BY STEVEN JUPITER
BRANDON — Imagine buying a business and, only ten months later, standing in a hurricane while it floats down the street. Sheila Gearwar, the owner of Brandon House of Pizza (BHOP), had to do just that in August of 2011.
She’d just purchased the business and had barely any time to get her sea legs as an owner when Hurricane Irene dumped so much water into the Neshobe River that it lifted her building clear off its foundation and deposited it almost in the middle of Center Street.
It was a shocking image for those who were here at the time.
Newcomers to town often aren’t even aware that there used to be a structure to the left of the Blue Moon boutique, right over the waters of the Neshobe.
Irene devastated Vermont and Sheila was among the hardest hit in Brandon. But she took what she could to salvage and set up shop just across the street, on the ground floor of the Smith Block, where she’s been feeding the village ever since.
Sheila and her husband, Greg, grew up in Brandon (their wedding photo was recently featured in our Mim’s Photos section).
Greg is a contractor — he built the gazebo on the Green in front of the Brandon Inn — and they have twin boys, Jonathan and Jacob, about to turn 30.
Sheila worked for 20 years at Nexus Electronics, which had a manufacturing facility on Prospect Street, until it shut down with no notice. “One morning, we came in, and they told us all to get our stuff,” she said. She then went to work for John and Mitch Vafias, who owned BHOP then.
A few years later, John and Mitch decided to flee the harsh Vermont winters and surprised Sheila with an offer to sell her the business.
“I always wanted to run a pizza place, so I said, ‘If you help me out, I’d love to.’”
Jacob and his husband, Tyler, help manage BHOP today, taking the reins on Sheila’s days off. The ‘other adult in the kitchen’ is Missy Hutchins. Otherwise, the place is entirely staffed by teenagers.
“Give a kid a chance; they’ll work harder than any adult; I’ll tell you that right now. I don’t even have to be out there,” she said, pointing out how efficiently the kids ran the kitchen while she sat and talked.
And the kitchen is no joke: on a typical weekend night, they’ll sell 200+ pizzas, in addition to all the subs, salads, entrees, and desserts.
While many local companies struggle to find workers, Sheila has retained enough staff to produce what she needs for the restaurant and handle catering jobs, requiring as many as 30 pizzas.
“I treat people the way I want to be treated. I don’t care about money. If I didn’t enjoy this, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
She closes early when her staff has an adolescent rite of passage, such as prom or graduation, never wanting to force them to choose between their paychecks and their lives as teenagers.
And if a kid is willing to work, she’ll accommodate whatever limitations they may have. A boy with autism comes in to fold all the pizza boxes, for example.
“Kids want to work,” she said. “Give them responsibility, and they’ll rise to the challenge.”
Because of its popularity and central location, BHOP is often a hub for charity efforts: canned good drives, coat drives for local veterans, and the annual Angel Kids at Christmas.
In December, you can go down to BHOP and be anonymously assigned a young child whose parents need some help buying Christmas gifts. You’ll be given a card with their gender, age, and wish list. The gifts are dropped off at the American Legion before Christmas. Sheila and Greg choose a boy and a girl every year and often buy gifts for whichever children haven’t been assigned by the cut-off date.
Hurricane Irene hasn’t been the only challenge Sheila has had to overcome to stay in business. From 2018 until 2020, the entire downtown was under construction while Route 7 was reconfigured. Businesses suffered greatly. As it became difficult to find parking, traffic got backed up, and people started avoiding the village altogether.
With the same grit she mustered after Irene, Sheila decided to tackle the situation head-on. “I had to get creative,” she said.
So, she bought a meat slicer and started selling sandwiches to the construction workers. “They could come in and grab something to go.”
But just as the construction was wrapping up, COVID hit.
Though she remained closed during the lockdowns, she chose to reopen as soon as the state allowed.
It wasn’t without controversy, however.
She took heat from some members of the community, who went on social media to criticize the decision as endangering public health.
“I’m a sensitive person and took it to heart,” she said, “but I also do what I think is right. I wouldn’t put these kids at risk. We had no dine-in and offered curbside pickup. No one who worked here got COVID.”
Now, the future is looking pretty rosy.
Business is booming, and Sheila is in the process of redecorating. A big, new front counter is in place, and she hopes to repaint the adjoining dining room.
She’s also planning to expand her offerings to include grab-and-go salads in a refrigerated case.
A few years ago, she installed a creemee machine, which has been a big hit — she’s even been known to offer some to dogs on hot days. The flavors change every week. If you follow BHOP on Facebook, you can keep up with all the specials and changes to the menu.
A famous story around town involves a young man from New Jersey whose car broke down on Center Street while driving through downtown. His phone wasn’t working. He had no money and no way to contact anyone, but Sheila let him use her phone and fed him until he could get help.
Sheila confirmed the story, adding, “But any of the business owners on the street would’ve done the same thing. That’s what makes Brandon so special.”