From Pandemic Nightmare to Overnight Success
By Karen Hendricks | Photography by Casey Martin
Think back to February 2020. We were on the brink of a crisis, the magnitude of which none of us could have fathomed. Now imagine launching a business on February 28, right before the pandemic hit.
That’s exactly what happened to Kate and Tony Hill of CJ’s Takeout & Late Nite Bites on Carlisle Street in Gettysburg.
“We opened for our first weekend, then the college kids left for spring break and never came back,” Kate recalls. “Our original plan went up in flames.”
But their business model, based upon takeout, is actually what saved them.
“Without the support of the local community, we never would have made it,” Kate says.
Amid restaurant pivots and shutdowns, here’s the lowdown on their unlikely—and tasty—success.
Cooking up a Dream
Kate and Tony Hill, both 33, have been married for three years, but they’ve known each other since their days at Gettysburg Middle School. They dated in high school. In fact, when they were 16, she coined his nickname, C.J., shortening his full name of Craig Anthony Hill Jr.
In 2019, Tony started dreaming about a side business. He’d been working at Hoffman Homes for Youth for six years and needed a change.
He hit upon an idea: He noticed there weren’t many options for late-night nibbles in Gettysburg.
“Other than Lincoln Diner, everything else in Gettysburg closes at 8 or 9 p.m.,” says Tony, who grew up learning how to cook from his mom and siblings. At family cookouts, Tony was always the one manning the grill.
Opening a restaurant felt like the right fit, and soon he found the “perfect” location at 150 Carlisle St. Longtime Gettysburg residents would know it as the former Beanie’s Shoe Repair shop. It’s near Gettysburg College, where students could be primary customers.
“It’s not up to code for a restaurant, so we called Uncle Moe for advice,” says Tony. He’s referring to Eldridge Moses of Uncle Moe’s Soul Food Truck, one of Gettysburg’s longest-running food truck businesses.
“He had an extra food truck sitting out back,” Kate says. “And he said ‘Why don’t you give it a shot?’”
Moses helped them devise the perfect plan—to cook onsite in the food truck as their mobile kitchen while utilizing the building for storage and prep, freezer space, and a dishwasher. Kate would continue her full-time job as an executive assistant at the Gettysburg Foundation, while Tony would leave his position with Hoffman Homes. He would be a full-time dad to the couple’s two young daughters during the day and work evenings at the restaurant.
Takeout Taking Shape
Deep-fried deviled eggs, served with homemade spicy mustard, were one of Tony’s first concoctions to make the menu. Cheeseburgers, cheesesteaks, and onion rings would satisfy late-night cravings. So would corn dogs and Tony’s Pizza Dog—a grilled hot dog, sliced, with two mozzarella sticks in the middle, topped with marinara sauce and cheese, all tucked into a hot dog roll. Deep-fried Snickers bars were the first decadent desserts.
Opening weekend was a huge success, then spring break and the pandemic hit.
“We went back and forth on whether to open,” Kate remembers. “We felt a little safer working outdoors, so we decided to open for dinner hours for locals. People liked the idea they could call to order, and we’d take orders to cars. Without the locals, we never would have made it.”
“We had weekends that were great, but then when it was rainy or snowy, things slowed down, and we were panicking,” Kate continues. “Figuring out our hours and days was definitely stressful—the unknown was scary, and it was a roller coaster.”
“We were taking it one day at a time,” says Tony.
In addition to supportive, regular customers, the couple’s family is key.
“We are 100% family-run,” Kate says. “My mom helps with eggs [they currently sell about 100 deep-fried deviled eggs every week—all of which need to be hard-boiled first], Tony’s sister helps babysit, my dad works with us, and my sister Kelly does our social media.”
And this isn’t the first time the sisters have worked together.
“My dad Randy Phiel was one of the owners of the re-enactment,” says Kelly Phiel. “So Kate and I ran the command center basically our whole lives—we worked together every summer.”
Phiel, a Gettysburg Middle School teacher off for the summer, was working at CJ’s on the day we stopped by.
“Our family was close even before this, so we just naturally came together to help,” she says. “I want them to be successful, and if they can make it through a year of Covid, they can make it through anything.”
Takeout or Dine in
Once restaurant restrictions lifted, the Hills added outdoor seating and late-night lighting to provide an al fresco dining space.
The growing menu now includes CJ’s best-selling item—deep-fried Oreos with a satisfying crunch on the outside and gooey, melt-in-your-mouth sweetness inside. Tony enjoys the challenge of deep frying unique dessert items, so you never know what else you’ll find on the menu—honeybuns, brownies, or even ice cream.
Salads are relatively new, including the Buffalo chicken salad, which features one of CJ’s now-famous deep-fried eggs, shredded cheese, and topped with either French fries or onion rings.
It’s the unique, tasty touches, like Tony’s homemade spicy mayo atop the angus beef cheesesteak playing off the tangy pickles, that make everything so satisfying—and fun.
Looking back, the couple counts their blessings in many ways. Because their kitchen is a food truck, they’re now booking weddings and winery events. And that all came about because of Moses.
“Moses has been a blessing—a great mentor. We can pick up the phone and call him,” says Kate. “I’m also excited for the fall semester—a full semester—[at Gettysburg College]because we haven’t experienced normalcy yet. That’s really exciting.”
CJ’s Takeout & Late Nite Bites
150 Carlisle St., Gettysburg
Check their website, Facebook, or Instagram page for current days and hours.