By Justin Liggin
Growing up in Downey, California — the birthplace of the Apollo space program — Michael Nelson learned to shoot for the stars.
He’s sticking with that mantra in August when he introduces Northern California’s Mr. Pickles sandwich shops to the Valley. They are set for Scottsdale and Shea, and Thompson Peak Parkway and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Locations in Queen Creek, Laveen, Chandler and Surprise are also in development, as are locations in Central and Southern California.
Nelson — the chain’s owner and chief operating officer — recently relocated the headquarters to the Airpark.
“The brand is unique in that it doesn’t turn to big-box vendors for its ingredients, instead partnering with artisan bakers, regional farms and ranches to source its products, making every item unique to us,” Nelson says.
“You will not see six-inch and foot-long options from us. We’ll have more specialty breads than uniform options.”
The Scottsdale locations will feature hot and cold sandwiches, notably the Mr. Pickle, which is chicken breast, bacon, Monterey Jack, avocado and veggies.
The menu will also include the Santa Maria tri-tip, which is sourced from the Santa Maria region and topped with specialty barbecue sauce, and Big Jake, a turkey sandwich with cream cheese and avocado.
The brand now also has two new sandwiches of note — Listen Linda, named after Nelson’s wife of 36 years, and the Della’s Deli, which honors partner Dean Johnson’s wife.
“And yes, we do have an actual Mr. Pickle — in our logo, as a character, and even on merch available for sale,” Nelson says.
Nelson’s father was raised on an Oklahoma farm, where family got together on Sundays after church — no matter what was happening.
“To say he took that sentiment with him when he relocated to California and built a life for us would be an understatement, and I am grateful for it every day,” Nelson says. “Hard work and giving back are the pillars in which I’ve built my life.”
Nelson began working as a student at Downey High School, earning a job in a market’s meat department.
“I know what you are thinking,” Nelson says. “You are thinking this is where I explain this is where the seeds for my love of sandwiches came from. And while you wouldn’t be wrong, that market is even more important than that. It happens to be where I fell in love.”
While slicing in the meat department, Nelson noticed fellow Downey High School student Linda Landry, who was a cashier.
“I still do not know how, but with some persistence I got her to go out with me,” Nelson says. “Yes, we were high school sweethearts. We even went to prom together.”
Upon graduating, the pair stayed together even though Landry was headed to the University of Southern California to pursue a film career and Nelson continued his work as a meat cutter at a Ralph’s grocery store.
After leaving Ralph’s, Nelson got his first taste of restaurant management in 1986 with Giuliano’s, a chain of restaurants and delicatessens in the Los Angeles area.
“Again, I still do not know how, but five years into our relationship — at which time she was graduated and working in film as a special effects movie producer and I was working at Giuliano’s — Linda agreed to marry me,” says Nelson.
Four years after tying the knot in 1986 in front of more than 250 family and friends in Whittier, California, Nelson began another successful partnership, this time with older brother John.
“Carl’s Jr. was just starting to franchise locations at that time, and John had the opportunity to buy stores,” Nelson says.
“Together, we pulled together our savings and every penny we could dig up from the couch and opened four Carl’s Jr. locations in San Francisco in 1992.”
The leap of faith required the Nelsons to move to Northern California. There, the Nelsons had their son, Brett, in 1992 and the husband-and-wife team of Frank and Michele Fagundes opened their first Mr. Pickles location in 1995.
During the next eight years, Nelson balanced fatherhood with success with Carl’s Jr. That led an opportunity to expand across California and Arizona by 2000.
“Just as it was the first moment I saw Linda and then when I saw Brett, when I saw Arizona, it was love at first sight,” Nelson says.
“I distinctly remember flying into Phoenix from San Jose and driving toward South Mountain. I looked at them in awe, pulled over on the freeway, and called my wife to persuade her we needed to uproot our entire lives and move to Arizona immediately.”
They moved to State 48 — first Ahwatukee and then, eventually, Scottsdale — in 2000.
Even though they were in Arizona, Nelson sold the Arizona locations of Carl’s Jr. but kept stores in California, Idaho, Utah and Washington, at one point owning as many as 84 locations nationwide.
“I did work in Arizona, however, and in food,” Nelson says.
“In 2005, I joined Subway Restaurants of Arizona. And no, I never thought I would be involved so deeply in the meat market again, but there I was, knee-high in sandwiches and loving it.”
He served as president of Arizona Subway Development, earning Franchisee of the Year in 2012.
During this time, Nelson started giving back; thanks to his participation in the Subway Kids & Sports of Arizona nonprofit arm of the organization, he helped raise more than $1 million for local nonprofits that help children access sports programs.
“I left the Subway brand in 2014 but continued on with Carl’s Jr., where I still have 42 locations across the country with my brother,” Nelson says.
“It was during my travels for the franchise, in fact, when the seeds were sown for my biggest project yet.”
“Eventually, I started going to the same location every single day, finding out the brand had such a following that even the local Costco stores up there carried their gift cards, despite not being some massive brand,” Nelson says. “I about flipped when I found out that the owners were looking to retire and pass on the brand.
“We are out to show the world that the brand can be a very big ‘dill.’”