In 1994, Bassel Osmani, Nelly Kohsok, and Fouad Khodr noticed diners wanted more healthy food options. In response, they quit their jobs and opened the first Pita Jungle restaurant at 1250 East Apache Boulevard in Tempe. Fast-forward 20 years and that one restaurant has grown to become a mini-chain of 19 vegetarian and healthy food dining spots located all over Arizona and Southern California.
Throughout the years, the original Tempe restaurant has remained the company's flagship store, but — brace yourselves, fans — that's about to change. This summer, the original Tempe Pita Jungle will close and be replaced with a new restaurant on Mill Avenue.
"We kind of grew out of [the original location]," co-founder Nelly Kohsok says.
But square-footage is far from the only reason the owners decided to move.
Consider that when the Tempe restaurant opened in 1994, Pita Jungle shared the strip mall with other super successful local businesses, including Stinkweeds, the record store that now has just one location in Central Phoenix, and the first bagel shop in Arizona. The synergy among the businesses made the location a prime spot for the fledgling restaurant.
"It was such a cool strip mall," Kohsok remembers. "And then, you know, people started leaving. We stuck with it."
On top of the exodus, Kohsok says the light rail has been as much of a hindrance as it has been a boon for business. Though Kohsok says she and other business owners in the strip mall originally supported light-rail construction, the process took much longer than expected, which hurt business. And even with construction completed and parking rules, Kohsok says, light-rail riders regularly take up the majority of spaces in the strip mall, leaving little space left for actual customers.
Finally, Kohsok says the new Mill Avenue location will be an opportunity for Pita Jungle to "rejuvenate" the brand. Though you'll still recognize the signature Pita Jungle style, Kohsok says, the look will be updated at the new restaurant.
The new location, which will be at 4 East University Drive, on the northeast corner of University and Mill (in the former home of Firehouse Tempe), will be brighter than the old space and will include two patios. It's closer to campus and closer to the growing number residential buildings around Mill and the university, Kohsok also points out.
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Construction hasn't started yet, but Kohsok says she hopes to be open by August. There likely will be a few dark days between the original Tempe location's closure and the Mill Avenue opening.
As for those Tempe residents who might not be thrilled about having to venture to Mill, Kohsok offers the Pita Jungle in Mesa, located at 1850 West Southern Avenue (just over four miles from the original restaurant) as an alternative.
And here's some good news for Pita Jungle fans: The company plans to open a new location near Seventh Street and Missouri Avenue in North Phoenix. Kohsok says that restaurant — which will be near other dining hot spots such as The Yard — may not open until early 2016.