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  • The Check Podcast

Episode 16: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

The Check welcomes Alvin’s business partner Gary Black, who’s been the co-owner of Cobalt Grille since it opened 20 years ago. They discuss what it takes to have a successful partnership and look back at the local restaurant scene and how it’s evolved over the years.





Episode Transcript

August 30, 2019

Brady Viccellio

If you've ever wondered about what goes on behind the scenes at restaurants, then you're in the right place. This podcast takes you inside the minds of restaurant owners, chefs, bartenders and servers --basically anyone who has anything to do with food drink or hospitality. I'm Brady Viccellio, owner of Steinhilber’s restaurant and La Bella Italia, on Laskin Rd. 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, Virginia Beach. Welcome to our podcast. We'll be talking about restaurants, people who work in restaurants who own restaurants and the people who like to dine in restaurants. Brady, often we get to talk about who we work with and our partners and I know your mom's your partner, Jeannie, and she's awesome. And for the most part you get along I think.

Brady Viccellio

It's amazing how well I do get along with my mom. We have a relationship. That is mother-son, of course. And she's also kind of my buddy and we get along really well in the business and we laugh together and we drink together.

Alvin Williams

But the end of the day, she gets the last word because she's a mom. So she's always right.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, we're technically 5050 partners. It doesn't exactly work that way. She may not go to as many battles as me, but I don't think that she ever loses them.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, Brady, you’ve got a great partnership with your mom. I also have a great business partnership with Gary Black, who is the co-owner over at Cobalt Grille restaurant in Virginia Beach.

Brady Viccellio

Welcome, Gary. It's great to have you here on The Check today.

Gary Black

Guys, thanks for having me here. I know it's gonna be a lot of fun.

Alvin Williams

We often get to speak to Brady about his relationship and partnership with his mom and how they run their restaurants together. And I thought it'd be cool to have you here so you can tell everyone how wonderful I am.

Gary Black

Well, I appreciate the invite and I'll work on that.

Brady Viccellio

How did you first connect with Alvin and what led to your business partnership?

Gary Black

Years ago, I had the Coyote Cafe on 22nd Street at the Virginia Beach oceanfront. And Alvin would come in socially. And we knew each other from the restaurant business. One day he was telling me he was interested in doing a restaurant. And so we talked about it for a bit and we had a few meetings, and he asked me if I want to be a consultant. I said, Yeah, we'll sit down, we'll talk. And then after a few more meetings, he asked me if I wanted to partner up, and I said absolutely. I knew Cobalt Grille was going to be a winner.

Brady Viccellio

So at that time you were the chef at Le Chambord?

Alvin Williams

So what exactly happened was, I had pretty much just got here from England and was working at Le Chambord. And I just started and I was kind of what do you call it like a unicorn. I'm the only Black French-cooking English chef in Virginia Beach and a couple of the girls that I was working with at Le Chambord would take me out to different restaurants and introduce me to people and restaurant tours. And one of them was Phil Decker and Cal at Crocs. And they were always very nice to me. And another one with the guys that the Raven, which I think has just closed after 50 years, and they just tore it down, Bobby Ricky. And then they took me to your restaurant, Coyote. And every Thursday, I think he used to have these Margarita specials. You have this yellow cup. It was a great concept, the yellow cup, the coyote on there, and that was branding, which I didn't know nothing about branding back then. And I would just go there and get my yellow cup and get my Margarita. I think it was two bucks for refills. And I will just stand and watch Gary in operation and he'd be at the front door and he's greeted. Greeting people and saying hi and, and he's checking the security. And then he's watching his cooks. And I'm just watching this guy and he's at the front door and I'm just in a corner and just kind of hanging. This guy knows what he's doing up front in the front of the restaurant, and I knew that that was the missing link that I didn't have when I was building Cobalt. You know, I had another business partner and he helped -- we actually physically built it together. Actually, all three of us did. And, and I knew that I was great in the back of the house, and my other partner was good in the office, but I needed that front of the house person. And I saw Gary and I thought, this is the guy that I need to ask. So one day I did.

