Evolution of eegee's

A $15 million business today, eegee's started off as two guys selling lemon drinks out of a truck

Ed Irving sits inside of eegee's No. 2 with a deluxe grinder sandwich--his favorite creation--and he is smiling.

Ed is the "e" that makes up part of the name of one of Tucson's most recognizable homegrown restaurants, eegee's; his business partner and co-founder, Bob Greenberg, is the "g." It has been a marvelous ride, Ed can attest.

Ed and Bob had known each other since kindergarten. Years later, they returned to Tucson riding on an idea that changed the face of the local food scene.

Eegee's, the restaurant chain, was born out of a truck. It was September 1971 when Ed and Bob took to the roads of Tucson to peddle their new product, an icy frozen lemonade.

"The construction workers really liked it," Irving recalled. "(But) they'd say to us, 'You know, we really love your slushie drink there, but don't you have anything to eat?' And the result is why we're sitting in this restaurant."

Working out of a tiny facility on the corner of Speedway Boulevard and Craycroft Road, they began producing sandwiches to go along with the frozen lemonades. The eegee's truck was rolling through all parts of town, working on a daily schedule.

They also were given strong feedback on what they lacked.

"It was the kids that demanded the other flavors," Irving says. "We drove around and the kids would ask, 'What flavors do you got?' And we'd go, 'lemon' and they'd say, 'That's it?'"

Soon came orange, much to the kids' delight, and then strawberry, which today stands as the most popular eegee's flavor. (Ironically, the original flavor, lemon, is now their slowest-seller.) Piña colada, which was their first "flavor of the month," later replaced orange in the regular lineup.

The public loved the cool, mouth-chilling drinks--until it got chilly.

"Yeah, we got a pretty rude awakening that winter," Irving chuckled.

What is an eegee's drink? "It's made just the way you make ice cream, except it doesn't have any fat in it," he says. The ingredients: sugar, water and, usually, natural fruit juices.

The eegee was actually a failed attempt at making an Italian ice. "What we originally tried to make, we didn't know how to make. What we ended up with, we liked better," Irving says.

Almost every eegee's flavor includes juice, and more often than not, the recipe calls for orange. The base for black raspberry, the flavor of the month for August, is one of the many orange juice-based eegee's served.

Yearly, 2,500 gallons worth of eegee's go out to customers.

When eegee's chose to fortify its frozen fruit drinks with more vitamins about four years ago, Irving worked with his doctor to formulate them in.

"He had me add thiamin (vitamin B1). I said, 'What's that good for?' He said, 'It's good for hangovers' ... so we put that stuff in."

Ingesting 12 ounces of eegee's can contribute roughly 15 percent of the daily nutritional values of niacin, riboflavin and other vitamin B subsets, according to eegee's. These electrolytes have made eegee's become more like a frozen sports drink than anything else, Irving says.

"(An eegee's) keeps you cool in the summertime when it's 110 degrees out," says Dominick Scala.

Now eegee's senior assistant of operations, Scala has been with the eegee's family since almost the very beginning, starting in 1974 as a 16-year-old high school kid.

Expanding was almost imminent, Irving says, as they had a hit on their hands. The first eegee's restaurant opened spring 1972. Four were running by 1974, says Scala. A year later, eegee's ended its truck operations, exclusively selling food in their restaurants.

As the community grew, eegee's did, too. Their original commissary at Speedway and Craycroft became bigger as eegee's bought up more rental spaces within the building--eventually getting all of them. In 1995, eegee's moved to their new, bigger commissary on Ajo Way, where they produce all of the food found in the restaurants on a 24-hour cycle.

Eegee's has baked its own bread since 1989, delivering the bread to its stores daily. Any leftover bread for the day is donated to the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen.

The company grew on a few key principles: efficiency, respect and quality. At eegee's, everybody is taught how to make the sandwiches. This means that all of the employees--from the maintenance supervisors to the accountants--can go to a store if needed and produce food. That includes the people who run the business.

"I had a kid come up to me and say, 'How long have you worked here?' And I said, '35 years,'" Irving recalled. Little did the kid know that the man making his sandwich was the president of a company that projected its sales numbers at $15 million for 2003.

Recognizing hard workers within the company is another element of respect that is given from the owners. Most of the people who hold managerial positions have risen from being on the eegee's food-making crew.

In June, nearly two dozen employees received surprise bonuses for their hard work and loyalty. The 21 employees represented a combined 317 years of employment.

"A lot of why I stayed here (was) the owners. We know them; they know us. There are a lot of people still here from when I started," says Jennifer Islam, who now manages the store that she first went to work at in 1990.

Eegee's also gives back to Tucson. In the 13 years the restaurant has run the Coupon Card program, raising funds for a local charity every year, the program has raised nearly $700,000. This year, it raised $73,560 alone during the 30 days of June that it was run.

"We give back to our community (as) the community has given to us," Islam says.

"Each year gets better and better," Scala added.

Going from two guys who roamed the city with a truck to serve their lemon slush, to a chain of 20 restaurants in the Tucson area, did Ed Irving think it would grow to where eegee's is now?

"Did we expect this? No. It just evolved."

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