The Norzwich

Culinary establishments have long relied on catchy sandwich names to attract customers: for better or (more likely) worse, there’s hardly a kid in America who couldn’t rattle off the definitive characteristics of a Whopper or an Egg McMuffin. For the moment, Door County is fortunate enough to be relatively free of such generic sandwich varieties. Instead, it boasts a unique, native species of sandwich, unknown to much of the world but as common as a fish boil in the vocabulary of most Fish Creek residents. Its name is the Norzwich.

The Norzwich was originally invented in the mid-1970s by Gary and Ann Norz, owners of the corner grocery store (now home to the Fish Creek Market), as a way of affordably feeding Fish Creek’s hungry seasonal workers, many of whom were strapped for money.

“Nobody had much money then,” Gary remembers. “It was pretty lean times.” Refrigeration was also hard to come by. So in order to help young people avoid buying lunch at an expensive restaurant, the Norzes offered to store people’s lunches in their market’s refrigerator.

Young people began filling the Norzes’ refrigerator with sandwich materials, using small name tags to keep track of their loaves of bread and blocks of cheese. But as this practice became increasingly popular, the storage system “got complicated,” Ann remembers laughingly.

To reduce the confusion in their refrigerator, the Norzes began selling their own affordable sandwich. Famous for its generous stacks of cold cuts, cheese, and vegetables, the sandwich became known among Fish Creek’s young people as the Norzwich. Though the Norzwich now holds a firmly established place in Fish Creek lore, the Norzes did not originally set out to create something legendary.

“Is there any secret; how did it happen?” he asks rhetorically. “No. We just had tags on all that bread and cheese, and I’m not that much of a bookkeeper to keep track of all that!”

Along with the sandwich itself, the Norzes soon began to include fruit (to make the meal healthier) and homemade chocolate chip cookies (to make it tastier). Thirty years later, the Norzwich hasn’t changed much. A Norzwich lunch still comes with grapes or a bag of chips, a cookie, and, as current Fish Creek Market owner Mike Hyde puts it, “a big, delicious, affordable sandwich.” At about $5, the sandwich is still one of the best deals in northern Door County. Though the Norzes don’t remember how much the original sandwich cost, they estimate about $3.

For the Norzes, increasing business was never the goal of the Norzwich. They wave off the question of profits as unimportant.

“We didn’t really worry about the cost,” Ann says. “If we saw a kid that was hungry, we stacked it real thick. Then a little kid would come and just want peanut butter and jelly. So we just had once price and figured it all came out in the end.”

The true benefit of the Norzwich, according to Gary, was that it “made us get to know everyone in town.” And the Norzwich, in turn, helped everyone in town get to know the Norzes. Gary and Ann report that people still recognize the Norz name when they or their children travel. Even in places far from Door County, strangers regularly ask if they are the Norzes of Fish Creek sandwich fame.

“People don’t know us,” Gary chuckles, “but they remember those Norzwiches.”

Mike and Jeanne Hyde, current owners of the Fish Creek Market, report that local fondness for the Norzwich is as strong as ever, especially since their daughter, Alison, unofficially took charge of the sandwich a few years ago. The Hydes even have a Norzwich “Wall of Fame,” which displays the sandwich preferences of up to 50 regular customers.

The Norzwich is unflaggingly popular among tourists, too. “With the number of years they’ve been serving sandwiches in this store, you’d think there’d be nobody that hasn’t heard of it,” Jeanne says, amused. But word of the Norzwich is still spreading, helped along in part by a loyal crowd of tourists who return each year for their sandwich. “We’ve still got people who have to stop for their Norzwich once a year,” says Jeanne.

Though the history of the Norzwich is long and well-known, the sandwich is young compared to the building where it originated, now known as the Fish Creek Market. With its prime location between the Fish Creek marina, Gibraltar Town Hall, and Highway 42, the tall, proud white building is just as central to Fish Creek now as it was a century ago. The Fish Creek Market is the latest in a long line of businesses that have inhabited the building since it was built in 1895, including several varieties of grocery stores and even a dance hall. In its current incarnation, the Fish Creek Market sells a wide range of household basics, wines, cheeses, and upscale specialty products.

The Hydes bought the Market six years ago from Jeanne’s cousin, Mitch Larson, who had purchased the building from the Norzes in order to renovate it. In his plans for renovation, Larson made it his goal to blend architectural and design elements from the past and present. He visited grocery stores across the country to learn about the latest in contemporary store design, but at the same time restored many of the building’s original architectural flourishes. Larson says he wanted to preserve the building’s history in part because he is “adamant about keeping a family-owned grocery store in Fish Creek.”

Larson’s architectural intentions align closely with the Hydes’ philosophy as business owners.

“We’re pretty humbled by the history,” Mike Hyde says. “We get great support from the locals because of what we are, and it’s important to keep up the tradition of a ma-and-pa grocery store because there aren’t many left.”

For many people, the Norzwich has come to symbolize that tradition in Fish Creek. The sandwich is emblematic of a business run with a degree of personality and local flavor that is all too hard to come by in a culinary era ruled by large corporate chains.

Though Gary Norz is as puzzled as he is pleased by the Norzwich’s lasting popularity, in the end he chalks it up to the personal connections that small local businesses can offer in a way that larger businesses can’t. “I always wonder why the memory, but it must be something that’s getting lost now in Door County. People remember the sandwiches from when they were young, because [buying a sandwich] was something where people could get together and congregate.”

As Door County becomes busier, and as business sizes seem to increase nationwide, Gary Norz may be right that the personal business touch symbolized by the Norzwich is getting harder and harder to find. But in its own small corner of the world, the Norzwich is tenaciously maintaining that sense of personal connection. The Norzwich “is why people come here,” Alison Hyde says simply.

More than 30 years after he and his wife pioneered the Norzwich, Gary Norz agrees. “Anybody can have turkey and two slices of bread. But somehow people remember that sandwich.”