Brady Viccellio

Gary, what are some of the ways that you complement Alvin? Sounds like he's telling us that you were strong in the front of house and he was strong in the back of the house?

Gary Black

That's our symbiotic relationship. He's amazing in the kitchen. I mean, great talent. Just his food knowledge and putting plates together. Just incredible. I take care of the front of house experience. Greeting customers. Taking care of servers, waitstaff, bartenders and some of the some of the day-to-day operations to you know, the mundane stuff -- insurance and the stuff that.

Alvin Williams

All the things I don't like to deal with.

Gary Black

Alvin's got the bigger vision for the for the kitchen and for the food. And as soon as I get down to those, those little details that not the exciting stuff of the restaurant, but…

Alvin Williams

Hey, it's got to be done. Gary, I know that the restaurant business is obviously in your blood. And it's been a lifelong passion for you. I think the first taste of the restaurant life for you was in your native Philadelphia, where your grandfather and your uncles operated the Mayfair Diner, which is one of the oldest diners in the country. Tell us about those early years and what made you want to get into the restaurant business.

Gary Black

It was my mom who would take me and my sister to the diner and my uncles, they were in the kitchen, back of the house and we would just see all the interaction with the customers and hear the stories. It was nonstop -- the diner was open 24-7-365 and my cousins worked there, my aunts, my uncle’s grandfather was there. So just got a just a really great feeling; the family dynamic was there. And that was my kind of introduction into it.

Brady Viccellio

It seems like a good opportunity to be part of that family business in Philadelphia. What brought you here to Virginia Beach?

Gary Black

Well, toward the end of my high school career, looking at colleges and this is pre internet. I got a brochure, you know, a pamphlet from a college fair. And it was from Old Dominion University. On the cover this pamphlet, there was a sailboat, there was a beach and I was like, hey, this looks pretty cool. And it was just south of Philadelphia, not that far away, yet on the ocean, and I just started learning how to surf on the Jersey Shore. Oh, yeah, they had a good business program too. So I decided to apply to Old Dominion and that was came down here, in 81. And I never left.

Alvin Williams

Is that why you're always late for work because you’re surfing in the morning, and I can never get you on the phone in the mornings?

Gary Black

If there's waves, you know, I'm gonna be out there.

Alvin Williams

So you've worn a lot of hats during your decades in restaurants. You've been waiter, bartender, manager, and owner, what are some of the things you've enjoyed most about each of those roles?

Gary Black

It's creating a great experience for the guests. They're gonna be talking about these memories that come in for either just a regular night of dining to get some great food, great drinks, or it could be a birthday or an anniversary or it could be, you know, a wedding, rehearsal dinner, whatever. It's just creating these memories for these people for years and years to come. They're going to look back --maybe the taste of food or smell or sensation, the date, it'll bring them back in. All these family members have gotten together and it's just really rewarding to be able to be part of that and help create a great experience.

Alvin Williams

What do you think is most difficult? Is it being a server? Is it a bartender? We know that all these positions are tough, down to the dishwasher in the back. The dishwashers I think are the backbone of the restaurant business. We can't do it without them no question about that. But I think as restaurateurs, all of us, Brady, you know, as well that we need to know all the jobs in the restaurant. I didn't. I do now. I can. I can host a little bit,

Gary Black

Yes, you can.

Alvin Williams

I can make a drink or cocktail now. But I didn't in the beginning. When we started 20 years ago, I didn't know those things.

Brady Viccellio

I don't think expertise is really necessary in all the jobs, but you have to understand each job and what job means. You’ve got to know what it is to wash dishes. You don't necessarily have to be the fastest dishwasher on the whole staff. You have to know what it means to wait on tables, but you don't have to be a great waiter yet. To know what it means to be a cook, you don't have to be a great cook.

