By Ken Williams | Editor
Seizing opportunity when it comes his way
Steve Abbo is a businessman driven to success. At age 17, and barely old enough to drive, the teenager from an Iraqi-American family talked his way into winning the bid to start a valet service at Sycuan Casino. Supreme Valet Service was born, and it still operates around San Diego as an amenity at clubs, restaurants and charity events.
The valet service would later spawn another vehicle-related business, TLC Medical Transport, created to serve non-emergency situations. The transport business is still thriving today, he said.
Abbo traces his business acumen to his father, and he anticipates that his 17-year-old son will follow in his footsteps. “My family has been in the retail business for years, and so has my partner’s family,” Abbo said. “In fact, my dad and his dad were business partners.”
Almost three years ago Abbo and his business partner, Andy Hirmez of San Marcos-based Goodfellas Investments, acquired Valley Liquor & Mini-Mart at 875 Hotel Circle South in Mission Valley. They remodeled the interior and got rid of the dirty magazines and the “bum wine” and “rot-gut liquor” to chase away an “unsavory element,” Abbo said. And they added items that tourists requested the most: T-shirts, souvenirs, health and beauty products, prepared food, and healthy snacks.
But last year they learned that their landlord, the owner of Mission Valley Resort Hotel, had proposed plans before the Mission Valley Planning Group to bulldoze the 18-acre property and build a massive eight-building complex called the Morris Cerullo International Legacy Center. As a result, the business partners are expecting to eventually get a 90-day notice to vacate the premises. They plan to keep Valley Liquor & Mini-Mart as long as they can, but their lease has expired and they are now on a month-to-month arrangement. The business employs eight people.
Abbo, by the way, is a member of the Mission Valley Planning Group and must recuse himself from any discussions about the Legacy Center to avoid any potential conflict of interest. That project is still pending before the local planning group.
Abbo and Hirmez are not standing still, though. They jumped at the opportunity to lease a vacant building at 1201 Hotel Circle South that formerly housed Albie’s Beef Inn and Adam’s Steak ‘N Egg. The two iconic Mission Valley restaurants closed last December when their owners could not strike deals to renegotiate their leases with San Diego Historic Properties CEO Cathy Herrick, who had purchased the Travelodge hotel and was planning a multimillion-dollar makeover. That face-lift is currently underway.
The partners have signed leases that total up to 28 years, Abbo said.
On Feb. 26, Abbo stood inside the gutted building and shared his vision for his new enterprises. The 6,300-square-foot building would essentially be halved into two separate businesses, each with soaring ceilings and exposed rafters after workers removed the old ceilings.
An architectural drawing of the exterior of the building shows a lot of windows facing Hotel Circle South and the freeway. Steel signs with cut letters would identify the two businesses that will share the building. Painting corrugated steel distinguishes Crust Kitchen from the TravelMart, which has painted wooden slates. The concept is modern, simple and clean.
Crust Kitchen concept
The space where Adam’s Steak ‘N Egg once occupied will become Crust Kitchen, with breakfast, lunch and dinner being served cafeteria-style. An outdoor seating area will occupy a patio on the east side of the building.
“You will grab a tray when you come in,” Abbo said. “We will offer a breakfast menu, pizza, sandwiches made to order, a carving station, scoop salads, side dishes and a dessert station. We will serve fresh juices, but we won’t have a drink fountain.”
Seating up to 86 people, Crust Kitchen will also offer wine as well as local craft beer on tap. He hopes the 3,200-square-foot restaurant will attract locals as well as tourists. Abbo said the restaurant will likely employ 20 to 30 people.
Abbo sees great opportunity as Hotel Circle, both on the north and south sides, are undergoing massive makeovers. The demise of Adam’s Steak ‘N Egg and Albie’s Beef Inn means that the Crust Kitchen will have little competition on that end of Hotel Circle North.
In the space where Albie’s Beef Inn used to be, Abbo plans to open a more upscale version of his Valley Liquor Mini-Mart. Although he initially called it Travelers Paradise on legal paperwork, Abbo plans to rename it TravelMart in time for a June opening.
Abbo described the TravelMart concept as being similar to ABC stores in Hawaii and Las Vegas, Nevada. “We’re not going to be like 7-Eleven,” he said. “There’s nothing like this in San Diego right now, and we think there is a demand for this kind of store.”
If their hunch is correct, they hope to build several more TravelMart stores, likely targeting Coronado and La Jolla.
The 3,100-square-foot TravelMart would sell liquor, beer and wine; prepared food, including meals that only need to be microwaved; packaged sandwiches; sodas, juices and milk.
The key component will be San Diego souvenirs, such as T-shirts, beachwear, sandals and flip-flops. Abbo said he and his partner are teaming up with the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and hoping to bring about other tourism attractions such as SeaWorld, to sell tickets in a “one-stop shop” for tourists.
Other hot sellers are expected to be health and beauty products, based on what’s popular at the Valley Liquor & Mini-Mart.
“For us, there is more money in T-shirt and souvenir sales than in beer and wine,” Abbo said, who says he only stocks items that sell well.
Abbo and Hirmez will also provide free shuttle service to hotel guests and residents within a 3-mile radius essentially from Old Town to Texas Street, from Friars Road to the northern side of Hillcrest and Mission Hills.
“We want to help reduce the traffic footprint in Mission Valley,” Abbo said.
On March 2, project spokesman John Haley made a 15-minute presentation to the Mission Valley Planning Group. An action item requested the planning group support the concept and the application for a Type 21 off-sale general liquor license to allow TravelMart to sell liquor for off-the-premises consumption.
The action item passed with 11 members voting in favor, two voting against, one abstaining (Deborah Bossmeyer, who said Abbo’s landlord is a client) and one recusing (Jim Penner, who is involved in the Legacy Center project).
—Ken Williams is editor of Mission Valley News and Uptown News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at KenSanDiego, Instagram account at KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.