Small sub shop goes full size

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Don Ruffalo received some valuable advice from his brother-in-law, Jim Weir, more than 30 years ago.

Weir told him that some of the airmen with whom he worked at Charleston Air Force Base brought coolers with them during flights to New Jersey so they could bring submarine sandwiches back. Weir suggested to Ruffalo that he open a sub sandwich restaurant near Shaw Air Force Base.

"He said, 'You need to open a sub shop,' and I said, 'It sounds good to me,'" Ruffalo said.

Ruffalo and his brother, John, opened Sub Station on Broad Street on May 15, 1975.

Today, Sub Station II Corp. has 75 franchises in seven states.

Ruffalo said he had no idea the business would get so big. Originally, he hoped to make about $19,000 a year from the small sub shop.

"We hoped to make so much money a year," he said. "We couldn't believe that going into business for yourself would be so lucrative."

The Ruffalos made $76,000 that first year.

Ruffalo and his brother admit they were novices when they started their business.

John Ruffalo remembers a time when he was working with one other employee. He said the employee tried to tell him for 45 minutes that she felt ill, but they were so busy he couldn't tell what she was saying.

"It was like a madhouse," Don Ruffalo said.

Teresa Carelock, who worked at the Broad Street restaurant, said working at the small sub shop had its advantages.

"It was family-owned, and I felt like I was part of the family," she said.

John Ruffalo said airmen would come into the shop and leave their squadron patches and bottles of beer from around the world for employees.

"These were customers that were there every day," he said.

Carelock said employees and their customers got to know each other well.

"We often gave customers a hard time, all in fun," she said. "They became regular customers and some of them gave us a hard time back. We could joke around with the customers.

"Some of the regular customers would walk in, and you knew what they wanted — you could almost start making it before they got to the counter — but I guess that is true with any regular customer at a restaurant. I have often said that was the best job I ever had. ... I think it still is."

Business was booming and the customer base was growing, so in 1976, a year after they started, the Ruffalos began selling franchises.

Jim and Mary Samino opened the first franchise in 1976 in Charleston. The same year, Donald Wand opened the franchise on North Harvin Street.

The Ruffalos said Wand's is one of the highest-grossing stores in the chain, despite not taking credit cards.

Chris Wand, who now owns the Sub Station II on Harvin, purchased the location from her mother a couple years ago. She said she remembers that at age 16, her family was remodeling the old dry-cleaning store to make the sub shop.

She said she had blisters on her hands from ripping up the floors, but the original tile her family put down is still there.

After helping her family open locations in Camden and in North Carolina, she returned to Sumter to run her own Sub Station II.

"That is all I have ever done, is make sub sandwiches," she said. "It has been very good to us."