Reasons To Stay: A Restaurant Entreprenuer Finds More Than A Hungry Crowd

Apr 21, 2016

Zahi "Zee" Elhaj in Chrome, the hookah bar and lounge he owns.
Credit Frank Christopher / WPSU

At sandwich shop ‘Are U Hungry’ in downtown State College, the restaurant’s specialty is known as “fat sandwiches.” There’s steak, cheese, a chicken finger, 2 mozzarella sticks, bacon and ranch dressing in the “Fat Lion.”

Zahi Elhaj said, “They have very unique names as well. Some of them are…probably can’t mention them on the radio. That’s what makes us a late night place, too.” He opened the restaurant in 2005.

Born in Lebanon, Elhaj first moved to the United States to attend Rider University in New Jersey. He dropped out of college as a senior to open “Are U Hungry.”

“I had one semester to go in Jersey. So I figured if it works out, it works out. If it doesn’t, I’ll just go back and finish school and we’re still here. So I guess things are working out so far,” he said.

Opening a restaurant in State College was a leap of faith – Elhaj only visited the town once with his business partner. He said, “We came up here one time. In 2004 I believe. It was a home game. It wasn’t the busiest home game but it was a home game and it was a no brainer that State College is a good place to open. And that’s exactly what happened. The start at Are U Hungry was immediate.”

He says they were completely overwhelmed with customers in the first few weeks. But that didn’t mean they were in the clear just yet. “A lot of business come and go real quick, especially with food, because there is a lot of competition in town. But we have a special product I’d say,” he said. 

The sandwiches are created to appeal to the late-night college crowd. He said, “It’s open 11 a.m. till 3 a.m. during the week and 4 a.m. on the weekend. So it’s long hours, that’s seven days a week. But yeah, that’s the food business.”

When he’s not at work, Elhaj enjoys the State College area. He said, “Mainly I mean, State College is just this little town. I don’t want to say in the middle of nowhere, but it’s far from every other big city. That’s a big difference. People are more calm here I would say. That’s a big thing I liked when I first moved here.”

Even with the relaxed atmosphere, Elhaj says being a newcomer in State College was difficult at first. He said, “That’s one thing I probably would’ve liked this is if I went to college here before I worked here. It would give you a lot more connections in town…not that I don’t have a connection after ten years. Obviously I do, but from day one it probably would’ve helped a little bit to more.”

Now that Are U Hungry is well-established, Elhaj is working on another venture downtown. He opened the hookah lounge and bar Chrome in 2012. “Right now there’s a lot going on between the two businesses and Chrome’s still being, say like a child that you’re growing still at this point. After in a couple years I think things will be easier," he said.

Right now, his businesses are his only children. He said, “I definitely wouldn’t mind to have a family here. I don’t know where I would be in 10 years honestly, right now. I mean, my parents are growing old so they want me to visit more often at least. Moving back, I know they understand it’s not easy to just move when you own two businesses. And that’s what people tell me, you’re not going anywhere. You keep opening new businesses in town. Where are you going to go? So yeah, as you open more businesses, it just gets harder I guess to leave, even if you wanted to leave. But at this point it’s not something that I’m looking to do.”

So for now, Elhaj found an unlikely home in State College. 

“And State College is always getting voted one of those best towns in the country to live in so, why move at this point you know?” he said. 

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