When you eat a sandwich at Mema’s Italian Grinders, it will make all of your senses explode.
The restaurant’s namesake sandwich is a 7-inch homemade hoagie that is packaged with a mixture of half a pound of Italian sausage and ground beef, sealed with smoked provolone. It’s heavy in the hand and you are instantly greeted by the smell of a secret blend of spices and melted cheese.
He filled his take-out container to the brim. And from the first bite, you’ll probably realize that this is a different kind of mill – something Des Moines hasn’t seen since the 1970s.
Mema owner Chad Cline set out to bring back the grinder from his childhood and ended up creating a handful of hearty deli sandwiches with a loyal following. Now, after two years serving a bespoke food truck, Mema’s Italian Grinders, 2250 E. First St., has established itself in Grimes with a unique micro-portable showcase.
Customers often ask Cline if Mema’s is a chain, as the warm and inviting character holding a tray of hoagies in the store logo looks so familiar to them. Mema’s is not a chain and the logo features Cline’s late grandmother, Helen Cline, who left a legacy in the Newton, Iowa food scene.
“She was sort of Newton’s matriarch by offering some of the best pizza,” Cline said. “To this day, 70-year-old men come to me and tell me that their first date with their 40, 50, 60-year-old wives was in her pizzeria, and it touches me almost every time.”
From 1959 to 1999, Grandma Cline ran the Pizza House, where locals gathered for her homemade pizzas and Italian mills. She put Cline to work there when he was eight, teaching him to make change and take calls. For Cline, it was a lesson in customer service, and the experience marked him even though his career path took him away from the service industry.
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In 2019, with 20 years of IT experience to his credit, Cline decided to develop his passion for cooking with a little something extra: a food truck dedicated to serving old-fashioned Italian grinders with a combination of Italian sausages. and ground beef. Most modern grinders omit the beef and, according to Cline, his is the only one in Des Moines that has reincorporated it.
For the first year, Mema’s food truck only organized weekend events. By 2020, Cline has set out to grow a client base by parking the food truck at the Canoyer Garden Center in Grimes and hiring staff to keep the truck open for three weekdays, looking after the surrounding neighborhoods of Johnston and of Urbandale.
As the pandemic has closed restaurants and prevented people from dining out, the food truck has become a staple in Grimes. At its peak, the truck was serving 700 sandwiches a day.
From food truck to brick and mortar
For 18 months, Cline balanced both her full-time IT job with the food truck. He would get up at 4 a.m. to load the truck with fresh water and park it in a parking lot for the day shift staff. After work, he would return to clean up and dismantle.
“It was taxing. There were a lot of late nights, there were a lot of early mornings, ”Cline said. “I wouldn’t have been able to establish this relationship and this clientele with this community without it. “
The business continued to grow rapidly. Their baker couldn’t make hoagies fast enough. Cline was buying more Graziano Brothers sausages than Hy-Vee, and he realized that in order to roll with the hits, he would have to start thinking about a bigger space. He quit IT and started working full time at Mema this month.
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Even though he had had early experiences in his grandmother’s pizza place, the idea of building a fully seated restaurant seemed like an unpredictable and difficult journey.
Instead, Cline wrote an 85-page business proposal for a 700-square-foot hole in the wall in Grimes, sandwiched between Central Iowa Vapors and an AT&T store.
Only 15 inches wider than the food truck, it more than doubled the length of the truck’s kitchen space.
The kicker? It would be a take out only restaurant. A bit like a food truck.
Bricks adorn one wall, paying homage to the alleyway of the Pizza House where he spent countless hours playing with the neighborhood kids and cousins. It is also reminiscent of the deli counters in the back streets of Chicago.
“We do it our way”
You probably won’t wait more than eight minutes to receive your order at the new facility: Mema staff have their routine down to a science.
But if it’s too long, online ordering is available. There are no tables or chairs inside or outside – this is strictly a pickup counter open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The menu is meaty and almost all of the ingredients are homemade. The meatballs are rolled by hand; the hoagies are cooked fresh; the spice blends are secret.
Thinly sliced ribbons of beef are dipped in homemade au jus over Chicago-style Italian beef (topped with a scoop of giardiniera and a chunk of not-so-chicago cheese). The Pizza Burger, made with hand-shredded pork mixed with seasoned ground beef with cheddar cheese and red sauce, doesn’t look like a pizza or burger. Cline likes to see a Maid-Rite pizza there.
“I just want people to immediately feel like they’re going to get a top quality product,” Cline said.
The sandwiches cost $ 10, and Cline knows it’s pricey for a sandwich with no sides included. But for the size and quality of the sandwiches, it’s justifiable. Side dishes like grilled cheese ravioli, mozzarella sticks, and breaded Portobello strips cost $ 8.
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