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  • The Check Podcast

Episode 20: Past, Present and Future

Brady and Alvin reflect on their childhoods, educations, influences and long history in the restaurant business, while also assessing present-day challenges and looking ahead to what might be next for restaurants.



Episode Transcript

October 16, 2020


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, servers, basically anybody 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 Road in Virginia Beach. Welcome to The Check podcast.

Alvin Williams

And I'm Alvin Williams, co host of the check and owner of Cobalt Grille restaurant at Hilltop in 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 Viccellio

It's been a little while since our last podcast, we went to Castle Hill and to Barboursville vineyard. It was a beautiful trip -- beautiful people great food, great drinks, we had a good time.

Alvin Williams

We did it was a good to get away. It's not too far to get up there -- near Charlottesville. We got to speak with some great professionals who are very passionate and very good at what they do. And it was fun to want to see that.

Brady Viccellio

We've had a couple requests from our listeners, which is very exciting. The request was that we talk a little bit about our history personally, our experience the history of our restaurants, our past basically, which a lot of us like to forget about some of it, you think they just want to know if we're qualified to sit here and talk about restaurants.

Brady Viccellio

I think that's part of it actually. Alvin you grew up in England, in Leeds. How old were you when you decided I like to cook and that's what I want to do.

Alvin Williams

You know, it was from a very early age. And it wasn't about that I wanted to cook or it was more of a necessity. When we were kids growing up in England, we were kind of like latchkey kids, I don't know if you're familiar with that term over here, but it's where you, you go off to school, and then you come home in the afternoon, your parents are at work, and they leave the key, you stick your hand through the letterbox and the keys dangling on the string and you pull the string through with the key on it and you open the door and you let yourself in. probably a bad idea. Because probably anybody could have stuck their hand in there and opened up the house.

Brady Viccellio

Well, anybody with small hands.

Alvin Williams

True. Very true. Yes. So we would come home at lunchtime myself and my friend Nick and, and we'd um, we would cook because we have to eat for lunch. So we would cook very basic things like you know, beans on toast, or I'll make corn beef with onions and you know, different things. So that was kind of how I got started through necessity because we were hungry at lunchtime. And we didn't have packed lunches or we didn't always have lunches at school. So we would come home and cook for ourselves.

Brady Viccellio

I know your parents. I know your mom, or I'm sorry, your mum. Is she a cook or are your parents cooks?

Alvin Williams

My parents do both cook. My dad does more of the cooking. I'm not sure why. But he's very good at it. And it was always kind of West Indian food was what they prepared growing up. They're both Jamaican. That was the food that I had at home. And that was the food that I learned initially how to cook. Yeah, so through school, I was cooking. And then I had a home economics class. And I seem to be pretty good at that. You know, because they teach you trades in England. So they teach you metalwork and they teach you how to do woodwork. And then they give you a home economics class where you bake and you cook and for some reason I was pretty good at that. At the end of high school, where I did, okay, I got through I passed High School, but I just hadn't figured out what I wanted to do with my life yet. At the end of high school, I was given the opportunity to go to a trade school, which was culinary school, similar to what they have here with Johnson and Wales and those things. It was a two-year course. And I did very well there and enjoyed it and just kind of felt like home what I should be doing and what I was good at. So that's how I started cooking. So yeah, so I started on necessity, and then it bloomed from school into college. What about you, Brady? How did you start?

Brady Viccellio

I never really thought about it much. I was just in it. It's kind of like, I just never did anything else. You know, I grew up here in the restaurant. I used to really like hanging out with my grandfather who was running the restaurant at the time. And my uncle was always fun to hang out with and he was he was over here at the restaurant. And I just, I was just involved. I think what really drew me in originally was, you know, to spend time with my grandfather. He did everything. He cut the grass, he’d ride around on the tractor and do all that stuff. And I thought all that was pretty cool. And then he'd come over here and there’d be a refrigerator that wasn't working and he'd be able to fix it. And I'd sit there and kind of learn about refrigeration with him and whatever it was – plumbing, electrical, all that stuff really kind of was interesting to me. And that's, that's kind of the way I identified the restaurant. As a kid, it was like a place to play around with equipment. As far as the hospitality and the food, the restaurant was kind of extension to my home. Originally, it was activity, it was something to do, I was, you know, when I was hanging out with my friends, I would be over here with my grandfather and my uncle, my mom. And we just be working on things together.

