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Getting to Know ... Stephen Dugan

This local sandwich impresario has gained the favor of one of Arlington's political elites.

Governing is not only hard work, it also makes you hungry.

Just ask County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D). When he's hungry after (or amidst) a long Board meeting, he eats at Earl's Sandwiches on Wilson Boulevard.

Ferguson said that Earl's owner Stephen Dugan is a "really good example of a small business owner" who works hard to keep his shop afloat. He also said that Dugan makes "the perfect chocolate chip cookie."

In an interview, Dugan talked about his inspiration for starting Earl's, his roots in Massachusetts and the inspiration for his signature sandwich, The Monty.

Perhaps someday we'll see The Paul Ferguson?

Arlington Connection: Why did you start this restaurant?

Stephen Dugan: I've been doing this since I was 14, cooking one way or another. And I wanted to have my own place because I wanted to do the food that I wanted to do. The food was the driving factor more than anything else.

AC: So you worked at other restaurants?

SD: I worked in this business one way or another since I was 14. I started in the sub shop in my hometown and I worked there through college. I was there for seven years. In college I got a degree in something completely unrelated. I got a cooking job because it was what I knew how to do. I kind of toyed with the idea of what else I wanted to do, but this is where I got along and I like it. But I didn't really learn how to cook until I got down here.

AC: Where are you from?

SD: North Andover, Mass.

AC: How did you get down here?

SD: I graduated from school and I wanted to just live somewhere else and I had friends here. It was easy because I had a place to stay. I've lived here since 1989.

AC: Where did you go to school?

SD: Emerson College in Boston. It was a fun school.

AC: Do you serve local political-types here because you're close to the County Board offices?

SD: No, not that I'm particularly aware of other than [County Board Chairman] Paul [Ferguson]. We started doing some catering for the Board, which has been great. We've been doing their Saturday meetings. We try to serve our chocolate chip cookies warm when we do caters and apparently that was the hook and he really liked them. So he started insisting that they use us and then he came in one day.

AC: Yeah, he said you make the perfect cookie. He said you have some kind of trick as to how you make them. Is that true?

SD: Well it was mostly research. The challenge for chocolate chip cookies to me is how to get them consistent because I've seen it over and over again: you use the same exact recipe and for some reason they don't come out consistently. So I was trying to figure out how we make them fresh every day without having to make the batter every day. The two things I figured out in research is that you make the batter in big batches and roll them in plastic so you can cut them every day after you refrigerate it. And then secondly, you melt the butter instead of creaming it. I guess when you cream the butter it's not always the same consistency but when you melt it, it is. And then we add the sugar so it melts in so you're getting the same exact thing every time. It's worked out really well.

AC: What's your favorite part of Arlington?

SD: I think the customers. That's been one of the most enjoyable things. We have a really eclectic group of customers. We have a lot of customer loyalty. We have a lot of regulars. That's been my favorite part.

AC: Is there any specific place in Arlington that you really enjoy going to?

SD: I like Nam Viet up the street. That's a really good restaurant. I live in Adams Morgan so, honestly, until I opened this place I hadn't spent a lot of time here.

AC: When did you open the place?

SD: Dec. 4 of last year. And I'm here 80-100 hours a week so I'm still getting to know the area. I think I've gone to the movies twice since I've been here.

AC: If you could take a road trip anywhere right now, where would you go and why?

SD: I would go to New Orleans. I've been there five or six times but I haven't been there since the hurricane. New Orleans is one of my favorite eating cities. Since we're [making] the gumbo [at the restaurant] and I haven't been down there in a while I'd probably go there. Everyone has their own version of gumbo but now that I'm making it every single day I'd love to go down there to see if I had a different perspective.

AC: When you were younger what did you want to be?

SD: That changed all the time. The first thing I wanted to be was a baseball player. But I probably started cooking around the second or third grade, from then I just kept cooking. It wasn't that I wanted to do it I just enjoyed it and I loved eating.

AC: Do you have any family or pets in Arlington?

SD: I don't. My family is up in Massachusetts.

AC: What's the key to making the perfect sandwich?

SD: Um… for me it's three things. I think it's the combination of the bread, the filling and the dressing. For me it was putting a lot of time and effort into thinking out each sandwich. You have to make sure that the bread and the filling and the topping all match. For me it's getting that combination right.

AC: What's the best sandwich you've ever eaten?

SD: The best sandwich I've ever eaten was at this place where I grew up called Harrison's Roast Beef. They opened when I was in high school. It was a roast beef sandwich with barbecue sauce and mayonnaise. And that was the inspiration for The Monty. I always said that there's one sandwich that if I open a place, I would do that one. Every time I would go home to visit my parents, I would always go there twice a day every day. I think we've nailed it pretty well.