MOUNT VERNON – Mike Hajjar has spent his adult life running from one opportunity to the next.
They’re often ambitious. They’re often centered around service. And they’re often not at all related to one another.
“My wife calls me a serial entrepreneur,” Hajjar said with a laugh. “You know, when I just get one thing done, then I gotta go do something else way different.”
Hajjar, 51, owns a laser printer repair company and a car dealership. His next endeavor? Opening a fast-casual restaurant near one of Mount Vernon’s busiest intersections.
Hajjar and his wife, Valerie, will soon open Everlasting Cup at 510 South Main Street in Mount Vernon. The Hajjars and a host of local contractors have been working for six months to transform what used to be Colonial City Auto Sales into a restaurant, equipped with a drive thru, that will bring a unique flavor to Mount Vernon.
The restaurant will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner – from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. – seven days a week. While it will boast an extensive breakfast menu, including house-brewed coffee and scratch-made donuts, it will also feature a diverse lunch and dinner selection. The restaurant will have a Mediterranean flair, serving everything from Greek salads to gyros, and it will also offer more traditional American comfort foods like potato soup.
There will be seating for up to 80 customers inside the restaurant, Mike said, which also includes a 1,000-square-foot commercial bakery and a 1,500-square-foot commercial kitchen. The Hajjars have high hopes for the drive thru, which will be located on the back side of the building, facing the Kokosing River. Those heading north on South Main Street will be able to turn right onto the property, grab a cup of coffee or a meal, and exit by turning right back onto South Main Street.
It’s a prime location for a drive thru, Mayor Richard Mavis said, given the exposure it will receive in that intersection. The restaurant will be located near the convergence of South Main Street and Columbus Road, just south of NAPA Auto Parts. The Kokosing River viaduct, which serves as the unofficial southern entryway to downtown Mount Vernon, will sit less than a quarter-mile to the north. Approximately 25,000 vehicles pass through the viaduct each day, Mavis said.
The Hajjars envision Everlasting Cup as a place where people can get fresh, locally sourced food quickly. It will be priced “somewhere between McDonald’s and Panera,” Mike said, making it an affordable daily fix for those on the go. Mike and Valerie plan to open the restaurant in early October.
“We’re in the final stretch right now,” Mike said giddily.
‘Let’s turn it into lemonade’
The idea for Everlasting Cup developed over time, Mike said, starting back in 2017.
That was the year Athens Greek Restaurant closed its downtown Mount Vernon location. Mike, a Mount Vernon resident whose family originated in Lebanon (located on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea), said he was a regular customer at the restaurant. He also knew Jeremiah Cline, the restaurant’s manager, from church.
“When the owners at Athens Greek decided to pull the plug, it left Jeremih without a job and me without grape leaves,” Mike said. “I need my grape leaves.”
The Hajjars, who own My Ez Auto Broker on Columbus Road, had bought the 510 South Main Street property in February 2017 with the intention of selling it to a competing car dealership. After six months, however, the dealers reneged on their lease agreement. They never took possession of the property.
The Hajjars opened up the tenant search process, but had little luck. The owners of Jitters Coffee House in Millersburg expressed interest in the property, citing its location and potential, but ultimately backed out due to health issues and other factors.
“I kind of got stuck with it,” Mike said of the property. “So I decided, you know, let’s turn it into lemonade.”
The Hajjars felt confident, through discussions with the Jitters owners, that a restaurant could thrive in this location. They also felt compelled to help out Cline, a talented manager and close friend, and bring a Mediterranean flavor back to Mount Vernon. So they decided to invest profits from their car dealership into renovating the building. They would turn the former car dealership into a full-scale restaurant.
Cozy yet busy
The Hajjars began renovating the property this March after clearing the long list of state and local hurdles required to open a restaurant.
Aside from the roof trusses, the walls and some of the concrete, the new owners left nothing of the old building.
“We literally just gutted the building,” Mike said. “All the drywall came out, all of the electrical came out, all of the plumbing came out, all of the insulation came out, all of the roofing, all of the siding... everything came out of the building.”
In its place, the Hajjars have built something that stands out – even at a busy intersection.
The building’s distinctive facade is made up of artisan stone, complimented by a tan, stucco-like finish. The rest of the building’s exterior is made up of blue metal siding, topped off by a standing-seam copper roof.
Inside, the restaurant will feel cozy-yet-busy. The interior walls are also lined with artisan stone panels, and they'll be supported by historic wooden barn beams. The Hajjars worked with a company in Shiloh, Ohio that takes Civil-War-era beams from Ohio barns and preserves them for modern-day use.
The tables will be made of wood from unique Ohio tree species, such as burley maple, ambrosia maple, blackline spalted maple and firebox elder. These are trees that have fallen in calamities, Mike said, such as tornadoes and windstorms.
“They’re harvested locally, prepared locally, kiln-dried locally, and then a local artisan is actually taking all of those unique species and he’s sanding them down and then curing them in epoxy, so that it’s like a modern surface, it’s clean and cleanable and all that,” Mike said. “We’re looking for as many locally sourced, indigenous things for our restaurant.”