Alvin Williams

So you have the overall experience of everything that a restaurant encompasses, from the kitchen, to the grounds to the refrigeration to hanging out with the grandfather to learn in hospitality in the front of the house, the back of the house, that's pretty cool. To me, I mean, I, I only got to learn the kitchen. And that was a that was just my focus the whole way through. But it would have been great to start off early and get to the full knowledge of how to run a restaurant.

Brady Viccellio

I really didn't get into cooking until later, you know, until I was an older kid, I guess in my teens, and then I went away to college and went into Hospitality and Tourism Management, in which we learned how to we had a lot of cooking classes, I've been able to apply a lot of that education to what I do now. And that experience growing up in it. How about you, Alvin? What did you learn practically, before you actually got into the business that you've been able to apply?

Alvin Williams

What I find is that -- I realized this later -- that what I learned in color school was the basics. And I left the left there thinking that I knew everything, but you're only taught the basics, because there's so much to learn. So they teach you about pastry, and they teach you sauces and they teach, grilling and cooking and searing. And then they also teach you a little bit of the front of the house side where you you know, wine presentations and serving and serving to the left, and clearing from the right and how to pour wine and how to interact with the customer. So there's so many subjects to learn that they can only spend so much time on each one. So you just learn the basics. During culinary school, when I was given the opportunity to do some internships, that's where I really learned about cooking, and about chefs and the hierarchy and, and everything that goes on in a practical way in hotels and restaurants.

Brady Viccellio

At Virginia Tech where I got my degree in hospitality and tourism management, they always told us that they weren't teaching people how to be chefs, but how to how to be managers and run things. And I think that's accurate. But we had a lot of pretty in-depth cooking. And we did not quite as extensive as you did, I'm sure. I remember really getting into baking all different kinds of baking stuff that I never heard of pastries and, and quick breads and shortbreads different kinds of pastries, steam and yeast and soda. And that was that was pretty interesting. And we also of course touched on the sauces and all that sort of thing. And then we had practical time at the hotel on campus where we'd work in the kitchen. And we were also studying hotels, we did equal time in hotels,

Alvin Williams

A lot of what I think I also learned in culinary schools is not just about cooking skills and that kind of practicality, I really believe that they were training us how to be ready for the world -- how to get to school early, not just on time and how to interact with other people and how to work with other people. There's a lot of other things that they taught us, not just how to chop a brunoise or julienne, those kinds of things, how to steam how to how to broil and bake. It was a lot of life skills that I think that would definitely trying to prepare us for the world. Brady, was there anything that you learned on the hotel side of learning that that transferred over to the restaurant has been helpful for you through the years?

Brady Viccellio

Well, I think the education was kind of wide. Certainly in the hotel we did time as a maid, we did time in maintenance, we did time, front desk, night auditing. We shadowed the managers, all of those things contributed. We did marketing, which was the hotel marketing was part of the thing.

Alvin Williams

What was marketing back then because now we know it at this point, since you know the internet and the internet was young. So now is Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and all these. This is the marketing now, what was it then?

Brady Viccellio

We made web pages. And certainly we talked about direct mail and we did a little direct mail campaign -- it wasn't like it is today. Not even close. We did a campaign where we were handing out flyers to get people to come into the hotel because students could have one meal. If they're on the meal plan. They could have one meal at the hotel every semester. So most of our marketing was on campus trying to get those students to come in and get their meal. And one of the classes we set up a whole restaurant from top to bottom, like a theoretical thing, and we had kind a focus group of students amongst ourselves and we tried different things on each other.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, we had two of those. We have two restaurants within the within our school, and it will be more OAPs that would come in at lunchtime.

