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Episode 14: Just Waiting On a Friend

During more than three decades as a server at Steinhilber’s, Thom Violette has built countless relationships with restaurant guests. In this episode, Thom shares some of his favorite stories, reflects on formative influences and tells why you should never hesitate to send back a dinner that’s not right.




Alvin Williams, Thom Violette and Brady Viccellio


Thom and his nephew Charlie. Before he goes to work at Steinhilber's, Thom frequently works with Charlie and other area players to develop their basketball skills.


















Episode Transcript

August 8, 2020

Brady Viccellio

If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at restaurants, then this is the podcast for you. We'll take you inside the minds of restaurant owners, chefs, bartenders, servers, basically anyone who has anything to do with food, drink or hospitality. I'm Brady Viccellio, owner of Steinhilber’s restaurant and Bella Italia on Laskin Road in Virginia Beach. Welcome to The Check podcast.

Alvin Williams

And I'm Alvin Williams, cohost of The Check and owner of Cobalt Grille restaurant in Hilltop North, Virginia Beach. Welcome to our podcast. We'll be talking about restaurants, people who work in restaurants, own restaurants and the people who like to dine in restaurants. During these times of COVID-19, the work for servers at restaurants has become particularly challenging. To get an inside look of what it's been like to be a waiter, both in general and during these past months, we welcome Thom Violette to the podcast.

Thom Violette

How’s it going fellas? This has long been a dream of mine.

Alvin Williams

Or as we affectionately call you, Thom V.

Brady Viccellio

Thom V in the house. Tom, you're no stranger to the studio because this is where we do the schedule every Sunday.

Thom Violette

Yeah, I've often pretended that I was on the podcast with these microphones. It's cool to be on.

Brady Viccellio

Well, it's cool to have you on. You do a lot with this with me, Tom. I rely on you for a lot of things. Tell everybody. How long have you been at Steihilber’s?

Thom Violette

Thirty-three years. Sometimes it seems like 33 days, sometimes it seems like 33 decades. But it's been great. We've had a lot of fun together.

Brady Viccellio

That is the restaurant business isn’t it?

Alvin Williams

How long does it feel today?

Thom Violette

Today, it feels like my first 30 minutes. I had a day off yesterday, so…

Alvin Williams

Nice.

Brady Viccellio

What are some of the things that you enjoy about your work, Thom?

Thom Violette

People, number one, the customers. We've got we're fortunate to have a very loyal clientele that have been coming in, you know, for literally generations I've done two generations of rehearsal dinners before and it's really been cool to see the kids grow up and get to know people as a family. And as part of our family, and sometimes I feel like part of their family too. It's cool.

Brady Viccellio

So two generations of rehearsal dinners. That means that maybe 30 years ago, you did the parents rehearsal dinner exam, then we do their children when they get married.

Thom Violette

There's not many places, I think, where you can say that.

Brady Viccellio

And not many employees stay at a place long enough to see that all in one place.

Thom Violette

Now, we've, you know, you guys have treated me well, it's been. I love the clientele, so there's no reason to leave.

Alvin Williams

Well, obviously, you know, Brady's your boss, so you got to say nice things about him. And I understand that.

Thom Violette

I don’t think you understand the way our relationship works.

Alvin Williams

All right. Well, I was curious. You alluded to the fact that every once in a while you might get a day off and I was wondering how you'd like to spend your time when you're not at Steinhilber’s.

Thom Violette

I have six nieces and nephews, three that live in the area and they're all active in sports. So love to kind of jump out there. I just came from the basketball court with my oldest nephew. I love to go out there and do a little bit of training with him and kind of keeps me young.

Brady Viccellio

You started a whole little Thom V basketball training camp.

Thom Violette

Quite by accident. I was actually working a lunch shift. And I got a text from somebody that had seen Charlie play, you know, over the past couple years, and he's made a lot of improvements. And, you know, with the kids not being able to do organized athletics during the early part of COVID. You know, would you be interested in training my son so we said, sure, you know, someone out there did him and then you know, about three or four others so we've had a busy summer before my work shift starts. But it's kind of a labor of love -- they pay me but only because my fiance insists on it, but I would, I'd love to be out there for free.

Brady Viccellio

And Charlie is your nephew. Your brother's brother, son, my brother son. Yeah. And he's the oldest right?

Thom Violette

Yeah, he's the oldest one. I do. He's a rising freshman at Academy. Go Bulldogs.

Alvin Williams

And you're an avid Redskins fan?

