Eli’s Southern Comfort Food has opened inside J.D. Legends Entertainment Complex in Franklin, and will host a grand opening April 3-7. SUBMITTED
Samaan purchased the former Lane Crest Lanes property with his brother in 2002 at a sheriff’s sale. Initially the brothers made the drive from Kentucky to purchase equipment at a heavy discount. After taking a look at the building, they decided to buy the entire property and renovate it into an entertainment center, which opened in 2003.
“Our initial model was to be more of a family event center. We had arcades, that type of thing” Samaan said.
At the end of that first summer, they had a big party with a reggae band that changed everything. “It was a huge success. People didn't think that reggae music would work in a blue-collar town. We didn't even know it was a blue-collar town honestly. It just works. I fell in love with the music industry and started booking small national acts.”
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Another business venture born
Samaan's love of live music grew along with the success of J.D. Legends. Last fall, he launched GTG Promotions, a concert and entertainment booking agency that hosts concerts at venues across Ohio. He has found particular success in historic theaters in smaller cities like Wilmington and Sandusky.
“A lot of these smaller communities couldn’t get these national acts because they didn’t have the budget,” Samaan said. “We found out the communities really flourished from these national acts. People are bringing in dollars to spend on food, hotels, shopping, Uber drivers. A concert has a huge impact. We’re putting money in everybody's pockets, not just one industry.”
The Murphy Theatre, Wilmington, Ohio.
It’s this emphasis on concerts and entertainment that caused both of Samaan’s businesses to suffer tremendously since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the state for the last two months. The combined loss of inventory and income from both businesses has been painful. “It's unreal,” he said. “We lost anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 in food alone.”
Samaan, however, is not one to wallow in the negatives. He was able to donate a truckload of food to the food bank, so at least some of it went to good use. And after feeling depressed for a couple of weeks after the shutdown first went into effect, he switched gears and studied to get his real estate license, something he's always wanted to do. He also started recording podcasts out of boredom and found he enjoyed it.
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“You have to accept it, because once you accept it, then you find the solution,” he said. “You think about what actions to do to change the circumstances, or to find other opportunities. You might have a new talent that you were thinking about doing, now's the time to do it.”
Outdoor dining reopens
Most recently, Samaan and his nephew Charlie, who are the current co-owners of J.D. Legends, got the green light to resume dining on their large patio and volleyball courts on Friday. May 15. He was surprised by how quickly the reopening started. “The devastation of the restaurant industry put a lot of pressure on the governor,” he said.
Charlie Samaan, owner of J.D. Legends Entertainment Complex in Franklin, Ohio. Staff photo by Nick Graham
In order to reopen, lots of changes had to happen. Samaan likened it to opening a brand new restaurant. At Eli’s Southern Comfort Food, the restaurant operation for J.D. Legends, there’s new staff with updated training and policies, which includes frequent hand washing and daily temperature checks. New sanitizing stations and social distancing signage has been installed around the venue.
To avoid people congregating at the entrance, diners must wait in their cars until they are notified by a text message that their tables are ready. Once patrons are seated, they have to stay seated. Samaan has employed additional staff members who will monitor that the new guidelines are being followed.
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The restaurant also will have a limited menu, as certain foods have been harder to purchase or have become more costly. Getting draft beer has been a challenge, too. “The chain supply is swamped,” Samaan said.
Another big change is that many items must be disposable, from menus to condiments. Items that can’t be thrown away have to be wiped down every two hours, Samaan said.
Live music isn’t allowed yet, even if it’s a solo artist on stage, which is frustrating to Samaan. For now, virtual concerts will be shown on the large LEDs projectors and televisions around the venue.
Between the music and sand, Samaan hopes to provide locals a taste of Key West without having to get on a plane. “It's gonna feel like a little vacation,” he said, thinking about those diners who are anxious to get out of the house. “It's exciting!”
Optimistic about the future
As far as reopening indoor dining, Samaan says he’ll wait to see how demand is. With increased food and staffing costs, he wants to be cautious as he proceeds. “There are still a lot of unknowns,” he said. “If it’s not profitable, maybe we’ll only be open two or three days a week. We just have to see how it goes.”
Despite all the changes, extra staff, additional investments, and lower occupancy allowances, Samaan remains optimistic about the future. With one of the largest patios in the Dayton area, he’s able to accommodate 200 people outdoors while maintaining all the new guidelines. “Our phone is ringing off the hook for reservations,” he said.
With most of his concert competition, like Fraze Pavilion, already shut down for the season, Samaan sees an opportunity. “We might be more in demand if other businesses are closed,” he said. Although Samaan doesn’t foresee large concerts coming back this year, he does anticipate smaller shows coming back in a controlled manner, and he’s preparing for when that moment comes.
“You know, even though things look bad, you can create something and look for opportunities. You can engage with people and try and find the bright side,” he said. “I'm just spreading a positive vibe to people to not let this get you down ... I'm trying to keep a positive outlook on things.”
J.D. Legends is located at 65 Millard Drive in Franklin. The patio is currently open 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. Call 937-746-4950 to make reservations.
Stories of Hope
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