When Arthur John (AJ) Shreffler III started selling hoagies and Philly cheesesteaks out of his Denver apartment in 2019, he would skip a night of sleep to bake all the bread.
Those freshly made rolls, usually semolina sesame seed, still provide the base for every one of his sandwiches, no matter what is inside, because Shreffler likes to build things from the ground up. “The day I start buying bread [instead of baking it] is the day I shut down the business,” he said.
Four years after starting the business as a hobby, Shreffler has moved the kitchen prep out of his apartment and into a string of pop-up kitchens around metro Denver. His East Coast-style hoagies — everything from chopped cheese to Italian subs to meatball grinders — sell out almost immediately after he posts them online for pre-orders.
To keep up with the demand, he’s found a team of six employees to help him run Little Arthur’s Hoagies, which is currently tucked inside Sunny’s, a breakfast joint in the Sunnyside neighborhood, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. But he still wakes up at 4 a.m. to make the bread fresh each day before his pop-up, and often doesn’t end those days until 11 p.m.
“The days are always long to get the people the freshest and best product we can provide, completely created and sourced by us,” he said.
In the near future, Shreffler plans to launch a food truck, start an Italian supper club, and find a permanent home for Little Arthur’s Hoagies.
All of that, he partially credits to the demand from his loyal following, sandwich lovers who hang on every one of his Instagram posts. One of his regulars, Chris Miller, drives in almost every week from Longmont. And when Shreffler held his pop-up outside of King of Wings in Wheat Ridge, he’d pay the $35 deal for a sandwich and two free beers, even though he doesn’t drink.
“He’s always singing in the kitchen, no matter how chaotic it is, like my Italian grandma,” Miller said. “Every penny is worth it. AJ cares so much, and his soul, character and deep family roots really shine through his food.”
A Philly native’s dream come true
Shreffler, 33, is half Italian and grew up near Philadelphia in Doylestown eating three homemade meals a day, so cooking was in his blood. But he didn’t tap into that passion until a football injury derailed his plans to take a full-ride scholarship to college. Rather than going to school, he started working part-time jobs in construction and restaurant kitchens.
His career really started, though, when he got a job working for renowned chef Mark Vetri, who was trained in Italy and owns five restaurants in Philadelphia.
“I always made sure I worked for someone that would teach me something I could bring with me, Shreffler said. “A lot of people don’t know my background with food because I don’t flaunt it too much, but that’s why everything we do is made from scratch.”
After a brief stint in Hawaii, Shreffler decided to move to Denver in 2018. A year later, he started Little Arthur’s on the days he wasn’t working as a sous chef at Italian restaurant Bar Dough.
“Back then, there was really no one doing 100% honest Philly-style food, so I knew it would work, and when I started doing it out of my apartment for fun, it caught on pretty heavy,” Shreffler said.
He started out by texting 10-15 friends in the restaurant industry (who then told their friends, and so on and so forth) once a week with a menu of different hoagies. But as word got out, the list of interested people quickly turned into more than 100. “I would set up time slots where people would come and pick them up outside of my apartment every half hour, and I would time it so I could make them, wrap them and run them down as quick as I could,” he said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, closing restaurants, Shreffler moved his operation into Bar Dough’s kitchen and started selling sandwiches to go under the name Jabroni & Sons. The pop-up, a partnership between him and Bar Dough’s owners, caught on quickly in Denver, going viral along with several other pandemic-born concepts.
Jabroni & Sons eventually shut down when Bar Dough began operating with normal hours again. But Shreffler had gotten a better idea of what it would take to make his sandwich pop-ups work full-time, and at the end of 2021, he left the restaurant to focus on Little Arthur’s.
“I figured with everything I had been through, worst case scenario if this falls apart, I would just become a chef again,” he said.
His first semi-permanent location was at King of Wings, a Wheat Ridge restaurant that had closed for repairs after a fire in 2021. Shreffler started a business relationship, which quickly turned into a friendship with owners Eddie Renshaw and Evan Pierce and began popping up outside the restaurant each week. “My days used to be around 20 hours long every pop-up,” Shreffler said. “I would call three pop-ups in a row ‘the 96-hour push’ because I basically got three to four hours of sleep in between the prep and service days.”
Shreffler started an Instagram page for the business not long after he quit Bar Dough, and it’s quickly become the “best free marketing tactic,” with more than 25,000 followers.
The Philly native makes around 25 different varieties of hoagies, each with its own story. The “Arty Pops,” for instance, is his father’s namesake sandwich. It’s ground beef, fried onions, mushrooms, American cheese, rosemary pickles, and secret sauce on a fresh everything roll for $25.
“I always joke around and say my dad invented the chopped cheese because he used to make a version when he didn’t want to light the grill, and would basically make what we called scramble burger in the pan, and then serve it with bread on the side,” he said.