Thom Violette

I am not. That's not the official name anymore. You know?

Alvin Williams

I'm not up on American football.

Thom Violette

I think it's cleverly named the Washington football team, which is that what they officially came up with think I for this year,

Brady Viccellio

They really put their thinking caps on.

Alvin Williams

So I’m joking about that. You're a Dallas Cowboy fan.

Thom Violette

Yeah. I'm a fan of America’s Team.

Brady Viccellio

What's one of your favorite experiences of working in a restaurant, Thom?

Thom Violette

Oh, there's so many. I'll tell you what a highlight for the good and highlight that was a little more challenging. Both from from weddings. Actually. The first one really made you feel it was a very emotional wedding. Her father just passed away, the bride's father, and they were exceptionally close. And so she was emotional about losing him. It was a family from Kentucky. And predictably when they came here all they talked about was bourbon, basketball and horse racing. It was everything I ever wanted to meet from Kentucky people. They were so nice. She broke down three or four times crying. They had mentioned a story earlier about how she and her father used to always drink milk together. And when they went up to do the toast, the best man and the maid of honor gave a toast and then she wanted to say a couple words. So I looked at my busser next to me and he was pretty sharp guy, Stuart Wroughton. I said Stuart, go get a champagne glass and fill it with milk. And so he ran to get the champagne class, filled it with milk showed up handed it to her, and the entire family just broke down crying. It was a very special moment. And she pulled me aside for about five minutes afterwards and talked about how it made her feel like her father was in the room. So it was probably one of the moments I was most proud of on the floor. One of the most challenging ones we had a weather issue. The bride was running behind and we kept saying if we want to get this in, it's going to be a very, very beautiful event. But we need to go now because the skies are about to open up. So bravely, between bolts of lightning virtually, she went out there and luckily they had a gutsy officiant. They got the wedding done and came inside. The pictures were spectacular because of the clouds and you know, the sun going down. The rain, unfortunately came down a little too fast and we started to take on water downstairs. And once again, an incredible family. The water's coming in right in front of the bar. And we literally have my fiance who was a hostess at the time with a squeegee, and she would push the water out of the way long enough for somebody to order a drink, receive the cocktail and shuffle back. And then we repeat the thing all over again. And we did it all night long. And they just, they were ecstatic about the entire event and laughed about the challenges. That was the kind of some of the good and the bad as far restaurant events.

Alvin Williams

What does hospitality mean to you?

Thom Violette

It means making people feel at home when they're when they're with us. When they walk into our restaurant, we try to make it feel like they're walking into their friend's house. You know, anticipating their needs, making them feel comfortable. They could have had a stressful day on the way over but by the time they sit down in their seat, and get their drink as quickly as possible. We want everything that's gone wrong in their day to be washed away, and for them to enjoy their time with us.

Brady Viccellio

That's a difficult thing to achieve, and you have to find a special person for it. What would you say are the top characteristics that somebody should have to be a good waiter?

Thom Violette

I think you've got to have empathy. I think you've always got look at everything that's going on at the table from the customer's perspective. I think you've got to put yourself in their shoes. And you've got to say, Okay, look, how would I like to be treated in this situation, and then treat them that way. You've got to have a good work ethic. Not everything is going to go perfect, but you've got to just keep pushing through. You've got to be able to show up and be the best version of yourself every shift, which is challenging, no matter what's going on in your life. You've got to be able to put that aside and say, Look, I'm here for the guest. That's my role. And I think finally, I think you've got to be able to work as a team. That's not always easy. I always tell them we're like the Chicago Bulls and I'm like Michael Jordan. Sometimes I'm more like Steve Kerr. You've always got to work as a team. Try to help if you see somebody next to you struggling. You got to try to pick them up because everything that goes on in the restaurant on every night is a reflection of the ownership. It's a reflection of the rest of the staff. And it's a reflection of the restaurant’s reputation as a whole. We've got to try to protect that as best you can, every single shift.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, you're exactly right. And I always say the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A lot of people say that.

Thom Violette

But you started it.

Brady Viccellio

I started it. And, and no matter how good three or four people are, if you have two or three people that are weak, and they're not being helped out by the strong ones, you’re going to have a breakdown in the system.

Thom Violette

Yep, that's exactly right.

Brady Viccellio

And it's always, to me, if you're doing something the easy way, you're usually doing it the wrong way. And it's difficult to do that day in and day out. It takes a special person.