Brady Viccellio

What's an OAP?

Alvin Williams

Old age pensioner. The older people who wanted a cheap lunch, and they didn't mind if somebody screwed up the service. So they would all you know, trickle in for lunch, and we would get to practice on them. So it's the kitchen that's practicing cooking the food for them. And then there's the other half of your group that would you know, serve and wait on them.

Brady Viccellio

We weren't the picture of perfection at the Donaldson Brown Hotel and Conference Center dining room where the students could come and which was good because one of us would be a manager and have to deal with the complaints with the overcooked steaks and the, you know, over salted food or under salted food, you know, the same sort of thing that we're dealing with today. After your education, you got a job, I think in London, right?

Alvin Williams

Yeah. So like I was saying before, I had the opportunity to do some internships, and one was at the Mayfair hotel, which is in London. And the second one was at a hotel called Grosvenor House Hotel, which is on Park Lane also in London, a five star hotel -- still there. And they enjoyed the work that I did. And I guess and they asked me to come back full time after I finished college.

Brady Viccellio

And you're like a resident there at one point?

Alvin Williams

I'd spent a few nights, because here's what happens. So you're young, and you can work lots of hours because you're just young and you're fit. So I would go in around seven or eight in the morning. And you wouldn't finish work until let's say 10 o'clock. And then you would go out clubbing because you're young. And you just think that you need two hours sleep a night. So you got clubbing and everybody works in the city in the West End, but nobody lives in the West End. Unless you super rich. So you get the train on the bus or a taxi and go out to the suburbs. Obviously, sometimes there's not enough time to get out to the suburbs, get some sleep and come back in. Unfortunately, sometimes we would meet, you know, like the chamber maids who would live in the hotel because they would live on premises.

Brady Viccellio

Oh, it’s chamber maids that live there.

Alvin Williams

Yeah. So if you were fortunate to be friendly with a chamber maid, then you could just, you know, sleep on a little couch for a few hours, and then bribe the security guards with a packet of cigarettes and they wouldn't say anything. And then you could walk down the stairs to work in the morning. It's a win win for everybody.

Brady Viccellio

The security guard gets smokes.

Alvin Williams

I get to work on time

Brady Viccellio

And the chambermaid gets to listen to you snore on our couch. Alvin Williams

There you go.

Brady Viccellio

Uh huh.

Alvin Williams

So that happened. But you know that life, it's just, it's cool for a while, but you get burned out because you don't really see the sun and you’re working six, seven days a week. And it's hard graft. And it's you working with those French chefs and Swiss chefs and Germans and they're all crazy. And it's like a lot of it you see on TV, like, you know, Gordon Ramsay and those guys, and they're throwing pans around and acting crazy. And a lot of that is real. I mean, those are the kind of kitchens that I grew up working in.

Brady Viccellio

And what brought you over here to the United States?

Alvin Williams

That is an excellent question, Brady.

Brady Viccellio

Well, you can do like the politicians do and just say how great the question is, and talk about…

Alvin Williams

I'll tell you the absolute truth -- family brought me over. I had been working those ridiculous hours. And I did get burned out for a while and I decided that I wasn't going to cook anymore. And I'd had enough and that was it. I was going to do something else because cooking at that level was just too hard. And my sister, one of my sisters, I have three sisters one, it was in America, woman's in England and mons in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. My sister said, you know, she was having a baby, and she needed help. And would I come over and help her and she was in New York City. And I said, Well, she was in Queens, not necessarily. And I said, Yeah, sure. So it's a great time because I'm burned out. I've had enough of cooking so I'll just come hang out and help you. And so I did that for a while. And my other sister who is now living in St. Croix, she was in Virginia Beach. She had married a Navy guy, and that's how we all were here. Because of the Navy. She was down in Virginia Beach. And New York was a little too much like London. For me. It was a little too fast paced, and I could see myself you know, getting into that lifestyle. Again, I didn't want that. So we decided to move down to Virginia beach with my other sister where things were a great pace of life down here. You’ve got the beach and shopping malls. We never had shopping malls in England when I was growing up. So that was something new and the ocean was just beautiful. And that's why I ended up here.