The Hajjars envision Everlasting Cup being “a good, fun, happy place to bring your family.” The front of the building houses large windows, which will allow the afternoon sun to soak through from the west. Mike plans to invite local musicians to play light tunes in one corner of the main room.
Local artisans will be invited to showcase their baked goods at the restaurant on certain days; if customers react positively, Everlasting Cup might consider a partnership that would allow those products to be integrated into the menu.
For those who want to eat, drink or work in a more private setting, Everlasting Cup will offer two front rooms that are closed off from the main area. One room, in the northwest corner of the building, will house cutting edge food-service technology.
It will feature a Coca Cola freestyle machine and a high-end coffee machine that will coincide with a subscription system. Those who pay a monthly subscription will be able to get unlimited coffee and soda using the restaurant's mugs, which will be outfitted with RFID chips. This will allow people to quickly log in, grab a drink and go.
“We want to be relevant to people that are in a hurry, on their way to work,” Mike said.
The drive thru will also serve that purpose. When the restaurant opens, customers will exit the drive thru by turning right onto South Main Street, in between Everlasting Cup and NAPA. But Mavis said the city is looking at “improving the intersection” so that customers of all the viaduct businesses – including Whit’s, Creno’s and Convenient Storage – will be able to turn left or right safely, via an added traffic signal, when heading back out onto South Main Street.
“This project is certainly [worth] pursuing and I think it’s been a long time coming,” Mavis said. “This isn’t just for Mike’s coffee shop… this was an effort to kind of improve the access to not only those retail businesses, but also the storage buildings back there. And of course, we have the bike trail coming in and out of there also. So the traffic signal will be good for everything.”
Not 100 percent organic, but close
By having a bakery, a kitchen and a place to brew coffee all under one roof, the Hajjars plan to put a premium on freshness.
Everlasting Cup employees will begin making donuts from scratch in the bakery at 3 a.m. There will be “minimal ingredients,” Mike said, “so that we’re not using preservatives and artificial stuff.” Breakfast sandwiches will include homemade biscuits, fresh sausage from Lanning’s and locally sourced eggs.
Coffee beans from across the world will be roasted and ground in a small room next to the bakery. A wide range of coffee drinks – everything from hot coffee to cold espresso drinks – will be brewed and served fresh every day.
“It will literally be the freshest cup of coffee you can get,” Mike said of the restaurant’s start-to-finish brewing process. “It doesn’t get any fresher than that. There’s no time in bags or bins or shipping or any of that stuff. It is roasted, ground and brewed.”
The restaurant’s Mediterranean menu will be set by Cline, Everlasting Cup's general manager. But Mike did say it will feature Greek chicken salads, gyros with fresh meat, and a homemade tzatziki sauce. Everlasting Cup will also offer a wide range of gluten-free items, as well as meals that will be compatible with different diets.
Everlasting Cup plan to work with local farmers to obtain fresh vegetables for its lunch and dinner options. Mike said the restaurant’s emphasis on buying local ingredients is “really not a new trend, but it’s just good for business.”
“It helps us to give better quality products, without going through all the processes that large produce houses use to keep food fresh,” he continued. “So it’s fewer chemicals, more organic food. It’s not going to be 100 percent organic, that’s too difficult to do, but it’s going to be largely organic.”
Given his Mediterranean roots and Cline’s experience, Mike believes Everlasting Cup will provide a completely new flavor to Mount Vernon.
“I’ve grown up with Lebanese and Syrian and Greek cooking my whole life. We’ve got family recipes that date back over 100 years,” Mike said. “So we can do Mediterranean food like it’s not been done before in this town.”
Timeless but contemporary
Everlasting Cup will employ “somewhere between 20 and 30 people,” Mike said, although he and Valerie are still nailing down the final number. The restaurant will offer full-time positions with benefits, suitable for people who are looking for “one good full-time job, not two part-time jobs.”
“We think that’s contributing to people’s demise, when they have to work 60 hours a week and they still don’t get their health insurance and things like that,” Mike said. “So we’re doing what’s called a living-wage-and-benefit package.”
The Hajjars are down to the final weeks in what’s been a seven-month renovation process. They’ll install the drop ceiling for the kitchen and dining room next week, and then the flooring will come in. Once plumbing and electric are taken care of, the restaurant’s equipment will be installed.
“The equipment’s already been purchased,” Mike said. “It’s in a warehouse and we’re just waiting to roll it in and plug it in and go.”
When it opens, the Hajjars envision Everlasting Cup as a place where people of all ages will be able to work and socialize. It could cater well toward a younger audience; the restaurant will be located down the street from COTC, within walking distance of MVNU, 5-10 minutes from Kenyon and a short walk from Mount Vernon High School.
“We’re close to large bodies of young people that like to get together, socialize, have fun, drink coffee... all of that,” Mike said. “We just thought this would be great.”
Customers will drink slow-roasted coffee from digital mugs. They’ll order 100-year-old Greek recipes, scratch-made, from a drive-thru window. They’ll work from tablets in a building that features wooden beams from the 1800s.
This, Mike says, will be the essence of Everlasting Cup. A place where timeless rituals meet modern expectations.
“I would say that if you took timeless and contemporary and just crossed them,” Mike said, “that’s what you’re going to get.”