and gave him, purportedly, the first two Airblade dryers in the U.S. Another first.
What Oliverie thinks about most is the people. He’s hired thousands over the years. Many of his employees have been with him a decade or two, even three. These days though, he laments, the sandwich shop gets maybe one application every few months. Like others in the restaurant industry, it’s been tough finding workers.
To your diehard Hero fans out there wondering, Is there any hope left at all? Well, maybe. Oliverie, remember, is a math guy. If he could reduce his behemoth of a sandwich menu down to just nine items, he says, he could hire a manager to run things without him there on site. Any businessman worth his salt, which Oliverie certainly is after running this place for nearly 50 years, would worry what customers would think of such a move. Then there’s the matter of the workload.
“A manager has to work seven days a week, at least 11 to 12 hours a day. I got a business here, doing triple almost any sandwich shop in Dallas, and I’m going to walk away from it,” he says. “But the bottom line is, it’s just a lot of work.
“Wild About Harry’s just went out. I knew Harry for so many years. In fact, I use What About Harry’s frozen custard here,” says Oliverie. “I know a lot of people and they’re also tired. You know, these are not franchises. These are what the city needs people like us, you know, cute little places.”
“These are what the city needs people like us, you know, cute little places.”
Could someone buy it? Sure, it’s all up for sale. There’s one hitch: the city of Dallas ordinance for drive-thrus requires a parking space for every 200-square feet of floor space. Great American Hero can fit about five cars, but the city wants to see room for eight or nine, says Oliverie. There is no available land for such an expansion of concrete. Oh, another snafu is that it’s currently marked as a drive-in. Obviously it’s been a drive-thru for decades, but back in 2013 the health department made Oliverie get a new certificate.
“The old one got all crumbled up—we didn’t have any lamination back then in ’75, when I opened up,” he laughs. His new one says “drive-in.” “Well, I’m not a drive-in, that’s a Keller’s… I’ve never been a drive-in. So we’re trying to get a changed to drive-thru.” Anyone looking to be a hero and save Great American Hero has a red-tape battle awaiting them. Until that hero comes along, he’ll auction off the art inside and donate all of the proceeds to nonprofits.
So Oliverie is weighing all of his options, of course, but he’s saved enough money so he can finally rest. “I don’t have enough [money] to go crazy, or you know, go buy a new Lamborghini or anything—I couldn’t even buy a 2003 Lamborghini.”