Aponte’s Pizzeria received national attention and a $10,000 celebrity makeover when the Food Network show “Restaurant: Impossible” came to town this summer.
Owners Tony and Sommer Aponte hoped the national exposure would give their pizzeria the boost it needed to overcome years of slumping sales.
Now, three months after their episode aired, the Apontes say it wasn’t enough for the struggling eatery.
“I’ve had to cut back, and I still have a situation with the IRS. I’ve just let two people go,” said Tony. “I will keep the doors open until my luck runs out.”
- Video: Celebrity chef Robert Irvine in Mason
- Photos: Aponte’s Pizzeria gets “Restaurant: Impossible” makeover
When that is, Tony can’t say. Business is at an all-time low with sales down 30 percent over last year, and he still owes the IRS back taxes of about $100,000, he said.
“The hype has died down and people have seen the inside and tried the new menu,” said Sommer. “Most of our business is on Friday and Saturday nights, but Friday and Saturday doesn’t pay the bills.”
Aponte’s decline began in 2011 when the restaurant moved into its new and larger location at 312 Reading Road. Sales plummeted as the restaurant struggled to keep up with higher overhead, said Tony.
The New Jersey native hoped to reverse the downward spiral with a high-profile renovation and menu from the cable TV show.
The show, now in its seventh season, features down-on-their-luck business owners. Celebrity chef Robert Irvine and his team of designers then have two days and a $10,000 budget to whip their restaurants into shape.
Sommer said she and an employee applied for the show because they thought sparks would fly between the fiery restaurateur and Irvine, a brash and brawny British chef known for smashing walls with a sledgehammer and dispensing tough love to business owners.
After a year with no response, the Apontes assumed they hadn’t made the cut. Then came a phone call in March.
Taping, which took place June 12-13, attracted hundreds of eager spectators, who crowded the restaurant on the night of the taped unveiling.
Under a contract signed by every featured restaurant, the Apontes agreed to give up full control of their restaurant and stick to any new changes for several months – not an easy task for a restaurateur Irvine called “one of the most stubborn owners” he’d ever met.
“The reality is, you’ve got no choice whether you like what Robert Irvine has to say or not. You’re locked in,” said Tony.
When Irvine visited Aponte’s, the restaurant was $250,000 in debt. The chef said the decor was dingy and dated and criticized the food as bland and uninspired.
Tony, who says the couple met Irvine for the first time on camera, fired back the retort, “Maybe your taste buds are off,” and stormed out of the restaurant.
The heated exchange would later earn Aponte a spot as No.4 on the show’s top five most stubborn business owners.
“I never thought he’d nail me on my food as bad as he did,” said Tony.
After Irvine brought the Apontes to conduct a blind taste test at Mason Fire Station 51 in which the crowd preferred his recipes to Aponte’s by a 2-1 margin, Tony conceded defeat.
“It was hard to see Tony going through the beatdown Robert was giving him on things he thought he was doing right for years,” said Sommer. “I did a lot of crying, but you have to put your trust in these people who said it will all be worth it in the end.”
For restaurant owner Lisa Kendall, appearing on “Restaurant: Impossible” saved her business.
Her North Bend casual-fare eatery, Rohrer’s Tavern, was featured on the show last fall.
Business has remained steady since the episode aired in November 2012, and she’s slowly digging her way out of $120,000 in debt, she said.
“From my experience, it’s tough love and they are there to help you,” Kendall said.
For Tony, who says he continues to work 80-90 hours a week, that success remains elusive.
While the show gave the pizzeria an instant boost in sales – about 65 percent higher in the first two weeks after the episode aired Aug. 25 – business eventually slowed.
Then, with the 16-day federal government shutdown in October, sales came to an agonizing crawl.
The Apontes cite the restaurant’s location in the city’s historic downtown business district as the chief reason for their dwindling business.
Businesses in the area, which are predominantly small and independently owned, find it difficult to compete with nearby retail juggernauts Deerfield Towne Center and Voice of America Centre, he said.
“Everybody around me is feeling the same pinch,” said Tony.
“In the old part of Mason, you have a lot of dentists’ and doctors’ offices and a couple of little restaurants,” said Sommer. “In Deerfield, you can shop and eat. In old Mason, you can eat and go to the dentist. After a certain time of night, it’s like a ghost town.”
The Apontes say they have no regrets appearing on the show. His only regret, Tony said, is opening his business in Mason.
“People think that Mason is an up-and-coming area, but the more choices you give people you always have to give something away to get them in the door – and the more you give away, the harder business is,” he said.
My day in the limelight
When “Restaurant: Impossible” announced it needed volunteers to help with the renovation of Aponte’s Pizzeria, my sister Megan Blanton was quick to sign me and her up. We were among about 100 volunteers who turned out in the two days of filming to gut the eatery, paint walls and tables, assemble light fixtures, scrape up floor tile and polish the restaurant to gleaming perfection for its public debut.
After working the 8 p.m. to midnight shift the first day of filming, we were invited back the second day, where we got a firsthand look at much of the behind-the-scenes action. During the dinner service, a producer grabbed us and asked us to run food. If you watch carefully, you can catch the briefest glimpse of us in the kitchen during an interview with host Robert Irvine. As fans of the show, it was fun to be part of the action, but it felt even better to help a business in a city I’ve covered for the past three years and have grown to love.