After Demolition, Downtown Eatery On Tap

South Mason Owner Looks For Stability

Posted: August 2, 2014

Bonnie Ayers of Harrisonburg and her 4-year-old yellow Lab Gemma watch demolition at Mason and East Market streets on Friday. Plans for renovations at the location fell through, so the building is being torn down to make way for a three-story structure. (Photos by Jason Lenhart)
Demolition crews work at Mason and East Market streets in Harrisonburg on Friday. Kelley Hijjeh plans to open Lafah Café in the new three-story building slated to go up on the corner. The restaurant will occupy the first two floors and three apartments will fill the top level.

HARRISONBURG — What couldn’t go up had to come down this week at the corner of East Market and South Mason streets.

But downtown should be better off for it, officials say.

Ken Bell, who owned what had been a two-story building at 20 S. Mason St., said plans to renovate the property fell through because of structural issues, so it instead came down on Monday.

A new three-story building should be finished by the end of the year, occupied by a Mediterranean restaurant on the first two floors and three apartments on the top level.

“The main thing is we’re just trying to make it [work] for a long-term tenant,” said Bell, who owns the adjacent Mason Street building that includes his own Rocktown Bicycles.

That tenant is Kelley Hijjeh, who plans to open Lafah Café, the latest in a long line of restaurants that have come and gone at the site.

But Bell thinks Hijjeh will finally bring some stability because the restaurateur is a seasoned businessman and has the funding to last.

“No business can expect to make money in the first year. None of the [previous restaurant tenants] had the financial backup to survive that first year before they could start making some money,” Bell said. “He’s approaching it with a little more business-minded sense than, ‘Hey, I love to cook and people tell me my food is great.’”

A 1995 Broadway High School graduate, Hijjeh says he has worked in the restaurant industry since he was 15. He sold the Yellow Cab Co. of Harrisonburg in 2012 to pursue opening the café, he said.

“I’ve always been a foodie and enjoyed the community that can form around great local restaurant venues,” he said.

Hijjeh will serve a menu featuring wraps, salads and platters and provide fresh bread, known as lafah. Customers can choose meat from vertical rotisseries spinning alongside fresh falafel, he said.

“From there the topping choices will be vast, making the possible combinations almost endless,” Hijjeh said.

The restaurant’s service will be in the style of a Subway or Chipotle, where customers order, watch their selection come together along an assembly line and then pay for it, Bell said.

“It’s quicker and you don’t have to pay a waitress,” he said.

The second level will feature craft beers from Virginia and Valley wines.

The new building itself should also help Hijjeh succeed, Bell said. There will be better access to the second level, where large French doors can be opened to provide open-air dining with a “European bistro” feel, he said.

Eddie Bumbaugh, executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, said it’s an “extremely good” location, which is not lost on the property owner.

“Basically, downtown’s expanding,” Bell said, referring to businesses on East Market Street in Urban Exchange and along South Mason Street. “We’ve filled out the core street of Main Street.”

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or pknight@dnronline.com