Espresso cafe latest shop to try to energize Main Street spot

The cafe set to debut later this month in downtown Rock Hill sure sounds a lot like the one that went out of business two years ago in the same spot.

But owner Tim Sullivan is convinced he can make this go-round work. He'll open Firehouse Espresso Cafe in the offbeat, multilevel space where the Rock Hill Roasting Co. couldn't keep enough customers to stay afloat.

Tom and Suzy Jebo closed it after three years, and their corner of the City Plaza building on Main Street has sat empty since 2005 as one of downtown's highest-profile vacancies.

Sullivan insists his cafe will be different, though it bears many similarities -- coffee, sandwiches, soups and salads are the main features -- to the concept tried by the Jebos.

Sullivan says nothing on the menu will cost more than $7. Customers who encounter problems won't be charged. But the biggest key might be experience, said David Rogers, who owns the City Plaza building.

Sullivan opened his first Firehouse location 10 years ago in downtown Albemarle, N.C., and has worked in the restaurant business since he was 16. He hopes to turn Firehouse into a regional chain.

"The concept may be close to the same, but the operator is what makes the difference," Rogers said. "This person has been in the restaurant business for years."

Sullivan, 50, said his top sellers include the three-alarm Reuben, which includes jalapenos and spicy Havarti cheese, and the "Big House," a sandwich that comes with a slice of every meat and cheese available in the store. Beer and wine also will be on the menu.

Firehouse will represent the fifth new restaurant or shop to open in downtown this year. It's the latest to take advantage of the city's new DowntownNow incentives program, which dangles cash rewards to lure shops and restaurants to vacant spaces.

Sullivan said he'll get about $16,000 to subsidize rent, develop a marketing plan and pay for a business license. The goal of the program is to avoid allowing vacant spaces in downtown to be snatched up by office tenants that do little to attract more foot traffic and ambiance.