Under-the-street food

Gnarly Deli dives from truck to basement

The Gnarly Deli crew in the bar of the sandwich truck’s new downtown home: (from left) founders Eve Hamilton and Nick Styles and their business partners Don Ashby and Jason Allen (behind the bar). (Photo by Jason Cassidy)

This feature is part of a CN&R special report: Entrepreneurs 2022: Reinvention.

It’s the week of the soft opening for the new brick-and-mortar home of his popular Gnarly Deli food truck, and for Nick Stiles, reality is starting to set in as he sits around a table in the new dining room joking with his co-owners.

“We’re going to be making food tomorrow?”

In the four months since Stiles and Eve Hamilton, his partner and co-owner, signed the lease on the old Peking Chinese Restaurant in downtown Chico, the job of getting the basement space ready has been bigger than they’d imagined.

“Eve and I walked in the first day, we got the keys and we’re like, ‘Oh god, we’ve made a huge mistake,’” he recalled.

The removal of old and installation of new kitchen equipment and carpet, plus cleaning and repairs in a building well over 100 years old, has been a very heavy lift—especially going up and down the stairs of an underground restaurant.

The initial work by the four partners in the business—including Gnarly Deli’s first and second employees, Jason Allen and Don Ashby, respectively—and their “Gnarly Army” of workers/helpers is almost finished. If everything has gone smoothly, doors will be open for real this weekend (Feb. 5-6).

The move from a roving truck to a 4,000-square-foot restaurant is a big one, but after looking at the big picture, the owners decided to take advantage of the forced pandemic downtime and COVID-19-relief funding opportunities and slingshot the business into something bigger and better.

Stiles says they are approaching the new venture based on their food-truck experience.

“We’re pretending the front desk is the food truck window,” he said. “We do it the same way we do on the truck: We give you a buzzer; you go sit wherever you want, and you pick it up [at the counter] when your order is ready.”

The four owners all have backgrounds in performing—mostly as comedians—and in the restaurant’s separate bar area, they also plan to host a full schedule of comedy, live music, karaoke, burlesque, drag, etc.

“When it’s a comedy night, we really want to set it up like you’re having a real comedy-club experience, like you’re in San Francisco and you just have a candle on the table,” Hamilton explained.

Stiles said that though he’s always dreamed of having a brick-and-mortar restaurant, having started by selling his over-the-top artisan “sammiches” (e.g., the Ruthless Chris, with a 10-ounce ribeye and bone-marrow butter) via cart and truck gave him a chance to make a name without taking such a huge risk.

“I’m glad we did it that way. We built up a huge following, an army even. I don’t know how people just open a restaurant … and start advertising,” he said.

Stiles pointed to the local Small Business Development Center as being a key resource for the business—from its hot-dog cart beginnings in 2016 through helping him apply for (and receive) pandemic-relief grants.

As the foursome sat in the closed dining room mulling the impending opening, Allen remembered the early lean years, working the cart at the Thursday Night Market: “To go from a situation where they [sometimes] couldn’t pay their one employee to moving into this glorious building and launching this dream of Nick’s … is exciting.”

Gnarly Deli, 243 W. Second St., Instagram @gnarlydeli

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