Sub Shop Queen

Beyond the sandwiches, Ms. B focuses on her family and fans

Photography by Brandon Dill

Bonnie Harris never asked for this.

”I thought I was gonna retire!” she says. 

She worked at the Super Submarine Sandwich Shop’s (also known as the Chinese Sub Shop) original South Highland Street location for about 30 years, give or take. She moved with the restaurant when it relocated to Summer Avenue in 2013. It was her first job out of high school, and she was planning on making it her last.

”My daughter had other plans,” says Bonnie, also known as Ms. B. “Every time we passed the sign with the woman’s face on it, at the sub shop, she always thought it was me. Until I told her it was the original owner’s wife.”

For Ms. B’s daughter, Stacy Bizzard, that wasn’t good enough.

”She always had a dream for me to have my own,” says Ms. B.

Ms. B’s Sub Shop celebrated its five-year anniversary in January, and it’s always busy. Bonnie Harris never asked for this, but she doesn’t regret it.

”It was something I’d known and been around forever, so I couldn’t mess it up. Basically, I guess that’s why everybody came to where it was, because of me. I guess I made them so good, they said I made them with love,” Ms. B says of her sandwiches, and of her fans.

“They keep coming back, so I guess I’m doing something right.”

Ms. B is humble, but on any given Tuesday through Saturday, her sub shop on Getwell is buzzing with them—sandwiches, homemade soups, and fresh lemonade of many flavors and colors. And fans—lots of them. They line up for their orders, they wait for them in the store and in their cars. They smile when they’re handed them through the windows. 

“I just fix ’em as if I was eating ’em—the right amount of ingredients, giving customers something for their money, so they can see it and not complain about it,” Ms. B says.

But no one’s complaining—almost.

”The only complaint is that it’s too much and they can’t eat it all at one time,” she says, a coyness in her voice.

Ms. B’s sandwiches are big, but that’s what the love implies. Many layers of good deli meat. Melty cheese. Lots of iceberg, red onion, and tomato. A surprising dill pickle spear tucked into the deli paper the sandwich is wrapped in. There’s a satisfying heft to them that feels comforting in the cradle of the palm.

They’re the kind of sandwiches you want to tote along on a long day.

Though she creates them in her own image, Ms. B doesn’t dabble in her own supply. The irony in this is not lost on her.

”I’m not a sandwich eater, really,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for 30, 40 years, so when I’m hungry, that’s not what I want. I’ll go all day there, hungry, before I eat a sandwich.”

Ms. B might leave the sub sandwich indulgences to her admirers, but her love for food is still most ardent.

”I guess [what I love is] just working with it. And making my customers happy,” she says. “I’ve got grandkids, and I guess this could be a family business if my daughter and her kids—if it’s something they want to do. So I guess I’m leaving a legacy.”

Ms. B and Stacy are the only two managing employees at the sub shop. They like the flexibility of running a barebones staff, but Ms. B doesn’t think it’s sustainable for herself forever.

”I’ll be 67 in March, so I’m trying to gradually ease out the door,” she laughs. 

But her work’s not done yet. She’s got her people to take care of, and that’s at the top of the list.

”We’d rather shut down than worry about somebody not treating our customers right,” Ms. B says.

“Until we find the right person, it’ll just be us.”

But really, it’s not just Ms. B and Stacy. It never has been. Along the left-hand wall of Ms. B’s Sub Shop, adjacent to the TV mounted in the corner, there’s a massive collage of four-by-six photos hanging on the wall. Each of them is a photo of Ms. B and one of her many customers, each a single part of a constellation of smiles. Above the collage, a red banner reads, “THIS COULD BE YOU.”

And if it’s not too busy, it really could be you, if you’re lucky. Just order your favorite sandwich and ask nicely for Ms. B.

1256 Getwell Road

Joshua Carlucci is a food writer and professional cook from rural Central California. He is a Memphis transplant by way of New Orleans and New York City. He has a BA in English from UC Berkeley, a culinary diploma from the Institute of Culinary Education, and is an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Memphis. @joshuadcarlucci

Brandon Dill has found a home in Memphis. When not planning road trips with his wife or building blanket forts with his two daughters, he likes to take pictures. His photos have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and others. @bdillphoto