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In the Margins | New Year tastes bittersweet without Fredda’s deli sandwiches

Posted on January 3rd, 2024 By:

With each new year, many of us awake with renewed ambitions involving fitness, food, family or finances. The calendar jump-starts our intentions for another year in which the garage — or maybe our arteries — will get cleaned up for a better or longer life ahead.

Or, if you’re like me, you spend the midnight hour on New Year’s Eve eating a leftover sandwich, watching Yellowstone reruns, while comforting a couple of large dogs who are terrified and confused by ridiculously loud explosions being perpetrated by some nearby New Year’s celebrants.

While experiencing a less-than-glorious midnight moment in my basement, I realized my inspiration for 2024 was coming from, of all places, the leftover sandwich in my hand. I realized that this Clubhouse Special on nine-grain bread was not just an ordinary snack.

It was one of the final work products ever to be handmade by Fredda Graham at her deli in the Finholm’s Market on Harborview Drive. My midnight sandwich represented a life of hard work, a true love of people and deliberate dedication to a humble craft. And if I didn’t finish my sandwich quickly, my frightened dogs would probably eat my arm.

A birthday/retirement worthy of celebration

On the final day of 2023, Fredda Graham hung up her deli apron and wrapped up her final sandwich orders — mine included. As she packed boxes of supplies into her truck, she was preparing to celebrate her 75th birthday on Jan. 1 by retiring from an industrious career of feeding many of us.

Deli customer Ili Johnson congratulates Fredda on her well-deserved retirement (and birthday).

Fredda was born and then raised in Tacoma for 37 years. Her grandfather was fire chief in University Place until he retired and moved to the Key Peninsula. In 1979, Fredda and her husband followed them by moving to Longbranch. Her grandfather took in a young horse, and she enjoyed helping him care for it.

After too many long hours and long drives, she quit her job at Pizza Hut in Tacoma. A friend helped her hire on as waitress and kitchen helper at the Huckleberry Inn in Key Center. She worked there for 10 years, three of those as bartender. On the side, she started catering food for local horse shows in the region. Her mastery of the art of sandwich-making had begun.

Her culinary career path included stints at Bridgeway Market in Purdy and for six years at the deli counter at the Texaco (now a 76 station) at the four corners of Wright-Bliss Road and Highway 302 near Vaughn. Eventually she landed at the well-known deli counter inside the Chevron station atop Stinson Drive in Gig Harbor. She worked there for 10 years, and it became a favored meal stop for commuters, local workers, and more than a few local police and fire officers.

‘The best sandwich in Gig Harbor’

My neighbor and a longtime City of Gig Harbor employee, now retired, was the one who first told me about Fredda’s sandwiches.

“It must have been 20 years ago when I found her at the top of Stinson in that Chevron station,” said John Winden. “I used to say, ‘I’m going to get a Fredda-wich.’ It was the best sandwich in Gig Harbor, by far.”

After working the gas-station deli circuit, Fredda set out on her own. She and her friend Lori Critchfield became partners in a local eatery known as, you guessed it, Fredda’s and Lori’s Deli. They opened in 2013 on Highway 302 across from Charboneau’s Construction yard. When the landlord dropped their lease in favor of an incoming cannabis shop, they moved their deli to the Gateway Pointe Business Park near the Narrows Bridge. Fredda ran the deli there for five years.

“One day a lady came and threw a business card at me. She wanted to talk to me about opening a deli at the Finholm’s Market,” said Fredda.

For several years, the Fredda-and-Lori team operated a pair of delis — one at Gateway Pointe and one at Finholm’s Market. They became the Batman and Robin of Gig Harbor’s deli service until COVID-19 closures forced them to end the partnership. Lori pulled out to devote her time to the priorities of being a grandmother. Fredda focused full-time on a single deli at Finholm’s.

Following Fredda

Despite decades of movement and menu changes, some things remained constant – the quality of the sandwiches and the customers.

