ASHEBORO — If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
That’s a question Asheboro folks may have been asking when Hamilton’s Steakhouse moved to a new home just two blocks away, from 132 to 328 Sunset Ave. But for the owners, Dan and Janet Mackey, it was a no-brainer.
“We were looking for a building to own and not rent,” Dan said. “By owning, we have more control of overhead.”
Last year, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mackeys had looked at a downtown building that was up for sale. However, that one went before they could bid on it.
Then when the building at 328 Sunset went on the market, they quickly put in a bid and got it. The site is known by locals as the former Salvation Army Thrift Store but has been unused as a commercial business for several years.
“It started as a white box with drop ceilings,” Dan said. It required a total gutting and renovation to their own idea of an upper casual restaurant.
“Trollinger Construction did the work and we can’t say enough for them,” Janet said. “They even helped with the design.”
The renovations took place between Jan. 1 and June 12. The Mackeys were hoping to reopen by Father’s Day on June 20 and actually welcomed diners on June 15.
“We were confident that we were doing well enough that people would follow us,” Dan said. “We were lucky to find something close.”
Janet added that she “fell in love with being a downtown business.”
Now that Hamilton’s is west of Church Street, the Mackeys are hoping for downtown to extend to Park Street. But with the new covered patio out front, the restaurant is attracting customers on its own.
The Mackeys moved to Asheboro in 1999 from Rochester, NY. Dan was working with restaurant chains and they were happy to get away from the snow and cold of New York.
“This is a good central spot,” Dan said, “and the cost of living is low in Asheboro.”
Four years ago he realized “the corporate life was no longer for me. Our kids were grown, I knew restaurants, so we went the restaurant route.”
“A lot of people here drive to larger cities for higher-end dining. So we took the plunge and gave it a shot.”
With the decision to open their own establishment, the Mackeys researched the area and found that what was missing in Asheboro was a steak house. Initially, they considered a more casual dining experience but as they tweaked the menu they found that there was a market here for a nicer restaurant.
“A lot of people here drive to larger cities for higher-end dining,” Dan said. “So we took the plunge and gave it a shot.”
Despite its “upper casual” genre, Hamilton’s allows anything from “shorts or tuxedos. We’ve had farmers from the field,” Dan said. “We have the full spectrum. We’re not pigeon-holed.”
Even though the menu offers high-class food, there isn’t a gourmet chef, Dan said. “I’m just a guy who likes food. I’m more of a restaurant manager.”
The idea from the start was to hire young, high-energy people, he said. “With great people, you can do anything.”
Breaking with what he calls the corporate goal of maximizing profits at the expense of workers, Dan says he’s “not in it for the money. I do it because I love it.
“You hear bad things about restaurants,” he said, including bad working conditions and low pay. “But you don’t see that in good restaurants. They pay a living wage. If you treat them well and they like what they do, they stay with you.”
The pandemic has proven that point. When Hamilton’s had to close its dining room to customers, the Mackeys were forced to lay off their employees to do takeout only food service. Their two grown sons, Sean and Trevor, volunteered to help keep the restaurant going while the regular staff took advantage of unemployment income.
“It was difficult but, being in the community we’re in, we made it,” Dan said. “We didn’t lose a single employee. We brought ’em back to a safe job. We made it to the other side and we’re stronger.”
As for the customers, Dan said Hamilton’s wants to “create an environment where people want to come to work and not be scraping by. I want my legacy to be that I’m taking better care of people than I was taken care of in the corporate world. My employees are happy.”
“This is the type of restaurant we would go to in New York,” Janet said. “We didn’t find one here so we decided to build one.”
Now it’s paying off.