Great American Hero, one of Dallas’ signature sandwich shops, will close its final location on Lemmon Avenue in December after 47 years in business. News broke in the summer that the restaurant was closing, creating an outpouring of emotions from patrons who continue to flock to the beloved eatery. Even still, owner and founder Dominick Oliverie says it’s time.
“I would really like to retire,” Oliverie says. “You know, I’ve traveled. I’ve done everything that you can. I’ve gone as far as you can with sandwiches.”
For decades, Oliverie, who is 74, and his staff, some of whom have been with him for more than 30 years, have been serving some of the freshest food available with the produce purchased daily from local farmers’ markets. They also prepare their spreads and hummus from scratch in a food processor each morning before opening, make fresh-squeezed lemonade, use only natural sweeteners and, as Oliverie tells it, were the first to insist on serving bread without trans fats.
“You can look at what we have, any product — trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, [we] took it out of everything,” he says. “And there wasn’t a baker in town that knew what trans fats were. I’ve been vegetarian for about 26 years now and vegan for about eight. So, about 26 years ago I wanted to learn more about nutrition. I started calling the schools here about a master’s in nutrition. I didn’t finish because I was really busy, but I did enough to know how bad trans fats were.”
Great American Hero hasn’t strayed from its motto “A Healthy Mouthful” thanks to Oliverie’s commitment to natural ingredients. It resonated throughout each of the 11 different locations that he operated in the area over the years. The last one remaining, the 1,400-square-foot restaurant on Lemmon, was the second one Oliverie opened. He says it has always been the most profitable.
When he decided it was time to retire, he asked his son to take over the business, but his son wasn’t interested. According to Oliverie, it would take two to three young people to operate the Lemmon location successfully. However, he doesn’t own the land the building sits on anymore.
He recently sold the property and the building to Leland Burk, the real estate investor and former District 13 Dallas City Council candidate. Oliverie says Burk asked him to remain open for two additional months after his contract expired on Oct. 31, and he agreed. But he doesn’t know what will happen to the colorful sandwich shop once it closes. He suspects a bank will take its place. Burk did not respond to a request for comment.
A former high school teacher, which helped him narrowly avoid the Vietnam-era draft, Oliverie and his wife decided to relocate to Dallas in 1974 after his wife got a legal job with American Airlines. Having just finished his master’s at Rutgers University, he considered sticking with teaching after he moved. However, he saw an opportunity in Dallas, thanks in part to his brother Jerry, who had recently moved here “chasing a beautiful redheaded Texas girl.”
His brother opened Great Outdoor Sub Shop in downtown the previous year. It was an instant hit and Jerry encouraged Dominick to do the same. Oliverie opened his first restaurant at the corner of Field Street and Main Street in downtown. It was so successful that after one year of working at the sandwich shop he made nearly triple what he did as an educator and his teaching career fell by the wayside.
“I didn’t know what an avocado was, what an enchilada was,” Oliverie says about moving to Texas. “I didn’t know country music. We don’t have that back in Jersey. Oh God, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Rusty Wier, you name them — we fell in love with the music down here.”
His affections for his adopted hometown reach far beyond music. He cares a great deal about the community and its people. It’s reciprocal. Oliverie makes a point to pay his staff well. He says it’s not just good business but the right thing to do. He also is more than happy to feed the homeless, provided they come by after the lunch rush ends. Oliverie is a spiritual man who believes in karma, and it’s these qualities that have endeared him to Great American Hero’s loyal customers and kept them coming back for generations.
“They tell me stories about their parents bringing them in when they were 2 years old,” Oliverie says. “And they tell me that right after their mom and dad got married that this is the first place they went, you know?”
It’s not just regulars who stop by. Great American Hero has welcomed its share of local news personalities, restaurateurs, bands like ZZ Top and the Rolling Stones, celebrities and politicians like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. He has pictures with many of them hanging on the wall. It’s clear that Oliverie is anything but apolitical, but he has warmly welcomed everyone who walks through his door. Appetites are nonpartisan.
“When he was in here, he wasn’t political,” Oliverie says of Patrick. “He was just down-to-earth friendly, you know? You would vote for him right away if he was like that, but then they get on TV and they go their party’s way.”
When Great American Hero closes, Dallas will lose a part of its history and a unique business that strove to be ahead of the curve. Oliverie says his was the first restaurant to serve Häagen-Dazs in Dallas, the first to sell Ben & Jerry’s. They’re still the only place to get Wild About Harry’s frozen custard and it was the first place to install Dyson Airblade hand dryers in its restrooms.
But the hole left by Great American Hero — as with Wild About Harry’s and Cosmic Café before it — will be immeasurable. After it serves its last sandwich, the sense of place that the colorful little building brought to Lemmon Avenue will be gone forever, its bright sign reduced to a piece of wistful nostalgia, no longer serving as a beacon welcoming the hungry masses. Even without its iconic sandwich shop, the neighborhood that Oliverie fell in love with over four decades ago will carry on thanks to the people who continue to make it great.
“This area reminds me of Washington Square and Greenwich Village in New York,” Oliverie says. “It has all types of people. I’ve never been in a place like this. Everybody is accepted — hopefully. It’s a great community. It’s a really nice community.”
Great American Hero, 4001 Lemmon Ave., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday – Saturday, closed Sunday