I was a notoriously picky eater as a child. Hamburgers and French fries were my friends. I didn't much like to stray outside that and the handful of homemade meals I was willing to eat.
I certainly didn't understand the concept of a "submarine sandwich." But a shop called Boondini's Sandwich Superstore in the Celebration at Six Forks shopping center changed all that when I was about 8 or 9.
The variety was overwhelming then and still is today. They have subs, yes, but they also have baked chicken, Outer Banks-style clam chowder, Reubens, Cubans and more. As a kid, I thought I would be safe with a turkey sandwich. Unimaginative, I know.
But that sub was the beginning of a whole new culinary world for me. I started small, but eventually I have come to enjoy all manner of subs. And it's thanks to Boondini's.
Boondini's has been around Raleigh in some form since 1978. It actually opened in 1977 in Buies Creek, where Campbell University is located.
But owner Billy Williams realized quickly that a college town dependent on students might make a tough environment for his fledgling establishment. He moved to Tryon Hills in Raleigh.
In 1986, the Boondini's I know and love came into creation. For a time Williams had two Boondini's sub shops, but he sold the Tryon Hills spot in 1988 and devoted all his attention to the location at Celebration at Six Forks.
When you walk into the shop, you see the traditional counter where you place orders and await your food. To your left is a bulletin board with news articles, photos of Williams displaying fish he's caught and a sign that has the words "Grilled Subs" bordering a gray submarine. This is just part of the shop's whimsy.
Walk into the rest of the store, and you'll see "Boondini's" written in large bubble letters on one wall. Below it is a mural depicting a submarine floating into an open mouth. On an adjacent wall is a children's book rack positioned alongside another mural full of insects, flowers, fish and people all popping out of a scene overshadowed by a multicolored castle.
And for the solitary diner, a magazine rack on the opposite wall holds various periodicals for your perusal. Don't expect light fare; The Economist is a regular.
When Williams started his sub shop, he didn't have any particular food background.
"It was tough for me at first," he said. "I was learning on the fly. I wasn't really trained."
And he still learns as he goes today. His menu is flexible, and if something isn't working out, he's willing to replace it with something else, perhaps a new sandwich he made for himself at home. It's this variety, along with the quality of his ingredients, that attracts many long-time customers.
Photos of regular patrons, such as the Hauser family, hang above many a booth in Boondini's. Ken, Carol and their son Robert were there this past Tuesday night when I visited. They say they like the food and the community atmosphere, and they've gotten to know Williams pretty well.
"He's always got a good story. A fishing story," Ken said. His wife, a Duke fan, added, "He's a big State fan, so we give him nothing but trouble about that."
Amy Blackwelder, 25, grew up eating at Boondini's and got her first job there in high school. Williams' friendliness came in handy then, too.
"I'm pretty sure my dad told me I had to go find a job," she said. "I came and asked for an application because I was shy and this was the easiest place because I know Billy."
Now Blackwelder and her husband come every Sunday for lunch.
That kind of community closeness is more unusual these days now that chains like Subway and Quiznos have taken over the sandwich business. In fact, Quiznos has tried to move into the shopping center twice in the past few years, Williams said.
"It took us over a year to kill them," Williams said. "Then they reopened as Quiznos again, and it took us less than a year to kill them a second time."
With about 34 years total and counting, Boondini's will probably be around beating all challengers for some time to come.