Secret sandwich ‘ghost kitchen’ sneaks into downtown Auburn

Smuggler’s Deli started as a way to keep Vinifera Wine Bar & Bistro afloat.

Smuggler’s Deli is more of an idea than a physical place. You will not find a sign announcing its presence, but it does exist.

From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, the secret sandwich “ghost kitchen” can be found inside Vinifera Wine Bar & Bistro in downtown Auburn.

It’s an idea that started as a creative adaptation to pandemic restrictions and a way to keep her business afloat. The idea will be continued as pandemic restrictions lighten, according to Vinifera owner Brittiany Karlson.

When indoor dining was put on hold in the state, Karlson and her staff realized the more upscale food that Vinifera typically produced did not travel very well for customers who could now only be served through pick-up and delivery.

That is when she came up with the idea to pivot toward selling sandwiches, soups and salads. This is how Smuggler’s Deli was born.

Karlson said the name “Smuggler’s Deli” was intended to play off the current pandemic restrictions on restaurants and to make customers feel like they were taking part in something “sneaky,” like drinking in a speakeasy during the prohibition era of the 1920s.

The menu carries that theme even further with sandwiches that are named after famous gangsters, smugglers and criminals from history.

Karlson pitched the idea to her kitchen staff. Head Chef Mondo Takahashi and Sous Chef Shawn Saucier were eager to start something new and to be proactive to adapt to a food service industry that had almost fully pivoted to take-out and delivery.

“As a chef right now, you have to be adaptable,” said Takahashi.

Making the switch from a full high-end wine bistro menu to making relatively humble, but delicious, sandwiches and soups was not initially easy.

Saucier said adding a whole new Smuggler’s Deli menu basically doubled the overhead costs. However, the team saw the vision and knew they could make simple but well-executed sandwiches that people could get excited about.

The kitchen staff expressed their appreciation to have an owner that supported them and allowed them to be creative in the way they designed the menu and perfected the sandwiches they offer.

The deli became a hit. Many people came to try the new menu and to support Vinifera, according to Karlson. With the only marketing or signage being done digitally, she said most of their traction was gained via word of mouth.

The Smuggler’s Deli uses the tagline “snitches get sandwiches,” a joke that rings true for many who have spilled the beans on the hidden deli that has become one of Auburn’s worst kept secrets.

Karlson said the idea of Smuggler’s Deli along with the tireless execution by her staff has “completely saved” the business and allowed her to keep everyone on her staff employed through the pandemic.

The team believes part of their success is not only the general accessibility of sandwiches and soups, but also because there are not many stand-out sandwich options in the area.

“We feel like we are bringing something to Auburn that it didn’t have,” Karlson said.