Tucked away in a nook of Nassau Street, Say Cheez Café, owned and managed by Omar Delgado, has been a steady yet unassuming hallmark of the Princeton community for the last nine years. Self-proclaimed as the “best kept secret on campus,” the small business has seen a tumultuous journey to success.
Say Cheez has been family-owned and operated for a decade.
“It started as a business opportunity to provide jobs for my family when we first came here [from Venezuela]. After that, they left the nest and they got their masters degrees from universities around here,” Delgado said. Delgado has been managing the café for the past five years.
At first, Delgado recalled that his family questioned his ability to manage a small business given his career background.
“I come from corporate America. All my life I was a C level executive in the banking industry, so my kids said I was going to fail,” Delgado said lightheartedly. “It’s like a cardiologist being a pediatrician — you don’t know how to handle small things.”
Delgado did in fact succeed. Say Cheez has become a staple of the Princeton community, especially after the family began to highlight their heritage through a sub-business: the Empanada Station. The Empanada Station boosted Say Cheez’s profits and renewed enthusiasm for cheesy snacks in the Princeton community, according to Delgado.
“Five years ago, the grilled cheese sandwiches were the main character. Then, we founded a new brand, Empanada Station, an idea I came up with during the pandemic. We started a new Google page and all of a sudden the empanadas were selling like crazy,” Delgado said.
Say Cheez had tried to launch empanadas in the past with little success, but Delgado says his commitment to giving empanadas a second chance turned out to be a hit with the help and support of Princeton’s Hispanic community, both in town and on campus.
“We started thinking about relaunching these products that didn’t do that good in the past. One of the students told me everyone in the university spread the word by social media,” he said. The student, Delgado told the ‘Prince,’ said that, “Everyone is talking about it, mostly the Hispanic community.”
Delgado attributes the success of Empanada Station, and Say Cheez more broadly, to the power that food has to evoke nostalgia in customers.
“It’s not only because you remember the food you had when you were growing up; you remember what your mom, your grandma, your aunt, your older sister gave you for breakfast and lunch,” he said.
“So we got that feeling with the grilled cheese sandwiches... it’s something that every kid had in their lunchbox when they went to school. Every time we see customers — even grown-ups — they smile like a kid because they remember those moments,” he continued.
In the same way that a grilled cheese is an iconic, quintessential part of American childhood, the empanada, he says, is sentimental to South American culture.
“It happens with empanadas in South America and perhaps in other countries they call them differently, like samosas and turnovers,” he explained. “It’s the same reaction. When I see an empanada, I smile, because it’s something that reminds me of my childhood, and who wasn’t happy in those times?”
This emotional reaction, Delgado noted, especially impacts Princeton students because of their distance from home. Perhaps it’s why Empanada Station has become so popular among them.
“Comfort food gives you that emotion — that’s why [students] come, to remember the things that they left behind,” Delgado said.
Kate Gross-Whitaker ’23 commented on the comfort and sentimentality evoked by Say Cheez’s menu. “I love Say Cheez! It has such a homey atmosphere and is my all-time favorite comfort food. It is probably my favorite place on Nassau Street to go when I’m really craving a home-cooked meal.”
Kateri Espinosa ’24 echoed Gross-Whitaker’s sentiments, saying, “Grilled cheese is even better when it’s made with love and care and a friendly face, and that’s why I like Say Cheez.”
Delgado tries to create nostalgia with his empanadas for all customers by embracing a myriad of flavors from various Latin American countries as well as nontraditional options.
“We have six flavors: beef, chicken, cheese, Greek, pork BBQ, veggie, and chorizo. The flavor [of the empanadas] is a blend of Caribbean flavors, Argentinian flavors, and a touch of Venezuelan flavor,” Delgado said.
But, even with their empanada flavor list, Delgado and Carlos Garcia, Empanada Station’s head chef, practice a very open-minded, community-based approach when it comes to expanding their flavor selections. In an effort to connect with customers, they often take menu suggestions.
“If you tell Omar something you like — guava, for example — I can guarantee the next day … we will put the empanada on the menu for you,” Garcia noted.
For Garcia, building a connection with the community through customer service is what he loves about his job. Most of Say Cheez’s staff speak Spanish as their first language, but Garcia doesn’t let any language barrier interfere with the work.
“I know my language is very complex and hard to understand, but it is not a problem for me. I don’t feel frustrated. I feel happy because everyday I can learn something different,” he said.
Delgado, on the other hand, said he sees limitations with his imperfect English as a business owner.
“I wish I spoke English the same as I spoke my native language. That’s really a barrier and sometimes I feel embarrassed about it, but I got my way through it, and the community couldn’t be more receptive,” he told the ‘Prince.’
Barriers aside, Delgado said he loves working at Say Cheez and takes pride in the store’s commitment to making creative and fresh dishes.
“It’s been amazing working at Say Cheez, because I have never worked at any small business before. We do things just for the fun of it,” he added. “We are enjoying this little experiment, and we hope people appreciate it.”
Valentino Moreno is a Features contributor for The Daily Princetonian. Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.