Brady Viccellio

Aren't we lucky?

Alvin Williams

Well, I don't know whether you’re lucky or not. But what happened was, I ran out of money. I figured I need to get a job. And the only thing I knew how to do was to cook. At the time there was a newspaper or magazine called the Portfolio. And they had, they just done their top 10 restaurants. And I looked through those and I sent my CV, my resume off to those 10 restaurants, and four or five of them got back to me and I had some interviews and the rest is kind of Virginia Beach history.

Brady Viccellio

Well, so at that point, you landed at Le Chambord.

Alvin Williams

I did indeed, it was kind of serendipitous. I went there. And it was this guy that was larger than life who owned the place he was Belgian. His name was Frank Spapen, and he was familiar with the places that I'd worked in London and, and I showed him my all my certificates and resumes and all these letters of recommendation, showed him all that stuff. And he just says, Yeah, yeah, people bring me this stuff all the time. And I don't believe you. Why do you think I'm going to hire you and pay you this amount of money? I said, Well, you know what, I’ll work for you for a while. And you can tell me if you like me or not, you don't have to pay me I work for free. And let's see if you know, you like me, and I like you. And if we get along, and then if you like what I do, then you pay me. If not, you know, nice to meet you. See, you know, have a great day kind of thing. And it was like What, really? And I was like, yeah, sure, let's go. So we started and I started working there and you know, loved the food that he was doing, because it was French classical. And it was kind of easy to me. And about three days into me working. I was like, okay, baby, I think you are who you say you are. So I'll pay you and you've got a job. So I ended up being there for six, seven years before I open cobalt.

Brady Viccellio

I never had the had the pleasure of dining at Le Chambord’s dining room proper for dinner. But I did go to brunch one time. And it was excellent.

Alvin Williams

Why did you never have dinner there? Did you not think it was going to be good? Or you just didn't have the funds? Or what's going on?

Brady Viccellio

I didn't have the funds. I didn't know you yet. So if I knew you, I probably would have made it happen. But let's see. Let's put a timeline on this. What were the years where you worked at Le Chambord?

Alvin Williams

I think I was there from 93 until 2000. So 93 to 95, maybe 96. I was at the Chambord side. And then later on, they open up the bistro side. And then I went over there and ran that.

Brady Viccellio

Alright, so that answer is pretty easy then. So I graduated from high school in 93. And college in 97. Okay, so at that point, when you were there, I mean, that was the only way I was going to see you at all was to come to the bistro, right at brunch, which is, I think the first time. I do remember seeing you there.

Alvin Williams

Well, we have that open kitchen. So you know, it's kind of hard to miss.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, I remember you're there. Probably a little hungover.

Alvin Williams

That's the rough thing about the brunch. If you talk to anybody in the restaurant business, nobody wants to do the brunch shift. Because you've been out. You've been working hard Saturday night, and then you go out to reward yourself with friends and cocktails, and then who wants to get up and do brunch at 7am?

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, it's a it's a hard road. At that point, I was I was doing my part. It was it was kind of my stage of life that you refer to that you did in in London. I was doing that here. I mean, I was working six days a week. We're closed on Sundays at that point, and I don't I'm trying to remember. I think we're closed Mondays to at least for part of that time. So Sundays and Mondays, I guess. But I remember being in here working on Mondays. I think I was just in here alone working on Mondays if we're but I had one day off. For sure. I had Sundays off. And occasionally we had the Sunday parties and then I have no days off. Right. But generally, I was working six or seven days a week. And I would literally get out of bed come over to the restaurant, and I'd work and then I'd go out for a drink and then go to sleep.