Alvin Williams

It helps if you are great at those things, though.

Gary Black

The cross training is definitely important. I definitely agree with that -- that you know all aspects of the business. That's why I started in the dish pit. And that was not my favorite spot. But again, we realize that without competent help in the dish pit, you're not going to run the restaurant right. You're not going to have everything, all the utensils you need, the plates you need

Alvin Williams

I actually like washing dishes. It's because you're in your own little space, and you get to splash around with the water. And people need you, you know, they need the glasses and they need the silverware so they kind of depend on you. So you feel important, and it's just fun.

Brady Viccellio

I think it's a huge sense of accomplishment. When all those dirty dishes come in, and you make them clean.

Alvin Williams

Yeah. And they go and then you get station spotless, spic and span, back to shiny again.

Brady Viccellio

It's the easiest station to get dirty and the easiest station to get clean. I'd love it back there.

Gary Black

Yeah, I think I need a little more interaction up front.

Alvin Williams

Maybe you need some more time in the dish pit?

Gary Black

Absolutely not.

Brady Viccellio

Gary, Coyote Cafe was the first restaurant you owned. What year did you start Coyote? And how long did you run it?

Gary Black

Actually, that was the second restaurant I was a partner in. The first one was, I want to say it was probably ’86 or ‘87. It was called the Tidewater Campus Cub. Just a little hole in the wall. It was an opportunity. He was a small part of it, but a managing owner and we used to book entertainment there we would have wild kingdom and bone shakers and panic, just different bands, sold pizza and beer and it was my first.

Brady Viccellio

Sounds like a great spot.

Gary Black

It was it was a fun little spot. But after that I had the opportunity to partner up with Rick Maggard and Todd Jurich who started the Coyote back in ‘89. And Rick and I partnered up right after that and I added on the cantina section to the building. You know, it was a pretty good relationship for years. And then build it up and it became quite the spot when it was on the block in Virginia Beach.

Brady Viccellio

I remember it to be very popular. The days that you were on the block predated my drinking years.

Gary Black

Yeah, I get that a lot now. I've been doing this a long time. That's what I'm talking about--we've got some beverages. We got some… What is this?

Server

This is a smoked peach maple bourbon smash.

Alvin Williams

Hey, Gary likes bourbon. So, perfect.

Gary Black

Absolutely. I was wondering if this was going to show up. From the previous podcasts, you know, you guys are clinking wine glasses. I was going, “Man, I need to get on that show.”

Alvin Williams

Gary that Coyote you were talking about with Rick, that was on the oceanfront right?

Gary Black

It was on 22nd Street, yeah.

Alvin Williams

And then later on you moved the Coyote?

Gary Black

Yes. Moved up to Laskin Road back in 96 - 97. Then partnered up with Richie Boner and Andy Stein.

Brady Viccellio

That previous location, that's Lunacy now. Is that where that was?

Gary Black

Yes. Actually it ended up I was fortunate to be able to purchase that building and there was a couple of spots were in there after I moved. Coyote, we had. We had we had Mojo's Voodoo Grill and we had like a Route 44 there was a few spots and then finally, Colleen Cunningham, we worked out an arrangement.

Brady Viccellio

Are you still the landlord?

Gary Black

No, sold the building to Colleen.

Alvin Williams

interesting how many restaurants come and go? Because then your next spot was over on Laskin. Right? So after that, it became what? After Coyote. Jack's Bistro. It was a prime something steak house.

Brady Viccellio

Metropolitan Oyster Bar.

Alvin Williams

That's right. Yeah. And now it's Bay Local.

Brady Viccellio

Your place there on 22nd Street was popular throughout the ‘90s, as well as down on Laskin Road. What are some of your more memorable stories of that tenure, particularly on the block where things can get a little wild and crazy?

