Al Niles is an accidental icon.
He didn’t set out to be known citywide for his unique subs or quirky sandwich shop. He was just trying to make a decent living.
Yet the owner of WAN Convenience/Al’s Deli has caught national attention for his sandwich-making success. He was recently visited by the Travel Channel’s Adam Richman to be featured in a new show on the network -- yet to be named – that will kick off in March or April. The Travel Channel was turned onto Al’s by his 69 Yelp reviews, most of which praise the shop and owner for his tasty sandwiches and unique personality.
Niles, 48, never planned on running a sandwich shop. The West Indies native opened WAN Convenience [the initials of his full name, Winston Albert Niles] on Tremont Street in Mission Hill in 2004 – just a typical corner convenience store. But when Niles saw his business start to slip after Stop & Shop opened in Brigham Circle about two years later, he knew he needed to adapt.
“I used to sit over there and watch the guy next-door always packing a crowd,” Niles recalled of a neighboring sub and pizza shop. “I said, ‘I can do that, too – that [doesn’t] seem to be that hard.’”
With that, Niles went back to school to improve his culinary skills, got the necessary certifications, and built a kitchen in his store. He started without a menu, using his mainly college-aged customers as taste-testers and creative assistants. Customers would tell him what they liked, didn’t like and everything in between, and his menu of eclectically named sandwiches, including the “Deathwich,” “Richard Prior” and “The Orgasm,” grew organically from there.
“The driving force of this business is...the college students that come through that door – they’re part of this legacy. They’re who really made this beautiful,” said Niles, who lives in Cambridge. “I say, ‘this is your store. I’m only the caretaker.’”
Niles guarantees that his products are fresh and makes everything to order. There are now more than 20 signature subs on his menu, most of which consist of a combination of meats, enhanced by Al’s signature blend of West Indies spices and sauces, on a bed of lettuce and tomato, served on locally-made French bread. The “Richard Prior,” for example, is a combination of roast beef, turkey, Swiss cheese, mayo and ranch dressing; “Heaven is Here” consists of buffalo chicken, roast beef, turkey, bacon, mozzarella, green peppers, pickles, onions, herbs and spices and vinaigrette.
As a way to show gratitude for his customers who helped him to build the menu, Niles disregards conventional customer-merchant practices, such as formal waiting lines, hidden kitchens and “employees-only” areas. He cooks and builds his subs on an open grill in front of his customers and invites anyone to walk behind the counter to grab a drink or just watch him do his thing.
And yes, he’s always been this chill.
“Any where he goes, he would fit in. His personality would fit in because he’s just a relaxed guy,” said Niles’ younger brother, Ben, who often hangs out in the store and helps with upkeep. “He’s just cool. He goes with the flow of anything.”
Many people say Niles’ personality is one of the main reasons he’s been so successful. Niles says he’s a big kid at heart, so he can talk the college-kid lingo.
“He always makes good conversation. He has a pretty honest opinion. He’s not shy to tell you what he feels like or why he disagrees,” said Wentworth Institute of Technology senior and Mission Hill resident Brad Simonsen, as he waited for his sub. “He’s developed himself as a character...He stands out.”
That power of personality is a plus in this restaurant-packed neighborhood, especially when you consider the bareness of Niles’ shop and its dusty convenience-store inventory. A graffiti’d wall is the only shred of decoration in the place. But what his convenience store lacks in aesthetics, Niles makes up for with a comfortable, playful environment. On any given day, you can hear him yelling, “Somebody have an Orgasm?” even if he knows who ordered the sub.
“This is not work,” he said. “During the day, this is the stage, and I’m just doing my thing. I’m just having fun.”
Part of Niles’ performance includes what he calls a creative art form in the edible sense: the “hush.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: a secret. And no two hushes are the same.
“A hush comes in when you don’t know what you really want, and you say, ‘Al, make me something,’ and then I would create something not on the board,” he explained. “It will be edible, flavorful, enjoyable.”
Niles guarantees everything he makes: “If you bite it and don’t like it, you get your money back or we make it again,” he said.
Nine years running, and no one has ever asked for a refund.
Not that Niles never fields complaints. Customers sometimes have to wait up to an hour for their subs, depending on the crowd. Niles concedes he has a hard time sticking to a schedule; he says the biggest challenge of running his store is getting there on time...at 11 a.m.
“I have a tardiness problem like you wouldn’t believe. You can’t plan nothing around me,” he said. “That’s keeping it real. No need trying to sugarcoat it, because when you ask them on the street, they’ll tell you.”
If it weren’t sandwiches, Niles said he would have started another business by now. He believes strongly in putting in your time and earning your keep. Travel Channel attention aside, he is committed to continuing to grow.
“I really can’t see the sense as such a beautiful thing as life, sitting around doing nothing with it at all. Something about it is just wrong,” he said. “The reward comes back when you sit and reflect on whoever you touched that day.”
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration with The Boston Globe.