For Joe Hishmeh and Jesse Ihrig, co-owners of Cheezees Grill, their fresh take on a grab-and-go American favorite is a blend of inspiration and ingredients. Recently celebrating its one-year anniversary, the small sandwich shop is located on Santa Maria Boulevard, just off US 1 South.
Stepping into the role of restaurant owner was a little about timing and a lot about chance. Following a divorce in the late 90s, Hishmeh began searching for a new career venture and fell back on his love of cooking and food. He opened his first café in South Florida before moving on to Cape Coral, where he opened a new spot called Joe’s Big Bite. It wasn’t long before the economy took a hit and Hishmeh had to close shop.
It was during this time fate stepped in and Hishmeh’s ex-wife met her future husband. His name was Jesse Ihrig. He worked as a kitchen manager and together they moved to St. Augustine for a change of pace. With the closure of Hishmeh’s restaurant, he too decided to move to St. Augustine, and began brainstorming a new idea for a local restaurant with Ihrig. They started with the idea of creating a deli that served homemade grilled cheese sandwiches and then expanded upon this vision. Hishmeh and Ihrig immediately began researching locations. They looked near downtown, but thought the space was a little overcrowded. After repeatedly driving by an open space for lease off US 1, they finally stopped in.
“I was hesitant at first because I wanted to find a location that would be convenient for customers, but I finally came down to check out this space and it grew on me,” Hishmeh said. “It took a couple weeks to hammer out the lease. The gamble paid off. We get great traffic through here and lunchtime is always slammed.”
As for the menu, they wanted to create something special and different. “We didn’t want to blend in with other sandwich shops,” Hishmeh explained. “We do things different.”
Hishmeh was referring to their emphasis on using only fresh ingredients, such as homemade sauces and spreads, slow roasted meat and fresh bread delivered daily from Georgia. They arrived at a number of sandwiches and salads and began naming them after friends and family to add a personal touch. To ensure quality, Ihrig brings more than 30 years of professional experience to the stove.
“Jesse has always been in the kitchen. He’s a master. It’s his play land and it’s best to let him work his magic,” joked Hishmeh.
Popular menu items include The Back It Up Reuben, made with homemade corned beef, aged Swiss cheese and homemade sauerkraut and Joe’s Big Bite BLT, hand woven bacon, with lettuce, tomato and mayo, served on thick white bread.
Another hot item is The Mr. Raulerson Turkey Sandwich, named after a local Science teacher from Gamble Rogers Middle School. “We take these original sandwiches and add a lot of flavor and freshness to each bite,” said Hishmeh.
They also offer a range of vegetarian menu items, including a fresh Hummus and Tabouli spread that is made daily. And they have a selection of decadent sweet treats for dessert.
Beyond the set menu, are daily specials posted to Facebook.“We would love to feature 500 sandwiches all the time, but it just isn’t realistic. With daily specials, we can still offer variety and mix it up,” said Hishmeh.
Sandwiches and specials aside, ultimately, it’s the community that keeps Cheezees going strong, and makes Hishmeh feel at home. “I like knowing my customers by name and seeing their smiling faces each day,” he said. “It’s the reason we put so much thought and care into what we serve.”
Cheezees Grill is located off US 1 South at 918 Santa Maria Blvd. For a full look at their menu and hours, visit cheezeesgrill.com.
Culinary Characters featured published in the August/September print issue of St. Augustine Social Magazine. Photos by Rob Futrell, exclusively for St. Augustine Social.