A Tale of Two Sandwiches -August 2018
by: Peter Sutters
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Henry Jr. and Something Natural are the island’s two iconic sandwich shops. They couldn’t be more different in their menus and the total experience, but the common thread is genealogy. The owners, brother and sister Matt and Syd Fee, were raised making sandwiches and baking bread in their parents’ first restaurant.
A good sandwich from a local shop should take five, maybe 10 minutes to make.
But if you want to go from good to great, it’s going to take roughly 50 years.
“When I was 6, my younger brother Andrew and I had to go to Jetties Beach with ‘Eat at Henry’s, Steamboat Wharf ’ sandwich boards draped over us,” said Sydney “Syd” Fee, 55, owner of Henry Jr. on Orange Street. “We had bells on our wrists and would try to get people to go to dad’s for lunch.”
“I knew I wanted to get into it because we both worked for our parents growing up,” her brother Matt Fee, 58, owner of Something Natural on Cliff Road, said. “I started as a busboy at The Skipper and was pouring water at the table and getting it all over the chairs and people’s laps and I was a little shy, so I went in the back to hang out in the bakery.”
He took to baking and was making doughnuts by age 12, and then one day, when he was off-island at prep school, he got a call from home.
“The baker had gotten into a tiff with my dad and walked out,” Matt said. “He called the school that day and I didn’t even stay for my final exam. They shipped me back to the island and I was in the bakery the next day.”
The siblings opened their sandwich shops in the 1980s, with Matt taking over Something Natural in 1983 and Syd launching Henry Jr. in 1988.
But their sandwich genes run much further back than that. Growing up, the Fee family, led by the parents Henry and Sandra,
operated a snack shack at Jetties Beach serving burgers and hot dogs. Every summer, the whole family would move out to the restaurant and live on the top floor, and work below.
“My dad still worked for the telephone company and had a little scooter he would ride from Jetties to town,” Matt said. “He loved it because he only had to fill the tank two times a summer.”
Henry eventually went into the sandwich business full time in 1969, opening his namesake shop on Broad Street, where Easy Street Cantina is now located.
Since those days, both Matt and Syd have lived the bulk of their lives on the island. Both went to prep school on the mainland and after college and some traveling, each returned to Nantucket.
“Mom was from off-island and she wanted us to have a different educational experience,” Syd said.
“I have only missed one summer on Nantucket,” Matt said.
Devotees of Henry Jr. subs and Something Natural sandwiches have their favorites, and the counter help at both Henry’s and Something Natural recognizes regulars who order the same thing every day, whether it’s an Italian with the works at Henry’s, or half an avocado, cheddar and chutney with carrots and cucumbers on pumpernickel at Something Natural.
There’s an extensive menu at each location, but customers often want to create their own special sandwich. There have been some strange combinations.
Syd said the weirdest sandwich order she could remember was peanut butter with bacon, extra onions, mayonnaise and hot peppers at Henry Jr. For Matt it was a lobster salad with liverwurst. For the record, Matt said the peanut butter sandwich, minus the mayo, sounded good. Both agreed lobster and liverwurst should
never be placed in the same sentence, let alone in a sandwich. Sandwiches at both spots are generous in size, but the half sandwich at Something Natural is more like a full sandwich and a full sandwich more like a double.
Henry Jr.’s subs are served on rolls baked on the premises, or pita bread, with the filling placed in the middle and the bread rolled around it, sort of like a burrito.
Syd and Matt set up their sandwich shops on either side of downtown, and their locations are indicative of the primary clientele.
Something Natural sits on Cliff Road, the only commercial establishment nestled among the summer homes that hide behind privet hedges, with sprawling lawns and hydrangea bushes with blooms so plentiful they obscure anything beyond.
In the summer, its parking lot is filled with Range Rovers and Jeep Wranglers with the tops down, their bumpers adorned with the flower logo synonymous with the business.
It’s a busy but laid-back wait for your sandwich. A dory beached on the lawn entertains children eager to get to the beach, and picnic tables spread out over the grass provide a serene spot for a leisurely lunch. This is the old Nantucket you read about in the travel magazines.
Matt took over Something Natural after purchasing it from George and Margaret Fleming.
