The first time Yonas Cheri got a glimpse of the shuttered High's store at 7707 Old Sandy Spring Road, he already had in mind a grand plan for its future.
Armed with his idea and his energy, he signed a lease with the owner of the property and embarked on a sweeping transformation to the tune of $200,000. When the work was completed and the store reopened in March as 24/7 Convenience Store, Cheri had taken a tired, 1980s-motif, and refashioned it, floor to ceiling, into a spanking clean, modern, efficient operation.
And while it's not yet open around the clock, that's one of his next orders on business, he promised.
The first thing customers see when they shuffle in are banks of pots of Royal Cup coffee. A small cup of java runs $1.29, while a medium is priced at $1.47 and a large at $1.69.
Cheri has spared no expense in creating inviting and cheerful surroundings in other ways, too. The new cooler, he said, cost $30,000. A four-door freezer set him back $11,000. He spent another $9,000 to replace the counter and $15,000 more to redo the parking lot.
"Most of my customers come from the neighborhood, but a lot of them don't know we're here," he complained. "They didn't know High's was closed."
Cheri is pleased that he gets so many out-of-state patrons from nearby Interstate 95, and had wanted to erect a sign on the rear of the building. But the city wouldn't let him.
"Exxon has the sign," he said. "(The city) is really strict about signs."
Cheri, 34, a native of Ethiopia, arrived in the United States in 1996. He landed a job working at a cousin's gas station in Memphis, Tenn. Later, wanting to be closer to his mother in Arlington, Va., he opened a convenience store in Glen Burnie. It was one of his workers, Glennis Vitali, who lived near the old High's in Laurel, who told him she had found a possible new location. When he made the switch, Vitali, who is also a former head casher at the Tastee Diner in Laurel, followed him.
She wasn't the only one. Nicole Taylor, who also worked for Cheri in Glen Burnie, described him as "very caring, very giving." He made coming to work less stressful, more fun, she said.
Holding an armful of light bulbs she was stocking, Taylor said although she lives just two minutes from the other store, she opts "to drive all the way down here. He's worth it."
When the space was occupied by High's, Kim Blouvet recalled, she was a regular customer. Recalling when she noticed the store had closed, she said: "I was shocked. I was like `well, another place goes down.' "
Now, though, she said she likes what Cheri has done to make the store more appealing.
"It's really nice," said Blouvet, the reading specialist and testing coordinator at nearby Scotchtown Hills Elementary School. "It's clean, and there's a good variety. And the layout is nice."
Along with neat rows brimming with chips, cereals, shaving cream and sauces, the store wants to make a big splash with its cold cut subs. The menu includes tuna, Italian, Kosher beef, oven turkey and roast beef. Prices for the 12-inch sub go from $5.99 to $6.99; the six-inch sandwich run from $3.99 to $4.29. The only two items pre-made, Cheri noted, are the potato salad and macaroni salad. The breakfast items include sandwiches on bagels, muffins and biscuits, and the store also carries bean and cheese burrito wraps.
"We can make it (the sub) however you want it," Cheri explained, standing beneath the menu board sporting oversize lettering that makes it easy on the eyes. "In most places, the subs are pre-made. We make them to order." Another option: "Take the lunch meat home and make it yourself." Fixings include lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, hot pepper and standard condiments like ketchup and mustard.
On mornings when he's not working, you might see Kevin Lear tugging on the handle of a bright red Radio Flyer wagon containing his 2-year-old son, J.D.
"This is a welcome addition to our neighborhood," declared Lear, who manages the Silver Diner at Baltimore Washington International Airport. "The High's met our needs, but there is a broader reach with this store. We were here the day it opened and it's very nice."
James Habermehl gave the store thumbs up. The night before, he reported, he bought a honey ham and cheese sub.
"It was excellent...I could only eat half of it. Absolutely fresh." And while he can pick and choose where he could go, he said he loves the way Cheri has rolled out the welcome mat.
"You may as well go where you're treated well."
In order to help Cheri launch his new venture, Terry Taylor, Nicole's husband, has been helping out around the store, doing jobs like installing duct work and painting.
"He would give his shirt off his back," Taylor said. "His customers and his employees come before anything else."
Cheri also embraces the way people have welcomed him to Laurel.
In Glen Burnie, Cheri said, he would repeatedly face one question: Where are you from?
"Here, nobody asks me where I'm from," Cheri said. "It's a diverse community. I love it."