Denny Antonino knew what he was getting into—working long hours of physical labor, dealing with different personalities, keeping up with the tabs. These are typical when operating a restaurant and he was ready, willing, and able to face them head on.
“At the start, we were opening until closing,” describes the 37-year-old of the hours required to run the then-newly opened restaurant Your Local. “The whole day until evening. We cleaned down by midnight. On the third year, though, things ran a lot smoother.”
By then, the team had already gotten the groove of the business, and any unforeseen problem was attributed as just another challenge that could be easily solved. When the prospect of opening another project came, he felt that he would be more prepared and less surprised given the experience of opening Your Local with business partner Nicco Santos. It should have been a walk in the park. However, things took a turn when he couldn’t even begin to, well, walk.
“I had to deal with the contractors for Hey Handsome,” he says. “And certain things would get approved without me knowing about it. Plus, the contractor couldn’t even set tiles properly. Certain repairs that should have been charged to the contractor’s account, we ended up paying. That really stressed me out. My OC was on high.”
Just before the construction of the new restaurant finished, he noticed his breathing was a lot heavier, especially after walking a couple of feet. There were also times when he would lie in bed and wake up feeling like he was being choked. Not feeling any urgency to address these issues, Antonino soldiered on for a week. When progress wasn’t evident, he finally got his health checked by a professional.
“My heart rate went through the roof when I had the stress test and so I was immediately admitted. The next day I was already prepped for a double angioplasty. They saw two blockages—90 and 95 percent. My branches were blocked, hence the back pressure.” As it turned out, he was a ticking time bomb and was due for a heart attack had he endured the pain any longer.
A network engineering graduate from Asia Pacific College, Antonino was in real estate before he switched careers and enrolled at the American Hospitality Academy for a professional culinary program. He had previously held a handful of small restaurants and bars, all of which were unsuccessful. To pay off debt, he sold units at Arya Residences in Bonifacio Global City.
Santos, a professional photographer who was getting sidetracked by an interest in cooking, became one of Antonino’s closest friends in culinary school. After finishing their studies, they were shown an available space along Esteban St., Makati City that was perfect for a restaurant and right there and then, they both verbally agreed to secure the lease. The venue came first; the concept, investment money, and partners came after. It was definitely not the traditional way of opening a restaurant.
“In general, people in surf towns don’t really care. Yes, there’s gossip and drama but people let go of things eventually,” says Denny Antonino.
During Your Local’s first year, Antonino was manning the kitchen but transitioned to doing operations, inventory, accounting, and everything else. Days off only took effect for him in the second year, not because he wanted to but because he had to. “I already knew then that I would burn out fast had I continued my bad habits.”
Apart from work stress, he would miss out meals and smoke in between breaks. “I forgot to eat because of work. Nine p.m. and I still haven’t had breakfast,” he says. “Then when I get stressed, I step out and finish three sticks of cigarettes in a span of five minutes. Straight, just inhaling them. I let the stress just get to me. I let work bleed over the rest of my life. I can’t be doing this, I thought.”
Work in progress
Antonino considers his serious medical operation as his wake-up call to have a better quality of life. To date, he confesses to still be recovering and figuring things out. Once he got his much-needed rest, he flew to Singapore and attended a four-day seminar that allowed him to gain his confidence back. It also cemented his decision to leave the metro and move to nearby La Union to be able to work closely with farmers and be away from the urban grind.
“My grandmother is from Balauan. We had roots here,” he says. “[Relocating] just made sense. Part of it is logistics, part of it is having roots and friends in La Union. It was important to end up in a surf town. The vibe is different. In general, people in surf towns don’t really care. Yes, there’s gossip and drama but people let go of things eventually. There’s just a better vibe, a good energy up here.”
He still is a partner in both Hey Handsome and Your Local, but he’s not part of operations anymore. What he is involved in is Papa Bear, a shack serving Asian smoked meats, located at the Beach Hub, a hip and happening coastal commune along MacArthur Highway. Papa Bear opened in October 2017 and things are already picking up, especially on weekends when surfers and intrigued diners drive up from Manila for a break. “I may not make lots of money in La Union, but I sure can have a better quality of life. I still smoke, but much less. I lost weight. The street I live in has no name so I can’t get fast food for delivery,” he says.
“I may not make lots of money in La Union, but I sure can have a better quality of life,” says Denny Antonino.
“When I drive to Manila, when I hit NLEX, I get a weird feeling. Not exactly dread it, but it feels a bit off. When I drive up from Manila, once I hit SCTEX and see fields, I feel much lighter.”
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 15 No. 1