Antonia's owners

Dana and Brian Pearson stand outside Antonia's in downtown Hillsborough. The couple have owned the restaurant since November 2019.

It was on St. Patrick’s Day when North Carolina issued the order that all restaurants were no longer allowed to offer dining services. The edict came in response to the coronavirus with the hopes of slowing its spread. That night, the staff of Antonia’s made the decision that the borderline fine-dining restaurant in downtown Hillsborough would become a carryout and meal delivery establishment. 

“Tuesday, we got the news,” said Brian Pearson, who owns Antonia’s with his wife, Dana. “Wednesday was horrible. We really dropped the ball on what we were doing. So we all sat down and brainstormed. By Thursday, we were a well-oiled machine. It was beautiful.”

At a time when many restaurants have been forced into closure and staff reduction, Antonia’s has adjusted, managed to keep 15 employees and continues to pay the bills.

“All things considered,” Pearson said, “things are going pretty well. We changed the restaurant, basically, overnight to try to work within the parameters that were set for us. All in all, I think that if you compare it with the rest of the industry, we’re in the top 10 percent, for sure.”

The success, given the circumstances, hasn’t come easy, but it has come with the full-on commitment of the staff at Antonia’s.

“We didn’t have any kind of system to do it, really,” Pearson said. “The first two days were a mess. We didn’t know what we were doing. None of us had really had to work in this way before. It took about three days for us to get a system in place. I’ve got some incredible minds that work here. People who were really able to think on the fly. We all got together to sort this out and developed a system of organization. My wife (Dana) was instrumental. We had the one phone line, originally. In the first couple of days people couldn’t get through. The line was always busy. My wife devised a way to turn one phone line into four. The phone line problem was fixed, we got organized and we learned how to do it. I mean, everybody, through necessity, decided ‘Let’s go all in on this,’ and all of us did.”

And the feedback has been remarkable, as not every person and family sheltering in place wants to do their own cooking. Many customers appreciated the changes Antonia’s made.

“People, overall, seem very pleased with what we’re doing,” Pearson said. “Particularly the family meals. We started doing family meals about a week in. We do a different one every day. It’s a meal that feeds four. For a reasonable price. It varies, but it’s usually in the $50 to $60 range. The public longs for the same thing we want, which is to have that feeling of community. That’s what’s missing right now.”

That’s a point he is quick to point out: Despite the enthusiasm to overcome the current challenges, the staff of Antonia’s misses its customers.

“We don’t enjoy this,” Pearson said. “Not having people in the restaurant. We were talking about this last night, all of us miss the interaction with the guests. A lot of what makes us want to do our job is the personal relationships that have been built with the people who come in here. Now, it’s just kind of robotic. We’re putting food in boxes and bringing it to people. We don’t really get any kind of reaction. That stuff that fuels all of us to want to do this job has been kind of taken away from us. So none of us is going to have a problem when things go back to normal.”

For the Pearsons, who purchased Antonia’s in November 2019, “normal” was something they were just getting used to. The restaurant had been around for decades under previous ownership and management. The Pearsons updated the menu and the appearance.

“We came in, we didn’t change any of the employees … I streamlined some service procedures,” Pearson said. “We tried to offer a little more variety on the menu because the No. 1 thing I heard from guests was that the menu hadn’t changed at all in years. So, we started offering more different things, specials. We expanded bar service. The bar was kind of basic when we came in. I come from a bar manager background, and the bar manager here was really hungry to expand what he was doing. So we took the ball and ran with that.”

The results were strong as lunchtime and dinner crowds filled the historic corner building.

“Things were going really well,” Pearson said. “I was talking to Dana, and I think we were on the cusp of really going crazy as far as doing a lot of business. The numbers were already up probably 30 percent in the first four months of operation. Things were really going well. It was a steady rise in business every month. I expected April to sort of explode. I had put in that whole outdoor area. It had been sparsely used because the weather wasn’t very good, but it was there and it was ready to go. Just when the weather got good is when the coronavirus came in and we got closed down. So, we still haven’t really used that. That will expand the seating capacity of the restaurant by 30 seats. For a restaurant that only seats 80 people, that’s a lot.”

