BOARDMAN, Ohio – The new owners of Combine Brothers restaurant know they have a business with a golden reputation and an extremely devoted customer base.
They intend to not only protect that reputation but spread it to new locations.
“We are the keepers of the brand,” said Don “Poncho” Thomas, who is among a 15-person ownership team that bought the venerable Hermitage, Pa., Italian restaurant from the Combine family in October 2018.
In January, the team opened its second location at 7412 Market St. in Boardman, across from the Southern Park Mall. A grand opening celebration took place there Sept. 14. The owners purchased the building, which formerly housed The Landmark restaurant, in late 2020 and spent the following year renovating it.
They are already looking at opening a third location, which would be in Columbiana. Plans call for adding two more restaurants that in other cities, for a total of five.
Combine Brothers started in 1989 when the four brothers opened the original location at 2376 S. Hermitage Road in a turn-of-the-century building that originally housed a general store.
Using the Italian recipes perfected by their mother, the restaurant quickly made a name for itself with its homemade rolls, flavorful tomato sauce and generous portions.
It has a base of customers that covers a wide swath of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, Thomas said.
In addition to Thomas, the ownership team includes Kevin McKee, who manages both locations; his wife, Debbie; Thomas’ wife, Ladonna; Leonard and Nancy Mochtyak; David and Sandy Cooper; Bob and Kathy Serenko; Mark Gross; Leslie Chickanosky; Tim Dennison; and Craig and Susie Tyler.
McKee had spent the previous couple of decades as an executive with the Arby’s chain in Virginia.
The original location’s décor was repeated in the Boardman location when it was renovated.
The owners also added a bar and lounge area as well as a takeout counter, Thomas said.
From the day it opened, the new branch racked up huge sales, even while dealing with the staffing shortages that plagued all restaurants as the pandemic wound down. It has since overcome that and its other startup obstacles.
“We’re now ready to put our foot on the gas,” Thomas said.
When expanding a restaurant into multiple locations, it’s important to maintain everything that made the original spot great.
“We see the brand as being significant,” Thomas said, “and we’re carrying it to every location. The colors, the culture, the spirit is the same. That’s one of the keys to branding a restaurant.”
That includes Combine Brothers’ focus on baking Italian rolls daily, as well as making fresh tomato sauces.
McKee said his baking team shows up at 7 or 8 a.m. every day to make dough and bake rolls.
“Today we made almost 400 rolls,” McKee said Sept. 14. “At the Hermitage location, we made 700.”
The expansion plan will also add features to take advantage of changing consumer preferences – particularly, the younger generation’s shift toward takeout instead of dining in.
“Carryout is our upside,” Thomas said.
There are other changes that are adaptations to being in the busy Boardman market.
“What we’re doing is changing how Combine Brothers does some things,” Thomas said. While the original location is a “very traditional” Italian restaurant, the Boardman site has a bar area with high-top tables and a daily happy hour and small-plate appetizers.
“You have to cater to the different demographic [and location],” Thomas said. “There are 25 different restaurant options within a mile of here. There is more opportunity for a bar.”
Pictured at top: The ownership team of Combine Brothers restaurants includes Craig Tyler, Kevin McKee, Bob Serenko, Don Thomas, Leonard Mochtyak, Tim Dennison and Dave Cooper. Missing from photo is Mark Gross.