Alvin Williams

But you’re working real restaurant hours. I mean, you're working long days for weeks. And you get tired.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, I mean, it was it was all day every day and and I get paid really very little back then. I mean, you got paid to at the time I thought I was getting paid pretty well. But the problem was, I didn't I wasn't able to spend it.

Alvin Williams

When you work for family, they always convince you that they're paying you well.

Brady Viccellio

I think I got paid that same amount for maybe 10 years until I said this has got to change. It was it was you know, when that long is probably five or six years before I got a raise. And yeah, I just didn't have the money for Le Chambord. I had a car. I was buying a house. I got a house. I think it was in October of 97 I bought my house. That was where all my money went.

Alvin Williams

And Le Chambord was a premier restaurant. They were expensive. Yeah, you know, and they weren't as many restaurants around, then, as they were now. And that was one of the higher end ones.

Brady Viccellio

It took me seven years to renovate my house to where it is now. And it's still no Taj Mahal, but for about seven years, I had a table saw my living room, basically. The was the other thing I’d do at night, running saws in the living room after work.

Alvin Williams

Oh boy. After you've been drinking, probably not the smartest thing to do.

Brady Viccellio

I don't know about that. I mean, maybe there's a beer, you know, but it wasn't… I wasn't on benders, running power tools.

Alvin Williams

Good to know.

Brady Viccellio

I think after college, I started doing front of the house work. I managed, I waited tables. I think I still was a busboy from time to time. You know, I kind of filled in -- whatever job was short was the job I did, which was great. Because eventually I became close to expert at every job. Around that time, we had a guy who came in the morning, and then we had a kitchen manager. And at one point, that whole management dynamic that whole as things kind of ebb and flow we lost our kitchen, guys. So my job was to go into the kitchen, and I stayed there for about two years running the kitchen. And I did the morning work and the nighttime work. That's when I was there all day long, all night long, every day. Then I slowly over those two years, we established some management in the kitchen. My next job was I think I was spent about a year on the bar, which was great, because I came became a pretty good bartender and that year and hired a new bartender. Once I realized that, you know, I kind of had that down and started managing the front of house again. What was your progression? Alvin. So you went to Le Chambord and you're working that kitchen as a chef. And then you see moved over to the Bistro.

Alvin Williams

Yes, I was working in the main restaurant at Le Chambord. And I was I guess I was a sous chef, there was a chef above me, Alain Jaqmin, who was an excellent Belgian chef who worked at a place called La Villa Lorraine, which is a Michelin star place. So after I worked with him for a few years, then they decided to open up a more casual restaurant and had the rotisserie chickens and, and that kind of stuff that was called the Bistro. And they asked me to be the head chef there and run that restaurant, which helped them out because, you know, they went through a period of time where it wasn't doing very well. And they can ask me to go over there and pick up the pieces. So it was a learning curve for me because I didn't get to start when it was brand new, I got to take it over after some damage had been done. So I kinda had to turn it around. So that was interesting, and fun. And it was, it was nice to mix. It was an open kitchen. And I got to see my customers who will come in and you get to know the regulars and they, you know, you get to know what people like and anticipate their needs. And that was pretty cool. I've never worked in an open kitchen before.

Brady Viccellio

Apparently you liked it because you made Cobalt relatively open.