Pearson had been the bar manager for Carrabba’s in Durham for the last 10 years previous to taking over at Antonia’s. He’s been in the restaurant business for 35 years, including in some form of management for 25. While it was not his first time running a restaurant, Antonia’s marks the first time he’s run a restaurant for himself.

And he had big plans for this venture. He was planning even more changes and updates for the restaurant, including kitchen equipment and an overhaul of the point-of-sales technology to be used by the wait staff.

“I’ve always got lots of irons in the fire,” he said. “I definitely had my eye toward gradual and moderate expansion. I was going to put more tables outside; I was in the process of buying more and new equipment so the restaurant could have the ability to do more business and do it efficiently and effectively. I had several deals in progress that would have cost me a lot of money. I’m glad I didn’t close the deal on a lot of that stuff, because at this point I wouldn’t have had the money to do it. For example, for the patio I was buying a cordless point-of-sales system. Basically so the servers wouldn’t have to come inside to ring up a customer. I bought what amounts to an iPad that syncs to the computers inside. That was not inexpensive and I was pretty close to finalizing that deal. I’m still eventually going to do that, but it’s all been put on the back burner.”

Despite those disappointments, Pearson understands that his situation is atypical during the COVID-19 outbreak, and he is thankful for that. He keeps close and regular tabs on neighboring restaurants and businesses in downtown Hillsborough. 

“I think each business’ experience is unique. It depends on what they were willing to do,” Pearson said. “I think the Wooden Nickel is doing wonderfully. They changed on the fly just as quickly as we did. These were guys who were motivated to keep going. I think motivation has a lot to do with it. Some people are well-entrenched here and have been here a long time. The notion of either closing down or seriously curtailing how much business they did, was something that they consider. My wife and I bought this place a few months ago, you know, we don’t have a choice but to keep going. We have lots of financial responsibilities. When you first buy a restaurant, you put yourself into a little bit of a hole. It is what it is. We decided very early on that failure was not an option. Other people are making their choices depending on what their situation is. I feel like everyone is doing what they feel like is the right choice for their business. What’s right for one business might not be right for another. We’re just doing what we can do for us right now.”

Chief among that now for Pearson is getting the ingredients he needs each day to keep his businesses operating. It’s another area of running a restaurant that has been greatly affected by COVID-19.

“The purveyors have severely slimmed down what they have available,” he said. “What used to be as simple as making a couple of phone calls and having a truck roll up to your restaurant has changed into me doing what I call ‘going walkabout.’  I go on walkabout three times a week. I get in my car and I go to several different places in the morning hoping that amongst all of them I might collect everything I need to be able to do business that day. So far, I’ve been successful. It requires going out and getting stuff. It’s hit and miss. Sometimes people have things to bring to you and sometimes they don’t. It’s gotten to the point now where I can’t really count on it. I’ve taken it upon myself to just go out and get what I need. That way I know that I’ve got it. I was up this morning at 6 a.m. and went to four different places, and I got into the restaurant around 9 a.m. But that’s what it takes to get what I need to do business today and tomorrow. Then I’ll probably have to go out on walkabout Wednesday.” 

Pearson said he hasn’t paid much attention to the stimulus package the U.S. government has passed to address the economic impact of the coronavirus, which potentially will make billions of dollars in low-interest loans available to small businesses.

“I haven’t put much thought into what the government has to offer,” he said. “We’re exploring the payroll assistance program, but we’re accomplishing a lot of what we want to accomplish. I don’t feel that we’re in the position to qualify for it. I’m not sure we’re the small business that the program is for. I’m the kind of guy where if I can make it work without going to the government for help, I won’t.

“I think the one thing that we’re all going to learn from this — I don’t mean just restaurant people — is that you can’t take anything for granted in this world, you know? Everybody’s life has been disrupted in some way shape or form,” he said.