Gary Black

Yes. Well, it was a really small space for parking in the back. Maybe you could fit five, six cars back there. And I would at the time I would have doormen because it would get a little bar like. I mentioned those Margarita nights on Thursday night. I mean, hundreds of people would come through and get those Margaritas. I guarantee you there's still thousands of cups in the Virginia Beach area with a logo and the brand on there. In order to get enough parking for people some of the doormen I would have to go out and they would actually physically move -- maybe a small VW -- they would have to pick it up and move it to create more space to park. Just fun stuff like that. Those Margaritas created a lot of interesting memories for a lot of people.

Brady Viccellio

Margaritas tend to sneak up on you a little bit.

Gary Black

No question.

Alvin Williams

So Gary, you worked at a lot of places. La Broche was a little bit before my time. So La Broche was the restaurant that my old owner Frank Spapen and Louisa Spapen had before they opened up Le Chambord, which is where I first worked when I came here. So you worked at La Broche and Sir Richard’s Supperclub and Offshore Café. Were there any other places you worked before you owned your own spot?

Gary Black

That was that was pretty much it down here. You had learned a lot from Frank Spapen at La Broche. Worked for Frank Bauman at Sir Richard's -- some great learning experiences.

Alvin Williams

Tell me about Sir Richard’s because I remember you telling me stories how things were. So you're older. So there were no posi-touch systems where you could ring in the checks and you had to do everything either by hand or memory.

Gary Black

We used to have to memorize the entire table as a server. It didn't matter how big or small the party was -- party of two or a party of 16. And you have to remember the whole order, everything from the entrée, the appetizer, the salad dressing, the drink and you couldn't write a thing down. And then you dashed to the wait station to jot it all down, send it the kitchen, and that was interesting. A lot different than now.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, I couldn't do that now for sure.

Brady Viccellio

You had a pen and paper, though? I mean, they were available back then. Or did that predate the ballpoint?

Gary Black

We were not we were not allowed to write it at the table. You could not write a thing down.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, I encourage servers to do that. I think that when you have to memorize an order, you pay more attention and you pay more attention to your guests. You get to get to know their needs a little bit better, you just spend that much more concentration with them. And I mean, I've always encouraged that. We live in such a different world now and everything is in and out. And some people just aren't able to retain that information for the full four minutes it takes.

Alvin Williams

Can you could you imagine doing that now for 16 people? And you know, this one wants sauce on the side. And this one's lactose intolerant. This one needs gluten free and you’ve got to remember all these people's different things. You can't leave the table and you're not writing it down. That's some strong memory testing right there.

Brady Viccellio

As a follow up to that, how have you seen expectations of customers change over the years as it relates to food and the service and the atmosphere?

Gary Black

You have to offer some more options. I mean, the restaurant pie has gotten a lot a lot bigger now. Many more restaurants, gluten-free options, vegetarian options, you've got to stay relevant and adapt with the times. Like I said, the pie’s gotten a lot bigger. There's so many more options for guests to go out there and, and pick and choose. I think with the Food Network now and all the restaurant shows, the public has become more discerning, and they expect a lot more -- a higher level of food quality and service than maybe they did back in the day.

Alvin Williams

Gary, what are some of the specific things that you've seen in the local restaurant scene evolve over the year?

Gary Black

Like Brady alluded to earlier, the technology is probably the biggest factor. The servers can now put every food order in instantaneously. Put all the options in there, you can make notes. You can have notes for each of your guests, your regular customers that come in over the years, you can note their anniversaries or birthdays. Their likes, their dislikes. That's a that's a big part of it now,

Alvin Williams

As the three of us know, it can be super challenging to have a life outside our restaurants and normal people have weekends and our weekends,you know, we're buried in our restaurants. Gary, I know you've got a great family and for kids, I've enjoyed watching them all grow up. What kind of things do you do when you're not at work to unwind? And what do you do when you're hanging out with your family?

