The Obsessive Odyssey of Hitham Hiyajneh
For once, Hitham Hiyajneh is still.
Or, at least, as still as the manager/part-owner of five restaurants and vice-president of a nation-wide food company can be at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. As we sit on the raised wooden benches of his latest venture, a juice and salad bar on East Calder Way called Tazzah, he pauses periodically to give employees directions, say hello to customers waiting in line, and answer phone calls.
“I’m not your typical owner, manager, something like that,” Hiyajneh said.
Most of the patrons that frequent his restaurants already know that. Many have spotted him behind the counter taking orders, marshalling his employees, or conversing with the customers in line. Unlike most owner-managers, he’s a visible and energetic presence. His restaurants have taken the downtown fast-casual scene by storm. They’re known for their fresh ingredients and are immensely popular among those with the modern taste that made Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Qdoba famous. He is popular among his customers—regulars recognize and chat with him often.
“Maybe I’m part of the company, but I want to do things. I want to show you how to do something,” he continued.
Hiyajneh, 47, was born in Jordan. He’s half Lebanese and is the oldest of 12 children. After studying food science at the American University of Beirut, he immigrated to America on October 22, 1989 with $400 and a goal of earning his master’s degree. He applied for a green card and worked a number of different jobs to earn the money he needed to return to school.
From working in a bakery to selling air purifiers, cosmetics, and flowers on Valentine’s day to — after receiving his papers — working at several posts in the food industry, Hiyajneh did everything.
But almost 20 years after his arrival in America, the massive economic recession of 2008 depleted his savings and pushed him back into the restaurant and food business for good. He moved to State College in 2011 after spending 18 years in nearby Lock Haven and split the cost of opening Pita Cabana, a sort of Lebanese Chipotle, with a friend and business partner from Saudi Arabia. When his partner withdrew from the venture three months after it opened, Hiyajneh became the sole owner.
“Pita, that’s our native food,” he said. “You have to start with something you are comfortable with.”
His mother, an experienced cook, served as Pita’s original menu designer. The restaurant remains a favorite amongst downtown patrons despite changing locations since it was first opened.
“From Pita Cabana, I learned to save your money and invest in the business,” Hiyajneh said.
He never looked back, opening four more restaurants — Underground Burgers and Crepes, The Melt Shack, Yallah Taco, and Tazzah — over a span of six years. He also became a partner at Crunchee Munchees, a West College eatery. The Melt Shack, Yallah, and Tazzah are located on the same street corner and were opened within the last six months. He serves as the shopper, manager, janitor, and boss for the five under his control, although the newest three require more attention than the original two.
A typical day for Hiyajneh consists of some family time, supply pickup to replenish stock at the restaurants, and running from eatery to eatery to keep his businesses in order.
The restaurants employ close to 60 people, including local musician Nate Cutshall. Cutshall has worked “off and on” for Hiyajneh for about two years—first at Pita Cabana and currently at the Melt Shack.
“He (Hiyajneh) is always busy, getting stuff done on the hustle,” Cutshall said.
Hiyajneh also serves as the vice president of sales and marketing of Naked Granola, a brand he owns with his family. The company’s bagged granola is sold across the country in Marshalls, T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods, and Amazon. Its website lists four flavors, each inspired by a different American city, and is rated highly by reviewers online. One percent of Naked Granola’s overall profits is loaned to people in third world countries across the globe, and according to Hiyajneh, 99 percent of these loans are paid back.
“I’m obsessed,” Hiyajneh said. “I love what I do, and I think what I do is fun. I build restaurants, I build businesses, I make good money. That’s what the American Dream is about.”
An integral piece of Hiyajneh’s obsession and success is his willingness to experiment and take risks.
“My philosophy in food is always explore, always be learning,” he said. He discussed several ideas he has for new drink flavors, including a new type of sparkling ice tea and a possible mango, pineapple, and ginger combination that he swears by.
Hiyajneh’s most popular recent establishment, the colorful Yallah Taco, has accumulated somewhat of a cult following among late-night snack seekers. It’s not uncommon to see massive lines, reminiscent of the original Canyon Pizza, crowding the alley in front of the decked-out, shack-looking building. But he admits that opening a taco stand in a town that was already home to at least five Mexican restaurants was a risk. “We’re a small hole in the wall, but we’re busy,” he said.
His plans for the future are ambitious. He hopes to open two more restaurants — one a South-Asian concept, the other a personal pizza, all-you-can-eat topping combination. In the next six months, he plans to launch a new company, called That’s Amazing, that will offer an entirely new line of granola, juices, iced teas, and more.
A less visible but equally important aspect of Hiyajneh and his businesses is his religion and the personal philosophy he derives from it. He is an active member of State College’s sizeable Muslim community, which includes more than 300 Penn State students.
“I believe that God talks to you every day. Most people don’t listen. I listen most of the time,” he said.
Careful observers will note that all of the restaurants, including Crunchee Munchees, serve halal food, meaning that they adhere to the dietary regulations outlined in the Quran and followed by some Muslims. According to Hiyajneh, the Halal menus of his restaurants are also appreciated by Jewish patrons looking for Kosher food. About 80 percent of his customers are non-Muslim.
According to Arif Aminuddin, Onward State photographer and senior Muslim student from Malaysia, Hiyajneh’s addition of several halal eateries to the downtown restaurant scene was an important improvement for the town’s Muslim community.
“When I first came here as a freshman, there were only four halal restaurants,” Aminuddin said. “But now there are, like, 11. It was hard for people who were on a strict diet. It makes it easier for people to try American food, especially when they’re not American.”
Three of Hiyajneh’s brothers have immigrated to the United States, and hold partnerships in the family’s restaurants. He’s currently working to bring his eight other siblings to America.
“I’m trying to bring them all. You have to bring them slowly. We have to sponsor them one at a time,” Hiyajneh said.
But Hiyajneh realizes that his family’s journey to the United States will be different from his own odyssey almost 30 years ago.
“At that time it was a lot easier for immigrants, not like right now,” he said. “What’s going on with Trump right now — I’m not mad actually. I’m disappointed in some people, because I don’t think it’s right. But with every adversity there’s actually an opportunity. And that’s what it is. There’s a lot of opportunity in this country.”