By Donna Cornelius
Bill and Becky Elmore and their daughter, LeAnn Wood, were still at their store, Ousler Sandwiches, when the front door opened.
It was well past closing time, but the three greeted the woman who came in warmly. They all exchanged friendly chitchat and then hashed out how many sandwiches she’d need for a special occasion. When the customer left, all four were smiling.
Some business owners might have been a bit put out to have to stay late. Not the Elmores and their daughter.
“That lady has been our customer for a long time, and I’m so glad we were still here when she came in,” Becky Elmore said.
The family has a deep appreciation for those who buy their sandwiches, which have been staples at special occasions both great and small for many years.
“Customers will say, ‘I had you at my wedding 50 years ago, and I want you at my 50th wedding anniversary,’” LeAnn said.
Another customer picking up an order once told LeAnn: “We had Ousler sandwiches when I was born, and I expect to have them when I die. You’re not legally dead unless you have Ousler sandwiches.”
It’s not just loyal customers who love Ousler sandwiches. The Alabama Retail Association on Oct. 17 honored the business, which is more than a century old, as one of its Centennial Retailers.
Ousler Sandwiches is a true family enterprise. On the wall of the company’s store in Mountain Brook Village is a portrait of Christine Campbell Elmore, an integral part of the business almost from its start.
Dana Ousler started the business in 1915 in Birmingham’s Five Points South. Christine Campbell, who was then 16, started working for him. She left when she married Marvin Elmore; they had two children, Bill and Jayne. After Marvin was killed in a mining accident in 1947, Christine returned to Ousler to support her family.
She bought the business from Dana Ousler in 1953, and she and her children moved the store to Avondale in 1971.
“Back at the old shop, when I was out of school in the summer, we’d sweep the floors and empty the garbage cans,” Bill said. “I remember my uncle driving me to Birmingham University School in an old shop truck. I went into the Air Force later.”
After Bill and Becky married, she stayed home most of the time while the couple’s three children were young and later joined the company full time.
“I helped with the sandwiches but mainly in the office,” Becky said.
Did she know she was marrying a business as well as Bill?
“I surprised her,” Bill said with a grin.
Another move in 2005 took Ousler Sandwiches to Mountain Brook. Christine Elmore died in 2006, but her daughter-in-law still uses her recipes.
“We haven’t changed a thing,” Becky said. “It’s always been all sandwiches all the time.”
The business doesn’t have a retail side — it’s not a restaurant. But you can order the sandwiches for parties, corporate events or just about any occasion. The menu is small and consists of proven winners.
Ten Tons of Chicken Salad
The menu is small and consists of proven winners.
“We have our best sellers: chicken salad, pimento cheese, ham salad, cream cheese and olive, sliced ham, and egg salad,” LeAnn said.
White bread sandwiches are $18 per dozen, and wheat bread sandwiches are $20 per dozen. Each dozen has 48 small finger sandwiches. The Elmores recommend ordering three to four finger sandwiches per person.
“We have five different sizes of boxes of sandwiches, from 48 pieces to 240,” LeAnn said.
Also available are boxed lunches that include a sandwich, chips, deviled egg and brownie.
“We make about 10 tons of chicken salad a year,” LeAnn said. “We crank it out. Everything is made by mom and dad. They usually get here about 6 a.m. every day.”
With the holidays approaching, it’s wise to order sandwiches as far in advance as possible.
“We’ll make close to 300 sandwiches per day the week before Christmas,” LeAnn said. “The most stressful part of the business is having to tell people we know that we can’t take an order.”
In addition to their traditional tastiness, Ousler sandwiches have another trademark.
“It’s not an Ousler sandwich without the crusts being cut off,” LeAnn said. “I can’t go home and make sandwiches without cutting off the crusts for my boys.”
Although the quality of food hasn’t changed, the business itself has.
“We used to have a wholesale side – eight trucks that delivered to grocery stores, drugstores and other businesses,” Bill said.
Ten other trucks served another part of the business.
“We also had a catering side – but not catering like you think of it today,” LeAnn said. “We had trucks that went out to plants and factories and other places in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Fort Payne to sell sandwiches to the workers. The trucks had ovens, coolers and ice machines. The sides lifted up. We did food trucks before they were cool.”
The move to Mountain Brook Village came when the family decided to streamline its operations and thus didn’t need its large building in Avondale.
“My husband is a Realtor, and one day he was driving through Mountain Brook and saw a ‘for rent’ sign in the window of this building,” LeAnn said. “The building had a freezer, cooler and a hood that matched the stove we already had. I feel like this was meant to be.”
LeAnn said she loves working with her parents at Ousler Sandwiches.
“I guess I’m the manager, but Mom really manages me,” she said, laughing. “I have two degrees in history and taught in the Hoover City Schools. In 2005, I came here full time. This was my teenage job, so I was already trained.”
Her two siblings have other jobs but help out in the family business from time to time. Her sister, Jennifer Elmore, works at Lakeside Baptist Church. Her brother, Brian Elmore, is the projectionist at the McWane Science Center’s IMAX theater. LeAnn said her husband, Chris, pitches in on occasion; the couple’s sons, 18-year-old Camren and 13-year-old Turner, also have put in time at Ousler.
“Turner is the best dishwasher ever,” LeAnn said. “I think they need to learn to do every job that they might someday hire someone to do.”
While Ousler Sandwiches now has a website and Facebook page, there’s one aspect of its operations that has remained the same.
“People are dumfounded that we don’t take credit cards,” Bill said. “We don’t keep records, either. But my wife has a great memory.”
Becky said it’s “heartwarming” to hear appreciative words from customers.
“People tell you how much you mean to them,” she said. “We’ve gotten to watch little children who would come in and could barely see over the counter grow up and come in as adults.”
Bill said having a store in Mountain Brook has worked out well.
“There are great people here, and this is a great place to work,” he said.
All three said they were honored by the Alabama Retail Association award.
“We just don’t think that we’re that big of a deal,” LeAnn said. “But my grandmother said that if you can make a great product at a reasonable price, you’ll stay in business forever.”
The many customers who have invited Ousler Sandwiches to their celebrations likely hope that the business will be around for years to come. And if LeAnn’s younger son has his way, more folks someday may have an opportunity to join the Ousler fan club.
“Turner wants to franchise,” LeAnn said, smiling.
Ousler Sandwiches is at 2814 Cahaba Road in Mountain Brook. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday. For more information, visit www.ouslers.com, follow the business on Facebook, or call 879-1115.