Ray Nudy grew up in the restaurant business, working while in high school for his father at his sandwich shop. His dad sold the shop when Ray was in 11th grade, and the teen went to work after graduation as a short-order cook. After toying with the idea of attending culinary school, he decided to open his own steak and hoagie shop in Devon in 1979.
Which may have been the end of the story.
But 25 years in, something began to take hold in the suburban Philadelphia takeout-food business: Wawa.
Rather than give up, Nudy went bigger, adding seating and a patio. Then he added locations. Ten Nudy’s Cafes now dot the western suburbs, making it one of the region’s largest daytime restaurant operations. All follow the same formula: breakfast and lunch, identical menus, open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. “If something breaks at 4 p.m., we have it fixed by 6 and we go home,” says Nudy, 61, whose parents, Joe and Jean, are 92 and still live in the family home. Son-in-law Stratton Matchica is the only family member involved in the business.
We met last week at the newest Nudy’s, which replaced Shangi-La on Swedesford Road, just off Route 202 in Berwyn. (When Valley Forge Music Fair was in business through 1996, the spot was a Denny’s.)
Tell me about the early days.
My father and I found a building on Conestoga Road. At that time, it was like the worst location you probably could ever think of. Nothing was on that street. Now they just built a 120-unit retirement home across the street. We opened it and I ran it as a cheesesteak-hoagie place. Did some breakfast. Our business was landscapers. They would pull up, buy hoagies, get coffees to go, because at the time Wawa wasn’t doing that yet. ... I cooked every meal. I was still behind the grill. We used to do nights and catered. We did everything and innovated as we went. My wife, Irene, had a lot to do with helping me develop.
But then Wawa came in.
We struggled as the market was changing. As soon as Wawa started making hoagies, the landscapers could pull up. They hit the perfect market. Coffees to go was just [offered by] the little luncheonettes. We were the only place you got the coffees to go. There weren’t the Starbucks, the coffee shops. We didn’t have that Sunday morning breakfast business like you do now. Diners had it, but then the cafe started, and we were a little fancier with pancakes and French toast. I sort of moved into that and, little by little, worked through that. And then we decided to open up a second location.
I asked the fellow who delivered bread to me: “Do you know anybody that wants to get out?" The next day he calls me up and says, “I’m in Frazer. Give [this guy] a call. I think he wants to get out." So I called him and I can’t remember how much he wanted for the business. I didn’t have that money to do that. Two, three days later, the bread man calls me back and says, “You might want to call him up because he just told me tomorrow is his last day.”
You must have then worked with the landlord at that point.
I got it for next to nothing. I always say that it was hard to make mistakes because I didn’t have the money to make mistakes. We just painted the walls, fixed it up as best we could, and started running it. I stayed there, my wife stayed back at Devon.
I would find places that went out of business. The landlord has it and needs someone in there. Phoenixville was the next one. It was an Indian restaurant. That’s when we had to start building systems because you can’t be in all of them. It was working and it was a great time. It was fun. It’s challenging. It was really going well. That model seemed to be the answer. Exton was the next one. From there, we went to West Chester. Now we’re building a team and putting a system together. From there, where did we go? I guess we went up to Eagleview. I’m losing track now. I’m sorry.
Then I said, “OK, Ray. It’s time to be a company.” The hospitality part is what I love, but it’s time to be a company. We put an office in Paoli. ... And then we hired Balounge Design. Barbara [Balounge] decorated Ardmore and Chadds Ford for me, and she just did this one [in Berwyn]. The next one will be in Conshohocken, and then Malvern. It’s close to some of the other locations, but I just think that 202 works like a river.
What’s been the biggest change in the last 15 years?
The breakfast business has become a very big business. We’re getting corporate people meeting for a short meeting before they go in the office or people with children will drop their kids off and go meet other women. They’ll have breakfast. So you get a real nice flow of that. And then the lunch business is the same thing. So they’re out for breakfast and they’re out for lunch. But I feel like my goal is: I am very into the hospitality and to be part of the community. I think that we become part of the community, even though we’re not from the area originally. As we mushroom, we are getting customers who know what to expect. ... We want to give service. We’re not rushing people. We leave the check when we leave the food and say there’s no rush, but whenever you’re ready. So they can orchestrate their own time. You become like a fast-food place, but a sit-down restaurant.
Do you consider Nudy’s a diner?
No. When I think of a diner, I think [of] it more like 24 hours. I think of us more of a cafe because of the breakfast/lunch stuff. We don’t serve platters. It’s wraps, salads, breakfast stuff. Pancakes for kids. At the same time, we have a real nice assortment of omelets. Five or six different kinds of eggs Benedict. Avocado toast. You have that trend of keeping up with the trends. But we also have the comfort.
How many workers you you have?
It’s a great question. I don’t know. During the summer when all the patios are open and we hire college kids, we’ll have 300 people and an extra 150 college kids. Come middle of August: poof. They’re gone. The kitchen staff, same thing. There’s not a ton of turnover, but it’s just seems as I grow, it’s harder to find people. In our kitchen, a lot of people that start out as dishwashers get moved into the prep area and then they’re on the grill and then you so forth and so on. We open up a location, and we’ll take a cook from each place and we’re training someone else. I’m very, very fortunate that I have some great people working.
You have plenty of competition, and now from the chains like Turning Point.
I think the competition actually helped me and helped me to stay on top of things. We realize that you can’t rest on your laurels. I take it personally if someone has a problem and we messed something up.
What’s happening in the breakfast and lunch world?
I think right now, the fresh, farm-to-table kind of setup is big. We don’t advertise, but we do it. I get as much as I can locally. We use a lot of our fresh fruits cut here, vegetables we prep and cut here. And like I said, we work on the avocado toast, have some gourmet nice eggs Benedict. We have salmon. I still think it’s comfort food where you keep your trends, but people that are going to breakfast are coming with their children or their spouses who want a stack of pancakes and some eggs. I think lunch is the same way. Nice fresh, homemade soups. It’s almost the same as it’s always been. More salads.
I don’t even make a hoagie anymore.
You’re going to go get your hoagie at Wawa or the deli.