Between the years 2000 and 2007, it wasn’t unusual to see a flock of Lehigh students crossing the New Street Bridge at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
Across the river was the guarantee that a freshly-baked, New York-style bagel from Johnny’s Bagels and Deli. For seven years, Lehigh students made this epic voyage to the North Side every morning. But today, the commute is no longer an issue.
John and Sarah Zohir opened their first deli in 2000 on North Bethlehem’s Main Street, but it wasn’t until 2007 that their second location opened in Lehigh’s Farrington Square.
“We started getting this cult following from Lehigh students who would come across the bridge,” Sarah Zohir said. “Eighty percent of business on weekends was coming from Lehigh students, so finally Johnny decided it was time for us to move closer to campus.”
The couple now has three locations in Bethlehem and another in Allentown. Although Sarah Zohir admitted that business fluctuates the most at the Lehigh location, which she attributes to the school’s vacation breaks, it’s also her favorite location to work.
“I feel like one of the reasons why I love the Lehigh store so much is because students haven’t gotten to that age of true life stress yet,” Sarah Zohir said. “If we make a mistake, they’re more relaxed, more appreciative.”
The customer demographic is not the only variable across stores. Each Johnny’s restaurant has a different atmosphere to represent its respective location. For Lehigh, Sarah Zohir said that they tried to create a fun, upbeat ambiance where students can enjoy hanging out. The addition of a mezzanine, Sarah Zohir hopes, will not only increase seating but will add to the relaxing nature of the deli.
As a resident of Farrington Square, Mikaila Skaroff, ’17, finds herself eating at Johnny’s often, but its proximity to her dorm is not the only thing that keeps her coming back.
“I think Lehigh students like Johnny’s because the food is really good and really comforting,” she said. “If you need a quick pick-me-up, going to Johnny’s and seeing the smiling workers and grabbing a bagel will cheer you right up.”
The atmosphere is what co-owner John Zohir set out to achieve when he opened his first store 15 years ago. He said it has always been about more than just making money. He said loves what he does, and hopes that Lehigh students feel that love.
“We want anyone who comes in, from freshmen to graduates, to feel the warmth of the store,” John Zohir said. “We want it to feel familiar, like home.”
The Zohirs both agree that the most rewarding part of owning a business is the relationships that they have formed with customers. John said that one of his favorite weekends of the year is Parent’s Weekend. He loves when students come in just to introduce their parents to the man behind their favorite lunch spot, a validation of the bond that he shares with his customers.
Sarah Zohir guesses that’s the reason Lehigh students made the trek to the North Side for so many years. Even before Johnny’s was convenient to get to, Sarah said there was always a line of Lehigh students out the door on weekends. Regulars, she said, came back week after week for the food and for the friendship.
“It’s not a business relationship for us,” John Zohir said. “Our customers are family.”