Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Sour Greats

A simple sandwich shop survives, one sandwich at a time, for four decades
NO EXTRA CHARGE FOR NOSTALGIA: Sourdough Eatery is a quirky establishment that managed to survive in a world of Panera and Quiznos. Photo by Gary Singh

Throughout 43 years of business, Barbara Lenhart never needed to promote the Sourdough Eatery on North First Street. She never placed an ad anywhere.

Then came the lockdown. Even though the legendary San Jose deli only suffered a few days of closure, Lenhart decided to put extra signage out front to let people know she was still in business. She wanted her regular customers to know they could still peruse the museum-like interior and gaze at the glorious mishmash of oddities all over the walls of the ancient brick building. They could still sit outside in what's probably the best patio anywhere in these parts.

"We've been very blessed that we have the outdoor seating," Lenhart told me. "Now it's actually possible for them to eat indoors, but they don't want to. I have absolutely no one wanting to eat indoors. They all gravitate, pretty much, to the outdoors, and especially to the back."

It didn't stop there. As soon as Lehnart found out Sourdough was included in Cassie Kifer's book, Secret San Jose: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, the two had a meeting of the minds and set up a book signing for June 18, along with a raffle. Lenhart has been promoting ever since. The regular routine at Sourdough remains quite simple. Lenhart and her crew arrive between three and four in the morning to start the bread. Come lunchtime, customers order at the counter—the #8 is salami, for example—and then after paying $10.99 for a killer sandwich, they take it to the back patio.

A recent fire trashed some of the outdoor fixtures but ironically the patio is now more open-air-like and inviting. The ground is brick. The chairs and tables are wrought iron. A fully functioning fountain operates right next to a statue of a Dalmatian dog. There's also a rusty antique safe about five feet tall, an old car, vintage 1918, and wagon wheels hanging on the fences. Old street signs adorn every possible fixture and potted plants hang from every possible location. Ivy-covered trellises provide shade during the warmer months. There's even an orange cat that lounges around like she owns the whole place. She jumps in my lap every time I show up.

Back in the '70s, Lenhart and her husband ran another joint in Sunnyvale, which they lost due to eminent domain because the Town Center needed to happen. Then came a dose of serendipity. While driving by the old San Jose City Hall on their way to sort out their situation in court, they spotted a gorgeous old brick building on First Street. The Swenson Company had just put it on the market. The Lenharts jumped on the offer, even though they knew nothing about zoning or how to convert the property to a deli. Nevertheless, they persisted and convinced the city council.

"At first we were turned down because we had no parking," Lenhart recalled, adding that her scheme from the beginning was to convert the existing parking area out back into a patio. The councilmembers all knew they would be walking over and eating there, so they ultimately accepted Lenhart's plan. "It was going to be just a grand idea to have a spot, even with no parking, because there were so many big offices there that have their own parking, so people didn't need it," she said. "So that was our story of how we got into the Sourdough. We were kind of forced out of Sunnyvale."

Inside, not much of the Sourdough operation has changed since it opened in 1978, except maybe for the prices. On the wall, between artifacts, vintage signs, bric-a-brac and Lenhart's own paintings, one finds a framed 1999 Metro story in which writer Joe Mangelli referred to Sourdough as a "brick oasis in the center of San Jose's drab Civic Center." At that time, the sandwiches were $7, a price Mangelli said was "a bit much." The write-up looks like it's been on the wall at Sourdough ever since, although Lenhart said she hasn't read it in a long time.

"I don't remember them being seven dollars when we first opened," she said. "I think they were more around three."