20 Years of Heaven Between Two Slices of Bread at Gourmand's

Visit Gourmand's (5345 Canal Rd., Valley View, 216-328-0942, gourmandsdeli.com) just about any time it's open and you'll find owners Greg and Andrea Thomson behind the counter. They're one of those couples that tend to match: both favor the practical sandwich shop uniform of shorts and dark t-shirts. One or both of them will strike up conversation as you wait for your sandwich, which is always made to order.

That friendly vibe has won them a lot of regulars and repeat customers over the course of 20-plus years.

"It's like a social event some days," says Greg.

"It's like Cheers, but without the alcohol," says Andrea.

Since the couple met at Gourmand's, Cheers is a pretty fitting analogy.

Tucked away in Valley View, on an inconspicuous strip, Gourmand's is a true hidden treasure when it comes to Cleveland-area sandwich shops. The place offers soups, sandwiches and coffee to a diverse crowd hailing from Garfield Heights, Independence, and other nearby suburbs. But back in the '90s, when Greg left his job in healthcare to open a restaurant, he was looking in Lakewood and Cleveland Heights.

"Every place I tried fell through or I couldn't afford it," he says. He'd pretty much given up when he saw an unusual ad in the Plain Dealer: "Wanted: deli/coffee shop in the Valley View area." It turned out a Mini-Mart owner was looking to turn over his shop and he felt that the neighborhood could use a good sandwich shop.

So, in 1996, Thomson paid the man $25,000 and opened up shop. Friends told him at the time, "This is a terrible location; you'll never make it." But make it he did, although it took a few months for customers to discover it.

One of those customers was his future wife. Andrea worked in the area, and she would come into the shop for sandwiches and cigarettes (which are no longer on the menu).

"You weren't very approachable," Greg teases her.

"I'd just moved!" she retorts.

A Chicago transplant, Andrea recently had completed grad school at Bowling Green. She moved to Cleveland for a stint at Cleveland Institute of Art teaching sculpture and metal-working. After nine months as a customer, she and Greg started dating. Not long after, they moved in together and Andrea started working in the shop.

"I changed mediums," Andrea puts it. "I went from metal to soup. Surprisingly, there's a lot of the same thing."

Greg and Andrea married in 2000 and now live in Bedford. Great lovers of food and dining out, they're the kind of couple that "will drive out to Clyde, Ohio for a burger."

That passion shines through in the quality of Gourmand's selections. "The food has to be real," says Andrea. "We want to provide the best quality for what people can afford. We'll pay and take a smaller profit margin for the best coffee, the best bread."

With excellent sandwiches priced below $10, Gourmand's meets that goal while providing an assortment of 57 sandwiches. Those range from the staunchly traditional, like the Dagwood, to the playful, like the fruit-and-meat filled Hawaii Five-Oh. Options like sweet potato fries, Rising Star coffee, and local soda round out the menu for an excellent breakfast or lunch experience.

Will we be seeing that Lakewood or Heights Gourmand's anytime soon? Not likely, says Greg. "We don't have the energy; we didn't want the stress, the nerves. We wanted to spend time with our customers."

For that, we are very lucky indeed.

Gourmand's will be closed for vacation until July 10.