Top of the Hill’s journey to conquering Chapel Hill’s coveted corner

By Molly Smith

Scott Maitland sat in a dark office with the door closed at 7 p.m. on a Monday night in 2012, his eyes red with exhaustion as he scanned over finances for the ninth time that hour. The names of his 150 employees raced through his mind. He knew their retirement plans, their health issues and their kids’ names.

The nearby bustling intersection seemed eerily quiet when a realization hit him. He called his wife.

“It’s not just about me anymore,” he told her. “I better run this business good, because it’s a whole ecosystem.”

“We’ll bounce back soon enough,” she said.

Later, Maitland would reflect with regret. The recession in 2008 made things expensive and difficult, and they haven’t gotten any easier since then.

“I appreciate everyone thinking we’re doing so well,” he said, “but unfortunately, we don’t make as much as people think. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have done any of it.”

Maitland has every key to Chapel Hill success: hard work, money, a loyal staff. He takes on the roles of father, homeowner, landlord, lecturer, restaurant owner, distiller, board member and veteran.

But he thinks of Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery as a North Carolina business, not a Chapel Hill one. It’s exemplified in the menu, the atmosphere and the customers. Chapel Hill recovered rather quickly from the economic setback. North Carolina did not, nor did Top of the Hill.

West coast to West Point: the origin of values

Growing up in Whittier, California, Maitland felt suffocated. The air was smoggy, the sun was sweltering and the streets were unsafe.

“I was ready to get the hell out of there,” he said, “and I knew when I left, I was never coming back.”

There, his longing for community was born. He remembers walking through Los Angeles crowds seeking any spark of connection, but feeling no attachment to the city. “One day,” he thought, “I’ll be a part of something more intimate.”

In 1984, Maitland hopped on a plane to West Point, New York to attend a military academy. Four years later, he would become a combat engineer in the Army.

It was there that Maitland learned the fundamentals of entrepreneurship: one — attention to detail; two — perseverance; three — servant leadership and putting your team before yourself.

He sees combat boots and camouflage mirrored in the aprons and button-ups of his restaurant staff. Top of the Hill’s doors mark the borders of the battlefield. But the main lesson that propelled Maitland forward after his time with the military wasn’t the philosophies of success he carries with him now.

“I left the Army with a firm conviction that I would never let someone stupider than me be in charge of me,” he said.

Top of the Hill defies expectations, begins to boom

Two years after returning from Operation Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia, Maitland opened Top of the Hill with an incomplete law degree, $50,000 inherited from his father and a plan to save Chapel Hill from the intrusion of a TGI Friday’s.

Again, he felt out of place in his community. He didn’t quite belong with his classmates, who were five years younger. He didn’t feel connected to the “second career” folks, who had children. He didn’t spend his free time with faculty, though he interacted with them the most.

“There was no place where these three groups could mingle,” he said. “That’s been in our DNA since the beginning. If the Carolina Inn is the living room of the university, we’re the front porch.”

Maitland trusted his gut when dozens of people advised against opening a restaurant on that corner.

“There’s no parking,” they said. “It’s not even on street level.”

Ten years later, he would be introduced to speak at town events as “the guy who kept the corner of Columbia and Franklin Street alive.”

He became a leader in the business community — his stout presence, infectious smile and booming voice couldn’t be missed at meetings of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce to the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The corner became a place where students put out tents to reserve seats for rivalry basketball games, a home to just the second microbrewery in the state to distribute beer in a can, a must-go for touring families with eager smiles and “Carolina Dad” gear. Maitland created the magic where the sidewalks meet.

He’s motivated by the countless stories from professors, students and administrators about life-changing moments in the restaurant. Things were lively for a decade after opening.

Then, in 2008, the recession hit.

The event space and bar opened in 2010. The distillery came in 2012. And with them, came success along with a slew of troubles.

“The last 10 years I’ve felt like it could all come crumbling down,” Maitland said.

An unclear future for Franklin Street foodies

Greg Overbeck, the owner of Lula’s — the restaurant across the street — and a few other eateries, empathizes with Maitland. The last time the two saw each other, they commiserated about another unlucky fall — this time about a poor football season, a hurricane and an uptick in protests downtown.

“If we could get somebody to take over the spot where Lula’s is, we’d think long and hard about giving up the lease and moving on,” Overbeck said. “I’m not optimistic about the future of the town.”

Franklin Street has become a near-impossible market to break into. Scarce parking, an oversaturated market and alternate dining options on campus have made business turnover high.

Maitland has stood at the helm of attempts to revitalize the street — most notably, lobbying for a bill that allowed Chapel Hill restaurants to sell liquor before noon on Sundays in 2017.

“Chapel Hill was getting left in the dust of the brunch trend,” said Meg McGurk, community safety planner for the town. “He (Maitland) was a gregarious leader there, and it showed in an increase in sales for the businesses.”

But every high came with a low. Brenden Dahrouge, a longtime server at Top of the Hill, said the bill didn’t help Maitland’s own restaurant.

“It wasn’t advertised enough,” he said. “People didn’t know we opened at 10 a.m. on Sundays, and servers weren’t getting tips for two hours.”

Local restaurant owners see him as an example of coveted prosperity in the fickle Franklin Street business scene. Looking from the outside at the filled seats, they wonder how he does it.

“He’s worked really hard to make that place a success, and it’s paid off for him,” Overbeck said.

Maitland doesn’t match Overbeck’s pessimism about the future. He thinks Franklin Street is the best it’s ever been.

“It has to change to grow,” he says. “It can’t be a museum.”

He plans to move the distillery to a bigger home, continue teaching entrepreneurship classes and give his children ownership of the restaurant when he retires.

“People think they have to be Mark Zuckerberg or they’ve failed,” Maitland said. “This isn’t failure. If setbacks aren’t part of success, I’m not a Chapel Hill success story.”

Edited by Jack Gallop