TRAVERSE CITY — It’s the salt, baby.
Ask the hundreds of customers that file in and and then file out of Mary’s Kitchen Port with a Gobbler in hand what makes that cold turkey sandwich so darn good, and they’ll all give you the same answer.
“It’s the salted bread,” lifelong Traverse City resident Tricia Adams said as she left the coziness of the downtown shop for the cold and bluster of a mid-November Friday afternoon.
The saving grace for Adams as she braved the weather was the Gobbler she just bought, marking somewhere between her 15th and 20th of the year.
“It is simple, but it’s perfect,” Adams said. “It’s not overstuffed. The bread is really good. It’s not overdone. It’s readily available. I can come pick it up, and it’s ready to go.”
And Adams is not the only one picking it up.
Kathy Baier and Mike Boudjalis, the brother-sister tandem that owns and operates Mary’s Kitchen Port, said they sell anywhere between 200 to 600 Gobblers every day. A little math, calculating for days the shop is not open, shows the MKP staff makes and sells — on average — more than 125,000 Gobblers a year.
“It’s beyond what we could have imagined,” Boudjalis said. “Who would’ve ever thought that something so simple could do so well? So you just run with it, because at the end of the day, it really is a simple sandwich.”
Simple is right. The sandwich is nothing more than thinly sliced turkey breast with fresh tomato, romaine lettuce, cheddar cheese and plain, ol’ Hellman’s mayonnaise served on fresh focaccia bread baked that day.
“There are other sandwiches that are equally as good — if not better — but it’s that comfort factor that everyone can relate to,” Boudjalis said. “You get a hankering for it.”
Their mother, Mary Boudjalis-King, launched a catering business from the comfort of their Eighth Street home in 1971 and delivered sandwiches to businesses and other places all around Traverse City. They moved to their current location on Front Street in 1982 and really started focusing on the art of sandwich-making and honing their craft.
The Gobbler, which is known formally as the MKP Gobbler, used to be served on a buttery and flaky croissant and went by a different moniker — the French Gobbler. Baier said they made the switch to focaccia bread in the 1990s and dropped a little salt on top right from the get-go.
The rest is now history and northern Michigan lore.
That lore has spread purely by word of mouth. Customers often say they heard about the Gobbler from coworkers or friends or simply just grew up knowing it was a part of Traverse City.
Baier called the local fame the sandwich has earned and its viral popularity “a true compliment.”
“I can’t tell you how many times a mother has said to me, ‘I’m going down to see my children and the first thing they said was, ‘Bring us Gobblers,’’ or a son visiting from college and saying, ‘I’m home. I need a Gobbler,’” she said. “When we were making all the sandwiches, we didn’t know the turkey was going to be the one to blow up the way it did.”
Aaron Fader and his girlfriend browsed the kitchen wares available at Mary’s while each held a Gobbler, making sure they had one before they sold out — which is a common occurrence.
Fader moved to the area in January and had his first Gobbler a month later after learning of its fame at work. He’s had seven more since and said he’ll continue coming back.
“This is why we came here,” he said. “The salty bread. It’s the salt, baby.”
Boudjalis and Baier agree the bread is a major driver for the sandwich’s success.
Preparation for the day begins the night before when the dough is made and left to rest. Chefs roll in at 5 a.m. to roll out and bake the bread before the rest of the kitchen staff comes in and starts making sandwiches — hundreds of sandwiches — with freshly baked bread at 8 o’clock.
All of that work, however, often is not enough to satisfy the want of the public.
“They do a really good job of keeping up with the bread, but there are times when the demand is higher than we expected and higher than our supply,” Baier said. “That is a very sad time. People come in looking for the Gobbler, and you see that look on their face when they realize, ‘Oh, you’re out.’”
The highest time of both supply and demand is during the summer months when tourist traffic is at its peak, but Boudjalis said they sold all 350 Gobblers they made just last Thursday during a traditionally slow part of the offseason.
“If the sun comes out — doesn’t matter how cold it is — we’re going to sell more than if it’s cloudy. That’s a given,” he said. “We don’t know why. It just is.”
Both said they have no plans of changing the recipe of the Gobbler. Why fix what isn’t broken, is their logic.
What they’re not sure of is when the popularity of the simple sandwich will start to wane. So far, it’s showed no signs of slowing down.
“It always amazes me. This year, our numbers are up again. So I don’t think we’ve peaked yet,” Boudjalis said. “Maybe next year? We’ll find out.”
Until then, hundreds will continue to gobble up the Gobbler every day Mary’s Kitchen Port opens its doors.