“People followed me from place to place. If they found me, they would come back,” said Fredda. “My motto was, ‘If you’ll have one (sandwich) … you will be back.’ ”

It’s not just the sandwiches …

Her customers attest to her motto. John Winden remembers following her bread-crumb sandwich trail to each location. “She’s a tough, hard-working lady, but once you get to know her, she’s so nice,” he said.  John still uses her recipes for chili and broccoli soup.

An 8-year-old kid from Texas was visiting his uncle in Gig Harbor when he discovered Fredda’s BLT sandwiches. As the story goes, he came back for a second one, even asked for a third but was denied. Then he asked Fredda if she would be willing to fly home to Texas with him if the uncle purchased the ticket. Again, he was denied.

For many of Fredda’s customers, they came for the sandwiches. But, more than that, they loved the lady making them.

“We call her grandma,” said AJ Montgomery, a longtime customer who proudly presided over a party in Fredda’s honor at Finholm’s on December 30.

AJ Montgomery helps deliver a thank-you from Fredda’s community of customers. Photo by Chris Phillips

Connie and Jim Callaway, who live on Soundview Drive, sent her off with a puffy Gig Harbor vest and lots of hugs. Connie said she has been coming to see Fredda at Finholm’s as part of our daily five-mile walking ritual. “I stop in to get a water and a newspaper every day. We are going to miss her!”

… but they really are great

Amid all this adoration, I asked Fredda how she make such irresistible sandwiches. She explained in detail the dynamics of the ingredients and the actual assembly of a good hand-held meal.  In her view, a winning sandwich consists of both taste and construction. The build is just as important as the bacon, she explained.

I realized this woman could easily lead a TED talk titled “Successful Sandwich Architecture for the 21st Century.” The You Tube channel would blow up!

A new year, a new life in the offing

As I was devouring my leftover Clubhouse at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I thought a lot about Fredda and her artful description of the sandwich craft.  I noticed how the leftover sandwich was still intact in my hand with each bite. No slipping; no sogginess; no unsavory mixing of ingredients. Even as a leftover from my fridge, it was fresh, each bite better than the last.

I also thought about how Fredda had built a community of neighbors.

People who otherwise were total strangers came together to rally around a woman who had spent most of her working life behind a deli counter. They raised pints of beer in her honor. They nostalgically proclaimed their menu favorites. They told stories of her food and her friendship – and the quality of both. They also realized something special in their lives would be absent with the arrival of 2024.  More than the large wall-mounted menu would be missing.

Fredda and Connie Callaway at the sendoff party. Photo by Chris Phillips

Time for a dog and some hummingbirds

As for Fredda, she’s moving on. She lost her husband in a nursing home three years ago. She also lost her mother to cancer. Her 78-year-old sister died on Dec. 17, just a couple weeks before her retirement. Lousy timing.

“I got mad at her after she died,” said Fredda with a wry smile.

After years of being a family caregiver and decades of caring for appreciative customers, she’s looking onward. Last spring, she bought a new home on Palmer Lake near Lakebay. A couple weeks ago she called a friend in Tacoma to resume their regular walks together. She has a new hummingbird feeder for the back yard — another sendoff gift from a thankful customer.

“I’ve got a lot of stuff to do. I want to get a dog, and then get it trained – haven’t decided what kind yet,” she said.

‘Just another customer’

I asked her whether she might return to Finholm’s Market at some point. She admitted her business did better there than at any of its other locations.

“I might come to the Wednesday trivia nights at some point, but this time I’ll just be another customer.”

As I was leaving Finholm’s, the proprietor told me the deli counter will soon be reopened by a new food vendor who apparently uses waffles to make sandwiches and other offerings. Hmm. Might be worth a try, but someone should warn them that they have some enormous shoes to fill behind that deli counter.

Christopher Phillips, a Gig Harbor community member since 1981 and former managing editor of The Peninsula Gateway, is a retired journalist and communications executive who worked for Russell Investments, the Port of Tacoma, and the Washington State Investment Board. His column, In the Margins, explores our community’s people, places and experiences, some of which might not otherwise come to our attention. Suggestions are welcome at [email protected].