Visitors to the new Pita Plus Sandwich Grill will immediately notice a black and white photo standing at the entrance. It's Owner Mike Peerboom's father-in-law, Jimmy Assimes, outside of his restaurant, Jimmy's Lemon Tree—a full-service Greek and BBQ joint that once was a Burnsville standby.
Mike and Maria Peerboom's latest entrepreneurial effort owes quite a debt to Assimes, a Greek immigrant who built a chain of seven Lemon Tree restaurants around the Twin Cities from the 1970s until his death. At Jimmy's, Peerboom met his wife and got a start in the business. He began working at Jimmy's Lemon Tree at the age of 14 as a dishwasher. Gradually he worked his way up, from line cook to manager.
The family reluctantly left the restaurant business behind when Assimes passed away in 2001, but they kept the dream alive for over a decade.
"We talked about it, but we were busy raising our kids and I had a truck repair business," Peerboom said. "That made it hard to pursue it."
Their course changed last summer. The family was at the Minnesota State Fair enjoying some gyro sandwiches when a flash of inspiration struck.
"My wife told me that if I really wanted to do it, we should," Peerboom said. "Two days later I had the name incorporated. I don't mess around: Life is short."
The Peerbooms put the truck repair business on hold and jumped in with both feet. By New Year's they'd found their location—a former Quiznos at 1501 Riverwood Drive. On March 1, 2012 they took possession of the space and began renovations. The pita shop officially opened last Monday, May 14.
The Peerbooms have patterned their new business off of Jimmy's Lemon Tree. Many of Jimmy Assimes' recipes can be found on the menu, including his famous BBQ sauce. The Peerbooms have added some original recipes of their own to Jimmy Assimes' considerable repertoire, however.
"We had a brainstorming session. We've put a lot of innovative new stuff on a pita," Peerboom said. "The marinated steak sandwich, for instance, and the cranberry turkey sandwich. It's like Thanksgiving in one small package."
After 10 years out of the business and a major recession, the Peerbooms weren't sure how their new business would go over, but so far their shop has been very well recieved. Pita Plus is already getting positive buzz about their classic gyros and Greek mac 'n cheese.
"It's scary, but it's fun," Peerboom said. "The things I thought would be easy have been very, very difficult."
The Peerbooms are hoping that their shop's proximity to Burnsville High will beef up lunchtime business. The Savage couple has children attending BHS and the two are heavily involved in sports and activities at the school.
"We have a lot of connections there, which helps, because some of those kids eat three or four sandwiches a piece," Peerboom said.
Ultimately, the family would like to branch out and build a restaurant chain that Jimmy Assimes would be proud of. Peerboom is also exploring the boxed-lunch trade and small catering.