Gihad Zayed knows restaurants in America the way hipsters in a lazily written, early-2010s comedy sketch know obscure bands.
"My wife is from Chicago," Zayed tells me outside Speedy's Grub Shack, his unconventional eatery on the Lakewood/Cleveland border (14001 Lakewood Heights Blvd.). "When we go there, I'll be naming restaurants that her family doesn't know." When describing Speedy's, Zayed references "influences" such as Portillo's in Chicago and Fat Sal's in L.A. like a musician name-checks Hendrix or Dylan.
Zayed's obsession with food is evident in the way that Speedy's operates. The menu is filled with basic American fare — think burgers, subs, wings, and quesadillas thrown in for good measure — but the execution is meticulous. Zayed orders beef from TJ's Butcher Block, a beloved Lakewood meat and sandwich shop. The vegetable cases are refilled with fresh produce every hour. And the chicken is hand-cut and tossed in a homemade breading before going into the fryer.
The result, promises Zayed, is better than the "chicken everybody grabs from the fryer." It's quality comfort food prepared right in front of you; it's sports bar fare that outdoes the food that's served at most sports bars.
Oh, did we mention that it's in a gas station?
Speedy's Gas & Grub has been open in its current form for eight months and Zayed says business is "phenomenal." The spot's rampant social media following seems to confirm that assessment. But selling food out of a gas station does come with certain challenges.
"We have to work around the constraints," says Zayed, reciting a list that includes limited kitchen space, narrow aisles for lines and no real dine-in option. Plus, there's the stigma. "There'll be comments on the Facebook page like 'Ugh, gas station food?' We're a gas station, but we're not serving gas station food. We have to do a lot of mind-changing here."
What Zayed has managed to do with his space is remarkable. Tucked behind the counter is a veggie-and-cheese station, grill, deep fryers and a giant gyro spit. Fun menu items like the Philly Cheesesteak with Grub Sauce (a mayo-based fan favorite) or the CLE Burger (corned beef-topped burger) often are the purview of a larger kitchen. And this operation runs 24 hours a day.
But Zayed makes it work. He grew up in Lakewood, in a house on Bunts about 10 doors down from where Speedy's now stands. His father, a Palestinian refugee, worked his way up to owning a gas station. In 2008, Zayed took over operations, taking psych and business classes from morning to noon at John Carroll and running the gas station from afternoon until close.
Zayed graduated from college in 2014 and entered the financial world, which he didn't find to his liking. He took some time off to travel the country, sampling food wherever he went. "I picked up a lot of inspiration [for Speedy's] from different places," he explains.
When Zayed returned to Cleveland and opened Speedy's, it was not an immediate success. The spot he took over was a former mechanic's shop with "lots of corporate competition." The first six or seven months were a struggle, he admits, but then came a major remodeling of the space and push for the 24-hour food concept. It took off.
More Speedy's already are in the works for both sides of town. Zayed gets some operational help from his family, but he's found himself at a point of wanting outside help to push the brand and its locations even further. "I want that buzz train," he says. "I'm ambitious. I don't want things to stop."