Newton, Food, Metro

BC Sweethearts Serve Sandwiches and Community at Newton’s Sandwich Works

Mara and Jeff DeBonee’s love story started as student coworkers in Stuart Dining Hall on Boston College’s Newton Campus. It blossomed into a different kind of partnership after graduation. They now co-own Sandwich Works, a homey Newton Centre staple serving breakfast and lunch since 1991.

After 33 years in business, their food is tried and true—the eggs are fluffy, baked goods are dense and sweet, and the coffee is chilled with coffee-flavored ice cubes to ensure that the drink doesn’t water down.

But at Sandwich Works, the food is not the only thing that draws people back again and again.

“My favorite thing is the people that work behind the counter,” customer Ricardo Sousa said. “They make the atmosphere really good here, really welcoming.”

For Mara and Jeff, the feeling is mutual. At the counter, Mara greets customers like friends while Jeff cooks at the grill just a few feet away, chiming into conversations and catching up with the familiar faces. The two of them know everyone’s names and usual orders.

“We have the best customers,” Mara said. “Kind and understanding people.”

When the two met at Stuart Dining Hall in 1986, Mara was a senior and student manager, and Jeff was a freshman employee.

“I did whatever she said, but she wasn’t really a very good manager,” Jeff said, laughing. “She didn’t like telling people what to do.” 

Mara said she looks back on her time in Stuart fondly.

“It was just fun,” Mara said.

While Jeff’s college job as a freshman led him to his future wife, it was his junior year job that led him to his future career.

“I had to get a job so I could afford to go out and do those kinds of things kids like to do, so I got a job downtown at a bar, first waiting tables, then at a bar,” Jeff said.

When Jeff’s boss at the bar opened a new location for a restaurant, Sandwich Works—based in West Newton at the time—he offered Jeff a position as its manager after he graduated in 1989. 

Later, Jeff took over the franchise, which has since consolidated into a single location in Newton Centre.

“I had nothing planned, and I said, you know, if I’m ever going to do a business, now would be the time,” Jeff said.

Mara, who studied education at BC, worked as a teacher after her graduation in 1985, then joined the business full-time after the couple had children.

“It was just better to come here,” Mara said. “Even when I worked, I would come here in the mornings and do stuff, then go to work and come back. I’m always here.”

Jeff, who was an English and economics double-major at BC, said that because he hadn’t initially planned to enter the restaurant business, his culinary skills are self-taught.

“I’ve never had any formal training,” Jeff said. “I just learn as I go, which is a lot easier now with YouTube and Instagram and all that stuff.” 

Sandwich Works spans far beyond its cozy Newton Centre location, with its catering that serves Newton’s community and government offices.

“It’s so busy now, we do lots of catering, formal catering, lots of stuff at BC, at the city, schools, the health department, the mayor’s office, all of that,” Jeff said.

The catering side of the business has grown over the years, according to Jeff.

“It’s spread over time,” Jeff said. “People will go somewhere and have a sandwich during a meeting and [ask], ‘Oh where did you get that,’ and they’ll tell them and they’ll order it, so it kind of grows like that.”

They also gained new customers during the pandemic, when few other restaurants were open.

“In that time, we got a bunch of new customers who maybe were going somewhere else, like going to Starbucks, before,” Jeff said. “That was closed, so they came in.”

One such customer, Newton resident Patrick Knight, said he became a regular during the pandemic.

“They stayed open all through COVID,” Knight said. “I came in every day, got my lunch and breakfast. These folks: awesome.”

Sandwich Works’s menu has grown with time as well, Jeff said.

“When we first started, people would just come in and get tuna on wheat or turkey on a sub roll,” Jeff said. “That was most of it. Now people want, like, mozzarella tomato basil with pesto—a lot of stuff.”

Now, Sandwich Works boasts everything from a classic reuben to the specialty “Newton Centre Gobbler,” which is a turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce and stuffing.

Customers like Sousa said some of these new additions to the menu are their favorites.

“They do a grilled cheese with meatballs—that’s good, that’s my top,” Sousa said.

The DeBonees also serve the community as a part of a city-wide internship program where high school students who don’t plan on going to college can join the Sandwich Works staff over the summer to gain work experience.

“You take a kid who doesn’t know anything in high school, then turn them into someone who can run a place like this—it’s pretty rewarding,” Jeff said.

Sandwich Works also donates ingredients to the Newton Food Pantry weekly, as well as prepared food to the Pantry’s “freedge,” which is a free refrigerator constantly stocked for people to take what they need.

“We like to help people out, make people happy, give them a nice sandwich, but even more than that,” Jeff said.

April 18, 2024