Gary Black

We do really love to hang out at the beach. It's tough now to get all the kids together, get the whole family together, but we love hitting the beach and just hanging out. Surfing is definitely a passion of mine and travel with my wife Charisse. Many kudos to her for keeping everybody together and it's difficult for holidays for us. And I will tell quick story about when Charisse and I first started dating back in the day. Valentine's Day was coming up and it's one of the busiest days of the restaurant business. So I know she was all excited and she's like, “Well, what are we what are we going to do for Valentine’s Day?” Well, honey, we can meet after the restaurant. We can celebrate the day before or the day after. But it's going to be impossible. I said, you know, Valentine's Day, tough. New Year's Eve, tough. Mother's Day, tough. And that got to be pretty difficult after having, you know, we get four kids together. So that was a challenge.

Brady Viccellio

Weekends and holidays for us mean we work harder.

Gary Black

Yeah, no question. I know Alvin with you with your one-year-old Penelope, you're going to be experiencing all these things you watched me go through.

Alvin Williams

I know. But it's good because it's kind of a role reversal. So whereas I used to back you up all the time, now it's payback.

Brady Viccellio

Gary, tell me a little bit about the personalities that you both have and how they go together.

Gary Black

Alvin’s back of the house skills are amazing. And he runs that show back there so well. You know, I just try to keep up with the front of the house. Make sure everything's running smoothly up there. Servers, bar, the customers are getting a great experience from the second they walk in the door to when they finally finish their dessert and are heading out.

Brady Viccellio

But the Alvin and Gary dynamic. I’ve known you both for a pretty long time and I think I know Alvin a little bit more personally than I know you, Gary. But I know that you all have a good working relationship. And I think a good personal relationship.

Gary Black

That's the one thing about having a partner in the restaurant is somebody's got to be there. So it's one of us is at the restaurant. Always. If there's something going on outside socially, I'll back Alvin up. If I've got something going on, he's going to back me up. It's just always worked out really well. We both make sacrifices, like everyone in the restaurant -- it's not a normal lifestyle. No question about that and my family has made sacrifices. I know Alvin's has as well, when you're trying to please so much of the public -- when they're out and about or they're having a great weekend on their time off, that's when we work the hardest. And we both strive to make their experience the best. And Alvin's in the back in the house and I'm front of the house and it's just made a good duo. We've got a feast in front of us now.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, I let out to my chefs that we were meeting at noon and they're trying to impress us and they bought burrata and figs, which I just wolfed mine down while Gary was talking and they've brought this clam poutine kind of thing. And I had that for dinner last night. It's really good.

Alvin Williams

We’re gonna invite Gary back more often. The food doesn't come out like this normally.

Brady Viccellio

No, it doesn't. I think maybe one of these guys, maybe Gary fired him in the past, and he’s trying to prove something.

Gary Black

It does look amazing. I’m about to taste the vegan merata.

Alvin Williams

So Gary this time of the year, normally we're just gearing up and getting ready to do one of our big catering jobs of the year, which is catering the VIP section for the American Music Festival. This is not going to happen this year, or I hear it might may happen virtually. How do you feel about that? You know that we've lost that big catering job and what's going on with COVID? And how do you feel about all that?

Gary Black

We are not the only ones that that are going to lose in this business. I feel just really, really bad for everybody that can’t experience that live music every year. It's just an amazing event. Just the whole weekend, the whole week. I look forward to it every single year. It's my favorite catering job. You stick your toes in the sand and you get to serve a few thousand people. Experience our food on the beach, great music and now obviously with COVID and everything being done virtually, people are really missing out on the full experience. It's just heartbreaking. And everybody's kind of going through the same.

Alvin Williams

It's like when we found out the news that they were going to do the concert virtually, I think we both said at the same time, “Can we serve food?” There's no virtual food going on. So we've lost out on that business. But hopefully it'll come back next year.

