Survey the restaurant scene in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood and you'll be hard-pressed to find a single healthy option. Located within walking distance of the high school, residents have their pick of Popeye's, Burger King, McDonald's, Rally's and a dozen or so Chinese takeaways. The "healthiest" route for those interested in taking it is to go to Subway and avoid three-quarters of the menu.
Ziad Achkar admits that for many years, he was part of the problem. Though he graduated from Cleveland State with a degree in industrial engineering, he made his living opening Little Caesars pizza shops in some of Cleveland's poorest urban neighborhoods. Now, though, he wants to be part of the solution. After divesting himself of those eateries, he developed a healthy, fast-casual concept. And he's opening the first one in the heart of Glenville.
"We picked this location because we're trying to bring healthy ideas to areas where chains like Chipotle and Panera won't open," he explains. "This concept will work anywhere, but we decided to go there because they don't have access to healthy foods."
Glenville Plaza, near the intersection of East 105th and St. Clair, is no Legacy Village or Crocker Park, and that's precisely why Achkar chose it as the location for his first Flame Urban Chicken Grill, a concept he has been fine tuning for over a year. Part restaurant, part neighborhood outreach center, Flame is not your typical fast-food shop.
"It's a mixture of serving healthy, urban food, giving back to the community, and providing support and education to people on how to eat healthy," he adds.
Achkar decided to revolve his concept around chicken because it is familiar, affordable and healthy, adding that it is recommended by the American Heart Association as a great source of low-fat protein. He'll be using fresh, hormone- and antibiotic-free Amish-raised Gerber chicken, which is brined, oven-roasted and then finished on the grill.
Flame looks every bit like a trendy new national chain restaurant. The 1,800-square-foot space is modern and bright, with shimmering white subway tile, plank-style flooring, open kitchen and social media-ready artwork and logos. Customers can purchase chicken by the breast, wing, thigh or leg. Or they can go the bowl route, selecting from a wide assortment of fresh toppings and sauces that are paired with grilled white meat strips. There also are a half dozen predesigned combinations like the Mexicana, made with chicken, black beans, grilled veggies and salsa, or the California, made with chicken, bacon, lettuce, avocado, salsa and ranch.
Sides include chips and guacamole, chips and salsa, rice and beans, flame-grilled corn and corn tortillas. There are no deep fryers in the restaurant and there is no soda fountain. Beverages will be limited to fruit-flavored waters.
To compete with the fast food eateries that surround Flame, Achkar knows that money talks. A customer can purchase a grilled leg of chicken for $1.75 — or turn it into a meal with side dish and beverage for $5. A mother or father can feed a small family for around $15 with an eight-piece meal with sides and tortillas.
"Of the people who eat healthy food, 85 percent of them are rich or above middle class," Achkar explains. "Bad food is cheap, but also people just aren't exposed to good food. If it's not available, I can't eat it. If it's available, I might have it, especially if somebody explains about nutrition and what bad food does to me."
That educational component is key, says Achkar, because he knows that there will be a learning curve with respect to his clientele. That's also why he purposefully avoided trendy ingredients like kale, quinoa and sprouts. "Nothing too fancy, nothing too cheffy," he says. He's partnering with Healthy Eating & Active Living (HEAL), a community based initiative to help make healthy choices a part of everyday living, which will host free workshops in the restaurant. Residents who sit through an hour seminar will eat for free. Volunteer health coaches will even follow up with customers.
Achkar will also offer summer jobs to high school kids in hopes of putting them on the right track for the future. "If they're interested, they can stay in the business and maybe even open up their own store one day."
Once Flame opens in the Glenville neighborhood, which should happen by mid-July, Achkar will turn his attention to future locations. He's already begun scouting neighborhoods. But don't expect to find them popping up anytime soon at your favorite "lifestyle center," he says.
"We don't want to be in Legacy; we don't want to be in Crocker Park. That's not the market we're trying to target. This is something for the middle class, something for the masses."