“She had the health-food store in town in the basement of where The Boarding House is now and would sell premade sandwiches there,” Matt said. “They had the sandwich shop out here because rent was too high in town. They ended up getting divorced and the downtown property sold right away, but this one sat on the market for over a year. My mum knew I liked to bake and said I should go look at the property.”
When Matt purchased Something Natural, the main building was much like it is today, but the grounds were a different matter altogether.
“There were some picnic tables out here, but it was way overgrown,” he said. “The yard was basically a horse paddock with a small stable building.”
Over the years, Matt cut back the brush, improved the landscaping and turned the area into an idyllic spot to grab a sandwich and wash it down with Something Natural’s own line of drinks, led by the hibiscus-infused Matt Fee Tea.
Over at Henry Jr. on Orange Street, its parking lot is shared with a tackle shop and Hatch’s gas station/package store. During the lunch rush, it’s mostly filled with contractor’s trucks whose Carhartt-clad occupants quickly enter, know exactly where to stand in line – for newcomers, it’s to the right. Customers just kind of hanging around are waiting to pick up their lunch – order their sandwich, wait at most five minutes, and are back in the truck on the way to the job site.
While it may seem like one is a better option than the other, both were designed to fill a specific niche.
“My parents had noticed a big shift in their customers down at Steamboat Wharf,” Syd said. “There was a lot more traffic for them so locals and workers couldn’t grab a quick sandwich anymore because of the congestion. And that was back in the 1980s. I knew I wanted to open a sandwich shop on Nantucket. My parents helped me out with using the Henry name, and when we first opened in 1988, they came in for a month to help.
“They did it seasonally, but I am open yearround and sometimes I wonder, ‘Hmm, they got to travel quite a bit and that didn’t quite work out for me’,” she continued. “But I love it now. I look out for the locals and the workers. I try to keep prices low. I want to make it so lower-income families can come to Henry Jr. for their treat out if they can’t afford some of the expensive restaurants in town. I try to make it partly a service to the community.”
Both Fees said their parents instilled in them their work ethic.
“I think the way Matt and I were raised, it was to be very hands-on,” Syd said. “I’m in there making sandwiches every day. Matt is in the bakery every day. I think it would be hard to let it go and have people not do it the way we want it done and the way we were taught to do it.”
“We are wired to do it ourselves,” Matt said. “Sometimes too much so. And my parents did it too much, and they would have been the first to tell you that.”
Both said finding and retaining staff is one of the toughest aspects of the business. Syd said she has been lucky to have long-time employees and a smaller staff, while Matt has to hire around 50 people during the season to work in both the sandwich shop and the bakery, which provides bread and rolls to not only the business, but supermarkets and restaurants across the island.
“We have a plan for the high-school kids. The kids who stay make an extra buck an hour and the kids who don’t forfeit that into the pot. The ones who stay with us three, four or five years can make $10,000 for college. We try to do things like that to retain them and appreciate them,” he said.
Both also cited the late Walter Beinecke, who is often credited with transforming Nantucket
into the world-class luxury destination it is today, as a major influence.
“Back in the Beinecke days, his vision was, he wanted people who thought they were better than the department stores,” Matt said. “He wanted someone who said, ‘I know china better than anyone else and I’m bringing in the best china, and I know linens better than anyone, so I’m having a linen shop. He was looking for hands-on operators like Nantucket Looms and places like that, and he purposely brought people like that in to open shops.”
“I think that we as an island are losing that. Those places were all owner-operated. Those people made money, and the money mostly stayed here. Their kids went to school here and the money cycled through the economy. We are switching from that. Now, consortiums and consulting businesses and hedge funds do a lot of the construction.
“It’s hard to run a small business that counts on labor. It’s hard to run a business with someone who doesn’t have a vested interest being there. I think that is the challenge on the island. If you want to have these types of businesses, how do we make it worth doing?”
“I took the boat the other day and was shocked to see how many workers who used to live here are now taking the boat,” Syd said. “It’s sad, and I think that happens more and more. You are losing a part of the community. I love the island. We have seen huge changes, but it’s still a special place. I just don’t want to see it killed by the goose that laid the golden egg. I don’t know how much more our little island can take.” ///
Peter Sutters is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.