Mark Kennison typically puts in 70 to 80 hours a week, but that suits the 30-year-old North Franklin Township entrepreneur just fine.
With the Upper Crust restaurant flourishing at its South Main Street location and having just completed the sale of the Italian Market and Rachel Rose’s Specialty Boutique and Coffee, also on South Main, to Don and Laura Ross, Nancy Ogden, and Andrew and Lauren Ogden, all of Mt. Lebanon, Kennison has now set his sights on North Main Street. (The Italian Market and Rachel Rose are now known as Chicco Baccello.)
“I am in a hurry,” Kennison said during an interview last week at the Upper Crust. “There are things to do.”
Indeed. Kennison recently finalized purchase of the 7,000-square-foot building that once housed Ernie’s Freestyle Restaurant and the adjacent 4,000-square-foot building that houses a Cricket Wireless store. The investment includes the liquor license held by Ernie’s.
What Kennison plans to do with the former Ernie’s Freestyle property is to transform the restaurant and bar area into a traditional restaurant that would feature American-style fare, with an emphasis on food quality. The ground beef would be ground daily on site and all of the vegetables that would be used that day would be prepared as needed, he explained.
“For example, the potatoes used in french fries would be chopped that day,” said Kennison, adding that this eatery – like the Upper Crust – will feature a wood-burning oven. “No pre-made patties.”
Perhaps most important, the still-to-be-named restaurant would have a “Little Washington” theme, said Kennison, who hopes to see the city’s Main Street to become viable again.
“Washington has a strong foundation and that gives me hope,” said Kennison, a Trinity High School graduate who studied business and entrepreneurial studies at Washington & Jefferson College. “I was raised with high moral values. Small towns are like one big family.”
His plans for his latest venture have several facets. He wants to transform the restaurant portion of the building into an entertainment destination, complete with live music and a banquet room that can accommodate as many as 60 people, something, he said, the city of Washington does not have. Some of the upper floors may end up being office space, which Kennison said he will have built out to meet the needs of the tenant.
“Washington needs entertainment and things to do,” said Kennison on his vision not only for his project, but for the city itself. “I wanted a place where there is live music. There is a challenge to pulling kids off campus.”
He also wants to construct higher-end apartments in the upper floors of both buildings. This part of the project would include a common room, internet connectivity and a laundry facility. Rent for the apartments could run anywhere to $700 a month for a one-bedroom to $1,300 a month for a two-bedroom unit.
“There are a lot of professionals in Washington who like to meet and network,” he said. “They need a clean, safe and fun environment. Right now Happy Hour starts down Route 19. People end up missing each other way too much.”
He said his restaurant will also have a 2,000-square-foot landscaped courtyard between the buildings. The courtyard, with a view of the W&J campus, would feature gas fire pits and be well-lit, so it could be used into fall.
“I have met with the mayor and W&J about this,” said Kennison, who hopes to have his latest venture opened sometime in the late fall. “It is fun for me to know the college supports this project. They (W&J) are happy someone is bringing life back to North Main Street and it will give the kids something to do.”
Kennison, who is serving as his own general contractor and architect for the Ernie’s Freestyle project, and recently formed Kennison Strategic Development Co., hopes to segue from being a business owner into development and mentoring aspiring business owners.
“I really want to own more properties and make them nice and beautiful,” Kennison said. “When buildings are neglected, they decay and crime follows.”
“The time is now,” because of the money being generated from the Marcellus Shale ventures throughout the county, he said. “It is time for a new first impression. These kinds of places can have a big impact.”