Casapulla & Sons started on Labor Day, 1956. They’ve been laboring over their legendary sandwiches ever since.
Opening and running a successful family business takes more than capital, knowhow and the cooperation of siblings, aunts and uncles. It requires skilled employees, customer service that outshines the competition, and a little serendipity along the way.
The odds are daunting. According to the Small Business Administration, just over half of small businesses survive more than five years, and about a third of them survive for more than 10 years. The numbers dwindle from there.
But for Casapulla & Sons, the legendary sub shop that has served the town of Elsmere for six decades, the numbers don’t tell the whole history. Their story, of an Italian immigrant who started a small grocery store that grew to one of Delaware’s best-known eateries, is one that spans 60 years and a whole lot of sandwiches.
A Delaware Institution
Luigi Casapulla emigrated from Caserta, Italy, in the 1920s, and some 30 years later, after starting a family, he decided to open a small “corner store” just north of Kirkwood Highway in Elsmere. Before long, due to competition from neighboring supermarkets, Casapulla decided to switch gears and offer submarine sandwiches.
Luigi’s son Lou Casapulla has been there for every year of business, and has seen it all. He began working at the shop at age 13, when he would cut rolls and slice deli meat after school, and he still opens the shop most days. He even remembers the first day they opened for business.
“I remember it was Labor Day of 1956, because I’ve always said, ‘We opened on Labor Day and we’ve been laboring ever since,’” says Casapulla, sipping a Miller Lite after finishing his prep work on a warm July Wednesday afternoon. Laughing, he explains that he only indulges in a beer at work after he’s clocked out. And anyway, as he says, “I mean, I can’t get fired.”
From the first day, Casapulla says, the business has been all about consistently offering top quality products at a fair price, while engaging with the community it serves. He’s made countless friends over the years, including a certain Italian lady who, along with her husband, also made their mark on the local deli landscape.
“I remember—and this is gospel—that Lois Margoloet used to come in here probably twice a week,” says Casapulla. “After she opened Capriotti’s in 1976, a reporter asked why she and her husband went into business, and she said she got tired of having to drive to Elsmere for a sandwich at Casapulla’s!”
He says that since the day the store opened, the Italian sub has been the most popular sandwich, and that he’s “probably prepped and made thousands” in his time behind the counter. While business has slowed a bit over the years, many of the same loyal customers still visit more than once a week.
Annlynn Casapulla Scalia, granddaughter of Luigi and niece of Lou, says she’s seen some of the same faces on the other side of the counter since she started working at the shop in 1977. Back then, things were a little different.
“I remember my grandfather told me to just keep my head down and keep making sandwiches during the lunch hour,” says Scalia, finishing a Wednesday lunch rush. “But you couldn’t help share a laugh with some of the regulars, or ask them how they were doing, or how their mom or dad were holding up. It’s a neighborhood spot, so it always felt natural.”
One of those longtime customers is David Baylor, who today has stopped in for one of his favorites, the Casapulla’s cheesesteak. Baylor, a retired Delaware state trooper, has been eating at Casapulla’s for about 50 years, and loves the place and the family that runs it.
“When I was in the Navy, I served in Virginia Beach, Pensacola, San Antonio; no matter where I was stationed, when I was on leave, this is the first place I visited when I returned home,” says Baylor. “I think people’s tastes change, but this place doesn’t. It’s been consistently good and had the same great flavors for years— probably a big reason why I keep coming back.”
Before heading out of the shop, Baylor gives Lou a bear hug and thanks him for another delicious sandwich. “This place really is like family to me. It’s my go-to spot; it’s an institution.”
Baylor says he’s become like a Casapulla family member himself. In fact, his daughter, Sydney, works at the Glasgow location.
The Family Franchise
You’ll find six Casapulla’s sandwich shops from North Wilmington to Rehoboth, and every one is family-owned, not a franchise. According to Lou, if there was ever any interest in expanding farther in Delaware or past its borders (a la Capriotti’s), tradition demands that a family member would have to be at the helm.
David Casapulla has been serving sandwiches at Casapulla’s North on Concord Pike since he opened the doors in 1992. He has fond memories of training under his grandfather, Luigi, and the two put in a lot of hours together. The family aspect has always been important to the Casapulla crew, and David continues the tradition at his own store.
“When I went out on my own about 25 years ago, I wanted to keep going a lot of the good from the original store,” says David. “So we took care of every single person that walked through our doors. Over the years, three of my kids have worked here, including my daughter, Rachel, and my son, David II, who work here now.”
Come Labor Day weekend, the staff at the original Casapulla’s plans on partying with their own extended family of relatives, friends and community members. They will have tents outside the location in Elsmere, lots of homemade food on hand, even live entertainment. And of course they’ll also be making plenty of sandwiches.