The “Philly” is inspired by “how everyone thinks a cheesesteak is made west of Pittsburgh” with shaved and chopped ribeye, cheddar cheese, fried onions, mushrooms and bell peppers, while the “Colorado P.A.T.,” a fancy take on a BLT, is reminiscent of the tomato sandwiches his dad made in the summers — the ones, he said, that taught him how to understand the power of salt and seasoning.
“We’re all about the old school classics here, but with seasonal flavors and a bit of a chef flair,” he said.
In November 2022, he worked out a deal with Ryan Turano, the owner of Sunny’s, at 2339 W. 44th Ave., to camp his pop-up shop more permanently there during the afternoons when the restaurant is closed. Shreffler now preps and bakes bread at a commissary kitchen in Arvada.
The popular cheesesteak hoagies at Little Arthur’s Hoagies in Denver on pictured on July 26, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Mozzarella from Naples with Rosemary Focaccia and Sicilian Olive Oil at Little Arthur’s Hoagies in Denver is pictured on July 26, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
The Grandma Slice with provolone cheese, red sauce and basil on homemade freshly baked Focaccia bread at Little Arthur’s Hoagies in Denver is pictured on July 26, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Chocolate chip and lemon-ricotta sprinkle cookies at Little Arthur’s Hoagies in Denver are pictured on July 26, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
A Panzanella Salad with Palisade peaches, local tomatoes, Altius Farms Basil, 12-year balsamic vinegar, Sicilian olive oil and pecorino at Little Arthur’s Hoagies in Denver is pictured on July 26, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Owner AJ Shreffler, center, holds up a freshly made cheesesteak hoagie with his employees at Little Arthur’s Hoagies in Denver on July 26, 2023. They are, from left to right, Eva Jee, JP Prestamo, Nick Guerin, and pastry chef Jacqui Sonneschien. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Little Arthur’s isn’t so little anymore
These days, Shreffler posts the week’s menu on his Instagram page so customers can pre-order. He makes a different hoagie every day (nearly a foot-long, and large enough for two meals) and caps orders at 150. Customers receive a reservation time to pick up and pay for their order at Sunny’s. Each sandwich runs about $26.
Which is a lot when compared to the cost of sandwiches at other restaurants. But Shreffler said they’re worth the price. “People don’t realize that they’re basically getting like a $50 steak they would get from a steakhouse in their cheesesteak,” he said as an example. “We break down a full rib roast, and essentially serve a 12-ounce steak, sliced by hand, in each sandwich.”
Shreffler has been playing with the menu and adding snacks, salads and desserts. This past week, he added a Panzanella salad made with Sicilian olive oil, buffalo mozzarella from a six-generation family-owned dairy farm in Naples, and ricotta cookies.
“Our hoagies are 100% authentically made,” he said. “It’s honest food that comes from the soul and is inspired by our own lives. There’s always a story around good food.”
Miller, who still drives down from Longmont each week, got onto Shreffler’s contact list through a mutual friend, and the first hoagie he tried was the original Philly dubbed the American Wit (“because that’s how you order a sandwich in Philly, starting with the cheese you want,” Shreffler said) with 12 ounces of Angus ribeye, a lot of American cheese and fried onions on a homemade sesame roll.
“I didn’t make it three blocks because of how amazing it smelled, so I pulled over, ate it on the hood of my car and thought, ‘Where has this man been my whole life?’” he said.
“If [Miller] isn’t in line each week, he’s probably out of town,” said Juan Prestamo, another loyal customer who is now a line cook at Little Arthur’s.
Prestamo had followed Shreffler on Instagram for a couple of years, trying and failing to order a hoagie before they sold out. When his friend, who had secured a ticket for a South Philly Italian hoagie, came down with COVID last year, he finally got his chance. Two months after meeting Shreffler at King of Wings, he saw he was looking for help on his Instagram, and “slid into his DMs, and the rest is history,” Prestamo said.
Prestamo had never worked in a professional kitchen before, but always had a strong love for food. But with Shreffler’s hands-on style in the kitchen, Prestamo said he’s learned more than he could ever imagine (even the best way to eat a peach, which he claims is after it’s been soaking in ice water for a few minutes).
“There’s never a bad day at the hoagie shop,” Prestamo said.
“With AJ, there’s no belief factor, it’s a matter of fact that it’s all happening, and as long as I can be a part of it, I’m gonna be a part of it,” he added.
Shreffler is now working to open the food truck, which he plans to park across the street from Sunny’s in an empty lot, dubbed Artie Express by the end of summer. He’ll use it to serve braised meat Italian hoagies made right before you with no pre-orders.
He also wants to expand his pop-up series to include dinner, featuring classic Italian dishes, inspired by Palizzi, a South Philly Italian supper club. And he said a brick-and-mortar location for Little Arthur’s could be on its way very soon as well.
“I really just want to have a fun little empire making good food out here,” he said.
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