Thom Violette

Yeah. And I actually, you know, people that I've worked with over the years that have been really exceptional. I always am in awe about how some of those people make things that I know are difficult, that I know the challenges that they've overcome, but how easy they make the guests’ experience at the table look and how smooth they are with that job. That's one thing that you know, I think you constantly aspire to. But there's some people that just that I've worked with that have just been incredible.

Brady Viccellio

And a lot of guests, they take that for granted. And, Tom, I'm gonna quiz you real quick. What's my favorite compliment at the door when somebody is on their way out?

Thom Violette

Oh, our waiter was incredible. We didn't even know he was there.

Brady Viccellio

And I say which one was your waiter? And they have no idea.

Thom Violette

Exactly. Yeah, this the ghost waiter i think is our that's our goal. People know, they got great service, but they don't know how it got there.

Brady Viccellio

Right. And you almost want them to take it for granted.

Thom Violette

Yeah. Yeah. Mr. Mr. Gary was great at that. He was the best,

Brady Viccellio

But everybody knew who he was.

Alvin Williams

Speaking of your team and past experiences over the year,

Thom Violette

… your wife was incredible.

Alvin Williams

Thank you. Well, I'm curious to know if the servers of years past, 20 years 30 years, did you find them easier to work with, were they more professional -- took it as a career as opposed to the people that you work with now? Or is it the same?

Thom Violette

I think there have been exceptionally professional people at every stage. Every team that we've put together here has had exceptionally professional people. When I first started working here, I was in awe of every single server on the floor. They had been here and I was the junior waiter for my first 10 years here. Nobody left. I was the youngest one. I learned a lot. They had a very loyal following. And each one had their strengths. And I kind of tried to take Gary's ability to deliver service without anybody knowing was there. Stuart's ability to connect with guests and make the experience fun for everybody. You kind of tried to take a little bit of everyone's style.

Alvin Williams

As you mentioned, my wife Carrie did used to work here with you.

Thom Violette

She did.

Alvin Williams

She often referred to as her work husband

Thom Violette

I’m very flattered. She has phenomenal taste in men.

Alvin Williams

I agree with you. I like you more and more each day. And so she was a server, and she went on to be an event planner. And of course, she was the best person you ever worked with. Right?

Thom Violette

I would I would say that without a doubt. All right, knowing that she's listening to me. Yes, second first, Ryan, you're number one. Ryan was so excited. I was telling Brady that she was so excited when you asked me asked me be om. I could have been on Johnny Carson and she wouldn't have been any more impressed. I will tell you something real quickly. I came home the other night and she had like a funny look on her face when I walked in the door. So what's going on? She said, Well, I was just listening to The Check, but I was embarrassed to listen to it and you weren't here. I said it's a great podcast, everybody should listen to it.

Alvin Williams

So as a server, how have things changed for you since Start of COVID-19 pandemic?

Thom Violette

Well, I mostly specialize in large groups. So for me, it changed dramatically, especially early on, we weren't allowed to have any groups, any large groups at all. So I kind of had to reconnect with my roots and go back to working on the floor, something that, to be quite honest, made me extremely nervous for years. Like I would work on the floor on Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, and I would, you know, be nervous three or four days prior to the shift. We had larger groups on New Year's Eve so I could usually kind of get a couple 10s, a couple twelves and then they get home with my sanity intact. Valentine's Day, when they come in two by two like on Noah's Ark -- that always that always petrified me, but actually, I've enjoyed it. I've got a chance to wait on a lot of people that normally don't attend functions with large groups. I've got to meet a lot of new people. They're like, Hey, I always see you in here but you're always, always working a big party. And I've gotten to know them. I have two couples that come early every Sunday morning. And I feel guilty now if I'm not there on Sunday to see them.

Brady Viccellio

I feel like you’ve developed a new little following.

Thom Violette

Yeah, And it's kind of fun. I love to tell stories. So sometimes I, find myself saying, Hey, man, you got to get away from this table. You've got other people waiting for you. But it's been fun. I honestly, I've really enjoyed it. As far as the customers go, there's a couple people that have just been so supportive throughout the entire COVID-19, Joe Vorhees would come over as soon as he heard about it. Ride over in this little golf cart with his 12 daughters draped all over and buying gift certificates, getting shrimp to go. Maybe an orange crush or two or three. And, you know, that's been really fun when we made the decision to open for lunch. The first faces I see are my mom and my aunt coming up to have their weekly lunch together and that was awesome. That kind of brought a tear to my eye.

Brady Viccellio

They've been very supportive.

