Mimi Chryssikos is the pied piper of Chicago sandwich lovers. Lured by her croque monsieurs and panini, they followed her from Mimi's Specialty Deli in Lincoln Square, which closed a couple years ago, to the Long Room on Irving Park, where she made hot and cold sandwiches for bargoers. Now her regulars are trailing her to a new venue: Sweet Occasions, a cafe-cum-candy-and-ice-cream shop with locations in Lincoln Square, Rogers Park, and (soon) Uptown. "They're not going to find 'Mimi's' on the door," Chryssikos warns. Whatever, as long as her saucisson sandwich still comes with French butter and cornichon.
Sweet Occasions is owned by Andy Singer and John Richardson, who started the business two and a half years ago as a home-based gift-basket operation. Along the way they opened a store on Damen between Lawrence and Wilson and began carrying gourmet ice cream as a way of drawing customers inside to check out the gift selection. On their first day of business, Chryssikos, who lives nearby and had just closed her deli, stopped by and asked, "So, you want to buy any equipment?" Then she started showing up with sandwiches for her new neighbors and eventually Sweet Occasions began offering them wholesale. They sold so well that when Chryssikos tired of her late-night hours at the Long Room ("I don't even drink," she says), Singer and Richardson brought her on as cafe director.
Sweet Occasions doesn't carry everything Chryssikos offered at her deli, but her most popular sandwiches are still available, such as the one regulars know as the Citronnette, made with tomato, cucumber, scallion, mixed lettuce, cornichon, a choice of meats and cheeses, and her signature lemon dressing; the French Traditional, with imported ham and brie; and, of course, the croque monsieur, a baked sandwich with ham, Swiss cheese, and bechamel sauce. The offerings at the Rogers Park location are tailored somewhat to its Hispanic customers--she's come up with her own salsa, and her Latin panini and Latin tuna sandwiches, with healthy doses of cilantro, are in regular rotation.
Chryssikos doesn't traffic in dessert; that's where Singer and Richardson come in. They carry ice cream from the Madison-based Chocolate Shoppe, including flavors such as espresso Oreo, key lime pie, green tea, cotton candy, and Fat Elvis (banana ice cream with chocolate chunks and swirls of peanut butter), along with sorbet, frozen yogurt, and a few soy and no-sugar-added varieties. If your favorite's not in stock, Singer and Richardson will add your name to their call list and phone you next time it comes in.
The store also has bins of hard candy like root beer barrels, peanut butter balls, and anise squares, all made by the Chicago-based Peerless Confection Company. There's a selection of European chocolate bars, too. Customers can buy candy by the piece or have an assortment made into a gift basket. The baskets, sturdy, brightly colored straw affairs, aren't just for show, Singer says: "We try to give you something you can use afterward, not something you're going to throw out."
All the sweets mean Chryssikos is reunited with a segment of her fan base she missed at the Long Room: children. She was used to them stopping in at her deli with their parents for a snack and a kiss. "All these kids have grown!" she says. But they haven't forgotten her. One pint-size groupie, a little French girl named Fiona, just had a birthday party at Sweet Occasions.
Her regulars might notice one slight change in Chryssikos's sandwiches. Her lemon salad dressing and marinade is now known as Citro, not Citronnette. She changed the name for copyright reasons after dissolving her partnership with Andrew Givens, who ran the old deli with her. But it's still made according to her strict all-natural guidelines with nothing you can't pronounce--extra-virgin olive oil, lemon, garlic, onion, oregano, salt, and pepper. "My philosophy is if I can't read it, I don't eat it," she says. You can buy bottles of the stuff at both Sweet Occasions stores.
The dressing will figure prominently in a cookbook she's putting together: "I could have a whole cookbook on applications of Citro," she says, from pasta salad to pork chops. She's finished compiling the recipes but isn't sure yet if she'll sell it through her Web site (eatatmimis.com) or seek out a publishing house. In the meantime she's offering catering services and cooking lessons. And hard-core Chryssikos fans can buy T-shirts, mouse pads, and thongs bearing her Web site address at the online store Cafe Press.
Customers come to Sweet Occasions' Damen location from as far away as Evanston and Oak Park. But for some reason the cafe is flying under the radar of its own neighborhood. "People come in every day and say, 'When did you open?' and they live right down the street," Singer says. He's hoping Chryssikos's sandwiches will attract nearby residents looking to pick up dinner on their way home from work (the store is just a couple doors down from the Damen Brown Line el stop).
For now the cafe's happy to be getting Chryssikos's regulars. "Like my faithful Bob who comes every Friday," she says. "Bob gets the French Traditional. He follows me everywhere."
Sweet Occasions is at 4639 N. Damen (773-293-3080) and 1622 W. Morse (773-422-4707). The third location, on Broadway and Lawrence, is slated to open sometime this summer.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.