Alvin Williams

I did. I designed that kitchen somewhat based on that kitchen – well, many kitchens that I worked in before. But that was one of the pieces of the puzzle was the open kitchen. I like the open kitchen concept because I can I'm generally in my kitchen cooking. If I'm not on the line sautéing, either in the window making sure that every plate goes out looking perfect. And has the right amount of sauce has the right garnish, and it looks right. So when I'm up in that window, I can see my customers whether they're walking in or they get ready to leave. So I can say hi, I can say goodbye, I can see the general flow of the restaurant, I can see if we're about to get hit, we're about to get in the weeds. Also, you can just see people enjoying themselves. And you can you can actually see the reactions when the plate goes down in front of their faces. And that's one of the reasons why I do this to bring pleasure to people, you know, through our food and through our craft and through our art. And to be able to see that immediately because we have this window in our open kitchen is kind of cool.

Brady Viccellio

So how did you transition from chef at the Bistro at Le Chambord to owner at Cobalt?

Alvin Williams

You know, it's one of those things when you have a dream, and my dream was always to own my own restaurant. And I've worked really hard.

Brady Viccellio

Well, you know, we hear that all the time. How many times have you interviewed a cook and you're asking him or ask that person what their goals are? And they say, Well, I want to own my own restaurant in three years or something like that. They say that. And that's great but it so rarely happens.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, I think you just have to stay focused and maintain that your dream will come true, but you have to take action and make it happen and it's very easy tobe in a job and be getting a steady wage and not have to worry whether the paycheck is going to be there to going to taking that leap, which is really scary to do in your own place, and essentially not getting paid every week, and having to pay everyone else and make things work.

Brady Viccellio

Right. How many? How many paychecks Have you skipped in the past, which is say six months?

Alvin Williams

You know, it's pay has been very spotty during COVID. It was very spotty for me at Cobalt.

Brady Viccellio

In it funny, like we get, we have, for the most part, well, for the hundred percent part or you wouldn't be in business. You got all your vendors get paid. All your employees get paid. Yeah. But the owner of the company that they think, you know, has a nice car in the nice house, is able to make all this money. You're the one that holds that holds that bag at the end and you don't get paid.

Alvin Williams

It's a very popular misconception that restaurant owners are loaded. I mean, some are I suppose?

Brady Viccellio

We need to get them on the podcast.

Alvin Williams

I bet the guy who owns Chick Fil a, I bet he's loaded. I'd like to be him right about now.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, Mr. A.

Alvin Williams

But yeah, we're the first to take the sacrifice, and quite rightly so. You know, it's our business. We have people that depend on us. So we've got to be there for them.

Brady Viccellio

We go from an employee to an owner. That's, that's one of the things it's a calculated risk. And it's something that not only can happen, that should be expected almost because there's going to be ups and downs. And occasionally you find yourself living month to month and trying to figure out how am I going to make the mortgage? How am I going to make this. And then December comes around and you and you have you're turning people away for reservations, and you're able to buy Christmas gifts, and then maybe catch up on your rent.

Alvin Williams

So tell me about your shift from being a person who was working in your family's restaurant, to now that person who has to take on all those responsibilities, who is an owner of the restaurant? How did how did that transition go?

Brady Viccellio

Alvin, that happened shortly after my uncle died in December in 2005. Previous to that, it was my mother and my uncle and I running the restaurant, but my mother and my uncle were partners, and I was an employee. And to go back when I decided to go into Restaurant Management in college. Previous to my uncle's death, we had plans of succession, which included me being in control of his ownership of the restaurant. And as many things happen, you know, in a lot of families, that became disputed. And after he died, it worked out that we actually had to purchase his interest in the restaurant and real estate from his estate. That created my first challenge, really, as an owner, because all of a sudden I go from being an employee who gets a regular paycheck to that was my first real taste of being an owner, when and, and it was immediate, because I went from being an employee who gets paid a weekly check to an owner who's got a huge mortgage of a number that I had never even imagined. And I have to make profits in order to get paid. And that doesn't always happen. And in that time, business was pretty good. Thankfully, 2005-2006 right in that area, it was good. But that made having a business that's even better just made that purchase price larger. So really, if the business was doing poorly, then we would have had to pay quite a bit less to get ownership of his interest. economy was good. Then real estate prices were up. Business was decent. So I ended up buying everything at a premium. That's that was my transition into ownership.