Gary Black

Hopefully. So it's everyone's praying for recovery, and everybody's praying for things to get back to normal -- as normal as they can.

Alvin Williams

After all this, what do you think's going to happen with our with our business, the state of our business?

Gary Black

Gosh, it's tough right now. I mean, we've seen it, it's everybody. People who are coming out that are willing to come out. A lot of these folks just want to be outside. They want to be in the fresh air and still socially distant, and they're coming in but as the cooler weather comes in, it's gonna be a lot tougher for us to accommodate these folks. We'll see if people are more willing to come inside. There's more inside dining. We're still socially distanced. We're doing everything we can. We're masked up, gloved up. We're following all the rules, but it's in people's mindset right now. It's just, it's tough to overcome that -- that fear of COVID.

Alvin Williams

How are you planning on taking the winter months coming, Brady?

Brady Viccellio

I'm thinking that when you go to Colorado, a place like that, to a ski resort, there's always a lot of outdoor dining. People are just dressed for it, and they sit outside and eat and there's snow around and people outside just like they're outside here in the summertime. I'm thinking that maybe that will happen here. I'm thinking that maybe people will start to get used to the cold and be out in it a little bit more than they have in the past. And, you know, thankfully our winters are pretty temperate. I mean, we we've got cold snaps, but there's only really about a month of really cold weather that you're consistently uncomfortable outside. So I'm hopeful that if it continues like this we'll be able to continue doing outdoor activities dining and events.

Alvin Williams

It's a good point. Maybe some heaters and fire pits and everyone can be like snow bunnies and might be a little new adventure. It’s a good point. Guy you've had a lot of jobs in a lot of different places. Which has been the most fun for you?

Gary Black

I'd have to say probably Offshore Cafe. Again that was on the block at the Virginia Beach oceanfront. Just a little hole in the wall but we had to bartend and a DJ and also shuck oysters and this is all going on from a small bar at the same time and I you know had it would have a side bartender with me, Dave Beshay, he was amazing. We'd be serving drinks, taking care of customers. And this is pre internet again. So we actually had albums back there. We would have to change albums. When CDs came out, that was that was the biggest thing going so we could pop in CDs. So you're DJing, you're making cocktails, shucking, we should do all these oyster shooters. So it was a lot going on there and it was a lot of fun. At the end of the evening all the block bars right on Atlantic, all those employees and customers they would they would get done. Two o'clock in the morning was last call and I was still serving until 1:55 but everything was a shooter. Could I get a gin and tonic? No, you get a shot. Could I get a vodka soda? No, you can get a shot.

Alvin Williams

Is the block still going on down there? I remember when I used to go down there years ago, it was like Hammerheads and The Edge and Chicho’s. Is that still happening?

Gary Black

There's some different ones down there now but it's still a hotspot? Yeah, it's just changed a bit.

Brady Viccellio

Thank you, Gary, for coming on and spending this time with us on The Check. We've really enjoyed speaking with you and learning more about your interaction with your partner and my friend Alvin Williams.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, Gary. I appreciate you taking time away from the surf this morning to come and talk with us.

Gary Black

Well, unfortunately, there were no waves. But either way I was gonna be here. I wouldn't have missed this. I know it was going to be enjoyable with you guys.

Brady Viccellio

Better than riding a big wave, huh?

Gary Black

Different. Better in a different way.

Alvin Williams

So as ever, you can check out Gary and Cobalt Grille at thecheckpodcast.com. You'll be able to see past podcasts and transcripts and photographs and everything that we're doing. So please check us out. Rate us five stars. Appreciate you listening to the podcast. Gary, thanks again for being here. We appreciate it.

Gary Black

It was my pleasure.

Brady Viccellio

Thank you, Gary. Can't wait to see you soon at Cobalt Grille.

Gary Black

Look forward to seeing you.

Brady Viccellio

I'm Brady.

Alvin Williams

And I'm Alvin.

Brady and Alvin

This is The Check.

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