Site on State Line Boosts Traffic at New Morgan Oil

POLAND, Ohio – A steady stream of cars filed in and out of gasoline pumps Friday morning while inside Mike Kassem and his family celebrated the grand opening of Morgan Oil, 6969 Center Road.

Kassem, who also owns the original Morgan Oil in Struthers, cut the ribbon on a mini-truck stop and convenience store near the Ohio-Pennsylvania line, with hopes of an increase in gasoline, diesel and tobacco sales from residents of the commonwealth.

The new Morgan Oil is less than 20 feet from the state line. Like its sister location in Struthers, the site offers a convenience store and hot food, gyros and famous “gas station wings.”

“This is a strategic location not only for gas, but in Pennsylvania, tobacco is higher, milk is higher and there’s an advantage because I don’t have to compete,” Kassem said.

Pennsylvania pays the highest gasoline taxes in the country at 77 cents per gallon, with 59 cents going toward state tax for repairs to roads and bridges. The state tax on diesel fuel is 75 cents. On average, Ohioans pay a state tax rate of 38.5 cents per gallon on gasoline and 47 cents tax on diesel fuel.

Army Sgt. First Class Jason Varchulik, who is stationed in Germany, is visiting family in Youngstown, and made the trip to Poland to support Kassem.

“I’ve known Mike for years through his Struthers store. I just wanted to come and support him here,” Varchulik said, holding lottery tickets and a Starbucks drink. 

Kassem purchased 40 acres of property in November 2017 that housed the offices of Carbon Limestone. He greeted more than 40 people who showed up to wish him well, many customers of his Struthers store, which he opened in 1995.

Kassem and his wife, Nancy, said they eventually plan to build a home on the undeveloped acreage on a hilltop behind the store. 

Mary Ahlquist, of Boardman, started working for Kassem two months ago, but has known him for nearly 20 years by going to Morgan Oil in Struthers. 

“I met him at Sam’s Club and he talked me into coming here. “He called Tuesday and asked if I could come to work Wednesday,” she said with a smile.

G.P. Construction built the gas station, which includes eight gasoline pumps in the front of the store and another bay of pumps along the side that are still being completed. The bay area will have diesel pumps and room for trucks to maneuver. 

Although no electric charging stages exist, Kassem said he could see adding them as electrical vehicles become more popular. 

“Charging stations won’t be a problem because we have electric wired all the way around the property,” said Gary Pezzuolo, owner of G.P. Construction. “He’s going to get a lot of traffic through here, especially with BFI landfill down the road. It will be the only stop between New Castle, Union [township in Pa.] and Poland.”

Gary’s brother, Hank Pezzuolo, who worked on the site, is from nearby Hillsville, Pa., about a mile from the Ohio border. Hank Pezzuolo said he has been traveling to Struthers to get wings for years. 

“It’s only about a 15 to 20 minute drive, but worth it,” he said. “He brought about 100 wings to the site one day and we went right through them. With him this place being open 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., he [Kassem] has hit a homerun.”

Struthers Mayor Catherine Cercone Miller and council members Dallas Bigley and Ron Carcelli were on hand for the opening. 

“Everybody knows Mike, just look around,” said Carcelli, gesturing to the packed store. “He is just an awesome guy. I talk to him every day.”

Bigley and Carcelli said Kassem has renovated more than 30 homes in Struthers. “He’s a great partner to the city,” Bigley said. 

Cercone Miller said she wasn’t going to miss the opening, despite the location. “We still claim Mike, we’re not letting him go,” the mayor said.

“He does so much for our city and donates to causes. He’s just a huge asset,” she said. “He makes everyone feel like they’re part of the family. He knows people by name when they walk in the store.”

Kassem said he started renovating homes in Struthers to not only invest in the city, but also because the city and working-class residents reminded him of his birthplace in Lebanon.

“I have 30 homes that I’ve renovated and I rent them so they are affordable,” he said, flipping through pictures on his phone of his latest home remodel.

“Some people who are poor never have a chance to live somewhere like this, so I don’t ask for a security deposit so they are able to save that money,” he said. “It works out for me and it works out for the city and people are able to afford a nice place to live.”

“I came from a refugee camp in Lebanon where there were 11 children in two rooms,” Kassem said. “I was in a detention camp in the war in 1982 when Israel invaded south Lebanon to drive out the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].

He said he was released from the detention camp during a prisoner exchange in 1983 and came here Dec. 23, 1985, on a student-sponsored visa to attend Youngstown State University. He met Nancy while attending YSU, where he graduated with an accounting degree.

He and Nancy have four sons. Abraham is a data scientist and lives in Cincinnati. Sami is an electrician and twins Adam and Zachariah are seniors at Poland Seminary High School.

Kassem smiles humbly when asked about his signature wings and says he offers some Lebanese-style food mixed in with subs and other hot foods as well as salad and seasonal soup and pizza.

“The reason the wings are good is because I roast the chicken first,” he said, pointing to newly installed equipment in the kitchen. “And they have a special breading that I use.”

His oldest son, Abraham, came home from Cincinnati for the opening. “He’s accomplished so much in just the last four or five years since I’ve been gone,” he said of his father. “He started with just the gas station, and then added the kitchen and now this.”

He said his father always taught him to get to work early, which was easier  said than done since the elder Kassem gets up at 3:30 a.m. and is at work by 4 a.m. 

“I could never beat him to work,” Abraham Kassem said.  “He always taught me to work hard and led by example. It makes it easy to work hard when you see him doing it every day.”

Brenda Kane was hired by Kassem a year ago to be the manager in Poland. “He’s the best. He’s got my loyalty until the day I die. He treats us like we’re family.”

Pictured: Mahoning County Commissioner Anthony Traficanti, Abraham Kassem, Morgan Oil owner Mike Kassem, Sami Kassem, Nancy Kassem, Adam Kassem, Gary Pezzuolo of G.P. Construction, Leila Richards, Zachariah Kassem, Struthers second ward councilman Ron Carcelli and Struthers councilman-at-large Dallas Bigley.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.