Restaurant owner builds his business on relationships ‘n’ stuff

Masha Andreyeva/Staff

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Just south of campus in the dark alleyway known as the Telegraph Channing Mall lies a warmly lit, unassuming sandwich shop called Cheese ‘n’ Stuff.

While businesses in the Telegraph area come and go, this inconspicuous little shop has been a Berkeley fixture for 27 years. It doesn’t use large signs, advertisements or business models students might learn about at the Haas School of Business. Rather, the shop’s enduring success is built on human connection and an owner with a knack for bringing customers back.

Simply known as “Sam” or even “Uncle Sam” to his customers, Cheese ‘n’ Stuff owner Sam Juha has been the iconic face behind the store since 1986. Now in his 60s, slightly rotund and with a crown of graying hair, Juha can often be seen jovially greeting customers by first name, asking them about their day and cracking jokes.

Fostering strong relationships with customers as Juha does is rare among today’s business owners in Berkeley, said CREAM owner Jimmy Shamieh, a friend of Juha’s. He noted that even after students graduate, they come back to Cheese ‘n’ Stuff to visit Juha.

“The business is really built on his personality,” said Sam Juha Jr., one of Juha’s sons. “A lot of people just come in to talk with him. They’re not here just to grab a sandwich.”

Juha’s customers are more than just his customers; he also calls them friends. In fact, it’s not unusual to see Juha walk out from behind the deli counter to mingle with customers, clapping his hands on their shoulders or ruffling their hair.

“I joke around with them, tell them I’m going to call their parents if they’re not behaving,” Juha said. “They keep me young. I feel like they’re my age.”

Juha’s concern for the well-being of his customers is what motivates him to keep his prices low and what inspired him to create what many fraternity members know as the ”Cheese ‘n’ Stuff meal plan.” Any member of the 11 participating campus fraternities can preorder sandwiches each week, and Juha trusts them to pay to him back in a discounted lump sum at a later date.

Having raised his two sons — who both went on to attend UC Berkeley — while simultaneously building his business, Juha’s role as a father is evident in his relationships with the students who frequent his store.

“He always asks me how I’m doing in my classes,” said junior Adam Remba. “He wants to make sure you’re doing OK. It’s just nice to go and talk to him for a little and slow down.”

Juha recalls that when he began running his shop, Telegraph Avenue was the hub of Berkeley, bustling with people who would come to shop at the street’s retailers. Over time, however, he watched people flock to College and Shattuck avenues as the number of stores decreased and restaurants took their place.

Despite the increase in competition on Telegraph, Cheese ‘n’ Stuff has not changed much over the years, sticking to serving classic deli sandwiches with a side of friendly conversation at a low price — mainly because of Juha’s resolution to provide students with fresh and inexpensive meals as well as an environment for them to take a break from their busy routines.

“Back in the day, I was one of the few shops with an alcohol license, but I decided I didn’t want to (base my business) on that,” Juha said. “I could have made a lot of money selling beer … but I didn’t think it would be good for the students.”

It has been a fruitful 27 years for Juha and Cheese ‘n’ Stuff, and while Juha is now at the age where most others would be ready to retire, he’s not planning to give up his store anytime soon.

“It’s my passion, it’s my life, it’s my home,” Juha said. “I’m never going to let this place go.”

Alison Fu covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @alisonfu_.