Thom Violette

Yeah the Franklin family has been awesome. But it's been humbling to see how caring people were and how they were eager to reach out as soon as the things started. I thought it was awesome.

Brady Viccellio

It was awesome. And it still is, people are still doing it.

Thom, of course, we strive for 100% success and to make every dish perfect for every person. But you can't please all the people all the time, and some people wonder about the best way to complain or send back food if they're unhappy. From your perspective as a server, can you give us some advice on this?

Thom Violette

The guests are doing us a favor by pointing out that we have not met their expectations with that dish. And for them to sit there and be unhappy with your dinner – get the waiter’s attention as quickly as you can and let them fix it as quickly as you can so you can enjoy your dinner and your experience. You're doing us a favor by letting us know that we didn't get it right that time. And we greatly appreciate the opportunity to get it right. So the waiters should make that clear as soon as you bring up there is a problem, Hey, thank you very much. We appreciate you letting us know about this. And we're going to get it right for me this time.

Brady Viccellio

Hey, that's great advice.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, I think that's excellent advice. It's always nice when people are polite about it. Maybe people can say something like, you know, this dish is not to my liking. Not that it's bad, or that it's you know, but I'm just not sure what the wording is that a customer should say that doesn't make them feel or look bad, and doesn't make the waiter who is obviously is not cooking the food. It's not his fault or her fault.

Brady Viccellio

I think sometimes people feel uncomfortable complaining in front of other guests at the table. But I think your point is that it's not something to be ashamed of. And it can be worded in a way that's more constructive.

Alvin Williams

Correct. So how do you think restaurants are going to be once we get through all this COVID thing? Do you believe it's going to go back to the way it was? Or do you think we're headed? I think we're headed for new territory here.

Thom Violette

Well, I think that a lot of the cleaning measures and precautions will stay. We did a lot of this stuff before but I've noticed a lot of people with more attention to detail as far as food handling and cleaning pre and post shift. I hope that stays I hope we've done a good job of making the guests feel comfortable here and made some new friends so hopefully, it's the same environment as it was prior. I know here, I think the outdoor lawn is going to be here to stay.

Brady Viccellio

It's gonna be hard to hard to people they can’t eat out there.

Thom Violette

Yeah, it's gonna be hard to put that genie back in the bottle. We've got three new cabanas out there too. So that'll be kind of a new feature. We'll be the same restaurant that we always were. And hopefully just everybody's a little more relaxed. I mean, it is, you know, high pressure time for everybody and hopefully we can all get back to having a good time.

Alvin Williams

So you're settling in for another 30 years? 33 years?

Thom Violette

33 years. I got here because my dear friend Josh Renneger got sick of buying me Slurpees after we played basketball after school, so he said, I'm getting you a job. So he brought me up to Steinhilber’s and I got hired on the spot and jumped on the floor as a busser. We were closed on Sunday and Monday at the time, so I didn't ever have to miss to miss a pro football game. So it seemed like the perfect job for me and I’m still here.

Alvin Williams

Well, thank heaven for 7-11.

Thom Violette

Yeah. As Josh constantly reminds me, I gave you a career. What more do you want from me? I guess I just want to say that, you know, I've been I've gotten to know both these guys. Brady. Of course, since We were both kids and Alvin for quite a while since, you know, through Brady and to be on this podcast. These are two of the best guys in the business, Brady I grew up with, he used to come over when I was working as a busser. And he'd eat dinner every night and every night he'd leave his steak laying around. Every night. I'd hide his steak from him. Every night he get mad wouldn't be able to find it. So we we've been pulling each other's legs for a long time. It's been a great three decades here. I can I can tell you, I feel like I feel like the third Viccellio brother. And for those of you that don't know, Robert Viccellio is the producer on this. And I always speculate how my life would have been different if Robert Viccellio was running the was running Steinhilber’s. One thing for sure is we'd have more sports on TV here.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, yeah, it's true. And I think you would have missed less sporting events.

Thom Violette

Exactly. It would have been easier to get a day off for a big game.

Alvin Williams

Well, thank you, Thom for being here. You've been an excellent guest.

Thom Violette

It was a lot of fun. A dream come true.

Alvin Williams

We hope you'll join us again another time.

Thom Violette

Oh, sure. Every week.

Brady Viccellio

We've got an extra microphone.

Thom Violette

Thanks a lot, fellas.

Brady Viccellio

Thank you, Thom for coming. I'm Brady.

Alvin Williams

And I'm Alvin.

Brady and Alvin

And this is The Check.




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