Anyone making their way down Plant Street can recognize the familiar smell of cheesesteak drifting out the door of Daniel’s Cheesesteak House.
The butter-crusted rolls can barely maintain the heavy load of thinly sliced sautéed ribeye beef and melted cheese, complete with the occasional flavorful hot pepper, onion or mushroom.
For Harold and Mercedes Masih-Das, the cheesesteak has become their way of life — their contribution to the Winter Garden community and their family tradition. The business has been family owned for more than 25 years.
However, the couple’s journey started way before the shop was even a dream.
Mercedes came to the United States by herself to pursue the American dream when she was only 19 years old. She was born into a large family of 14 in the Dominican Republic. Her parents were farmers and always worked hard to provide their family with a good life.
“It was a big change at that time, because I was just a young girl,” Mercedes said. “I was looking for something different, and my priority was to go to school and learn English.”
Daniel Masih-Das, one of the couple’s three sons, said he and his brothers were humbled when they went to visit their mother’s family in the Dominican Republic.
“We got to experience living like how our parents used to live,” Daniel said. “We used plastic cups to bathe and had to heat up water. We cleaned, we worked, and we even wrangled livestock.”
Daniel said his mom is a big believer in giving back.
“She showed us not to take advantage of what we have here, because there are always others who have less,” he said.
Similarly, Harold’s parents brought their family to the United States in pursuit of the same dream.
Harold was born in South America’s British Guiana and lived there with his seven siblings until he was 13 years old. His parents were always in business and owned a convenience store before they were farmers.
“They came for a better living — not just for themselves, but for their children,” Harold said. “The education where we lived was limited at the time. It was an extremely exciting time, because I really couldn't envision what it was going to be like here. I had no idea what to expect.”
Harold said the “razzle and dazzle” of New York during the winter time was a cultural shock. However, he quickly fell in love with it.
Like his parents, Harold had a natural passion for business.
Harold’s father owned a toy and retail store in New York, as well as a health and beauty store.
As a kid in junior high, Harold decided he wanted to start his own sno-cone business.
Harold’s father helped him to build a cart, and Harold pushed it every day to local parks. He ran the small business for four years and worked hard every day after school.
A REAL FAMILY BUSINESS
New York is where Harold and Mercedes’ love story began. Mercedes met Harold in 1989, when she was 31 and he was 32, at his office where he was a project manager for an air conditioning company.
The couple has now been married for 32 years and have three children, Frankie Liz, 40, Daniel, 32, and Brian Masih-Das, 31.
The same generational passion for business has now been passed down to the three boys.
Frankie owns his own businesses, Daniel is training to take over the family business, and Brian works in mortgages.
The boys’ passion for business was born within the walls of the cheesesteak house, before it even served cheesesteaks.
In 1993, the family moved from New York to Florida and Harold and Mercedes started their own business selling Spanish food, in the same location they are at now, on Plant Street.
At the time, there was no big set-up. The couple cooked on a stove and served dinners in boxes.
Harold said one day the workers from the business next door came over and said they wanted sandwiches — more specifically cheesesteaks.
Although the business was not set up for the cheesesteaks, Harold obliged and made seven sandwiches from the small stove.
For two years, Harold never made another cheesesteak to sell.
Then, in 1996, the couple started the original Daniel’s Cheesesteak House in Apopka.
For about 10 years, Harold and Mercedes worked on perfecting their cheesesteak and raising their family.
Brian said the shop was a big part of their lives from an early age.
“Our parents worked seven days a week,” he said. “It was a real family business as we had no employees. We would help after school and on the weekends. Birthdays were celebrated at the shop, and we had a lot of fun working there.”
From cash-handling to stocking the shelves to sweeping, the brothers spent more time at the shop with their family than they did at home.
And they loved it.
“I was able to see how hard work mixed in with passion and determination can really make any small business into a huge success,” Frankie said. “They taught me to do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
His brother agrees.
“What inspires me most about my parents is their work ethic and selflessness,” Brian said. “They worked hard day in and day out to provide for us and make sure there was always food on the table. And the food always had so much flavor. No measuring cups in our kitchen.”
Although the sandwiches first started off with Italian seasoning, the couple changed their tactics soon after.
“I asked my husband, ‘Why don’t we put our own seasoning that we make together on the cheesesteaks?’” Mercedes said.
The couple’s recipe will remain a family secret, but Mercedes shared that the main ingredient in making their sandwiches unique is love.
EVERYONE’S MOM AND DAD
In 2006, the family decided to shift the business back to Winter Garden in the original building, which the couple still owned. It was a difficult time. Hurricane Charley had destroyed the building, but the family received help from the city Winter Garden.
“We had to rebuild everything,” Mercedes said. “It took a long time, and it felt like we were starting over.”
During this time, Mercedes also struggled with battling breast cancer twice. She went through chemotherapy and still was determined to spend every day in the store.
However, in terms of customers, the store never missed a beat. The couple shared that many of their customers followed them from Apopka and still come not only for the food but also to visit.
“We know everybody that walks through the door, and people even call us the community Mom and Dad,” the couple said, laughing.
The couple said their sons were, and still are, a huge part of the store's success, as well as Mercedes’ mother, who helped to care for the boys.
“The boys were always here working,” Mercedes said. “We are a very close family, and we would have never been able to do any of this on our own.”
The couple said they are talking about potentially opening another location in the future and plan on passing the business down to the kids. Daniel will be taking over the majority of the business in the future.
“Everything we have and do is for our kids,” Mercedes said.
Outside of work, Harold likes to play chess, and the couple likes to watch TV and work in their garden.
The family said the Winter Garden community is amazing and they think of all their customers like an extension of their own family.
“Whatever happens outside of the door — they all get treated the same when they walk in here,” Daniel said. “We try to get to know people as opposed to just taking an order.”
Mercedes said without their customer base, they would never have gotten to be where they are today.
“I am so grateful, because I got the opportunity to work with my husband and my family and I never had to leave them,” she said. “Every single day of my life, I say thank you to the Lord for allowing me to raise my family the way I raised them and a large part of that is thanks to this business.”
Editor’s note: Familiar Faces is a new feature in which we spotlight people you have seen but whose stories you may not know. If you want to nominate someone for a future edition, please email Editor and Publisher Michael Eng, [email protected].