Three Decades of Quality: Take It Away Turns 30

In 1991, Williamsburg’s Tom Bowe had a vision. Could The Cheese Shop work in Charlottesville? Bowe was a longtime friend of the family who ran the popular deli, and had seen how beloved it had become in Williamsburg and the William & Mary community. “Why not Charlottesville and UVa?” thought Bowe.

And so, with the help of The Cheese Shop’s Tom and Myrt Power, he set out to put his theory to the test. First, he spent months working at the shop, soaking up every detail: finances, operations, and sandwich-making. Among the greatest lessons was the Powers’ uncompromising commitment to quality. This, the Powers said, was what kept regulars coming back. “Quality over quantity,” they urged, warning Bowe against allowing number-crunching to tempt him to cut corners. Lesser cold cuts. Inferior bread. A cheaper supplier. Ever notice there are no raw tomatoes at Take It Away? That’s because quality tomatoes are not available year round. “I had to promise them I would never serve raw tomatoes,” said Bowe.

But, of all the things Bowe learned about the Powers’ business, surely the most important was House Dressing. The sandwich dressing invented by Myrt Power had become a such a legend in Williamsburg that the Powers kept its recipe a close family secret. Bowe won’t spill the beans either, but does acknowledge it includes mayonnaise, whole grain mustard, herbs, and spices.

And so, propelled by House Dressing, on July 10, 1992 Take It Away opened at 115 Elliewood Avenue.

What happened next is remarkable. Bowe fell in love with Charlottesville, and Charlottesville loved him back. His vision became a reality. Over time, the same way that Williamsburg and William & Mary cherish The Cheese Shop, Charlottesville and UVa embraced Take It Away. As the much-missed The Tavern once touted, Take It Away became a place: “where students, tourists, and townpeople meet.”  Students consider it a must stop on their first day back to school, and their last day before leaving. Regulars whose standard order the staff know by heart have children whose first words were “Take It Away.” And, some even say you haven’t fully experienced Charlottesville until you’ve visited Take It Away for a sandwich. The shop has become such a fixture in Charlottesville and UVa that many are unaware of its origins elsewhere.

Now 60, Bowe was 30 when he opened Take It Away. The fuel for his three decades of success is unmistakable: passion. “Food equals care” is his motto for the shop, and it is Bowe’s passion for food and people that has sustained his business so long. Never did that passion feel more poignant than the Spring of 2020, when COVID-19 forced him to close indefinitely. Bowe’s words at the time:

I miss my business. I miss my awesome employees. I miss baking cookies and bread at ridiculous o’clock to the vocals of Ashley Monroe. I miss my predawn truckers and listening to their daily dramas. I miss our regular customers, whom we’ve known for decades. I miss the excitement of reconnecting with an old customer, and their stories about how, having cheap bread ends, got them through school. I miss returning old employees, who all received my same proud tag, “…they worked here in the 80s!” (We didn’t open till 92.) I miss feeding my community. I miss showing up to hot, frown faced conference rooms with lunch, and receiving cheers! I miss the panicked calls from administrative assistants, and showing up with last minute food.

I miss the joy that comes from connecting with the mission of feeding and serving my customers. This is why I’m grieving. I miss all of that. 

For years, regulars urged Bowe to open another Take It Away. Bowe always resisted, citing his commitment to quality. What finally allowed Bowe to take the plunge was the trust he developed in his staff. Few restaurants celebrate their employees the way Take It Away does, and key to Bowe’s success has been his ability to attract and retain good employees over the years. Some of Bowe’s staff have been with him for as long as twenty years, like John Alietta, who now manages Take It Away, and LaTasha Grooms Dennis, who manages the second location, which opened in the Dairy Market in 2020. “An amazing human being,” Bowe says of Dennis.

Three decades of success in the food industry is no accident. It takes vision. And passion. And inspiration. Bowe’s vision was a sandwich shop that would become part of the Charlottesville and UVa community. His passions were food and people. And, his inspiration? That’s easy, he says. Family.

It started with Bowe’s family during childhood, when his love of food was planted. “Every time we got together, there was food,” said Bowe. It continued with the Power family, founders of The Cheese Shop, who became like a second family to Bowe, and whose standards he strove to uphold. “I see Myrt as a mother figure in my life,” Bowe said. “I adore her.” And, it culminated with the inspiration Bowe has drawn from his children. When Bowe opened Take It Away, he was a single father of two. His son and daughter practically grew up and his sandwich shop, and even spent time working there when they were old enough.

Years later, after his children moved away, Bowe was diagnosed with a serious illness, and his children dropped everything to return to help him. “They are the reason I am alive,” said Bowe.

With Take It Away, they’re also the reason he keeps going. “I am honoring their commitment to me.”