Alvin Williams

That's a rude awakening.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah. Well, you had the same thing. In a way. Yeah, yeah. I mean, yours was more planned. But you're the same thing.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, I was lucky. Well, I guess we were similar because you had a built in clientele. Mine wasn't built in because I went from one place to another. But fortunately, the people that used to come and see me when I worked Le Chambord and the Bistro, they transitioned and came over to see me at Cobalt.

Brady Viccellio

Well, when we sat down here to start our podcast today, you look at your phone and you said, Well, today is our 20th anniversary.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, I know. great fanfare. So yeah, so we opened up October 12, 2000. So today's our official 20th anniversary.

Brady Viccellio

Well, congratulations.

Alvin Williams

Thank you. We had planned to have a big party and invite everyone you know old customers new customers to you know, at least drop by and say hi and have a drink and have a little fanfare.

Brady Viccellio

You've been talking about that for a couple years.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, at least a year or two we've been talking about it and planning it. But then COVID hit and those plans went out the window. And today almost went by without me remembering that it was our anniversary. So thanks for reminding me. And we'll do something at some point, hopefully this year, if not next year. I mean, it's not about doing it on the day, but I think it's about recognizing the achievement. And I think it's a little achievement -- 20 years in the restaurant business.

Brady Viccellio

Did you ever think when you opened up Cobalt Grille that 20 years from now, you'd be still rolling? Still doing?

Alvin Williams

Well, you know, I never thought that far ahead before. So no, I mean, I would have hoped it but you just never think of that you, when you open a restaurant you're striving to get through the first year, and then you strive to get through the first five years. And then when you do five years, you think, okay, maybe I'm going to make it, then you do 10 years, and you think, Okay, cool. But you know, then you get hit with, you know, major things after that hurricanes and terrorist attacks and COVID. And you’re just kind of fighting to stay alive.

Brady Viccellio

Here we are, like, like we talked about all the time, in a totally different world for restaurants. What have you learned that's really gotten you through?

Alvin Williams

Here's what I know, I know that we are resilient, I know that we are determined, I know that we, we can pivot and we can adapt. I know that the staff that we have on the staff that has stayed with us just dynamic. And, you know, we ask a lot of them, you know, we're changing menus, and we change in, you know, hours, and we're changing styles of service. And you know, we're changing a lot and they, they adapt, and they shift and they pivot and they and they're with us, and it's the most amazing thing to see them grow. And help us out through these times. And they know that we don't know what's going to happen, but they are along for the ride with us. And that's amazing.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, I agree with that. It's cool to have that level of loyalty and trust. Yeah, where even we don't know what's next. Yeah, we're going to ride along,

Alvin Williams

But they know that, you know, we’re leaders and we always have their back. We're going to get through this together. So I think the trust factor that they have is really cool.

Brady Viccellio

What is it in your experience in the past, that has helped you through are the current challenges of this year? Was it that independence that you learned, as a child that you had to, you had to reach through that mail slot and pull the key out? And then come in and cook food for you and your friends? Or was it having pans thrown at you in London?

Alvin Williams

I mean, really all of that has helped because you become a survivor. And you know that things are going to change and you don't know which side that that pan that's been thrown at us coming from you don't if it’s coming from the left, you don't if it's coming from the right, but you know, it's a copper pan, and it's hard, and it's going to hurt. So you learn to duck into dive to get to the next level. And yeah, all those lessons definitely help. But I've noticed that you know, all the help that we got from customers and friends and other businesses, and it was totally awesome, and just life changing, getting all that help when COVID started, and we're still getting help from people. But I've started to notice that the attitude in some of our customers are starting to shift a little back to where it used to be. And that's a little disconcerting,

Brady Viccellio

Theirs expectations are coming back to pre COVID expectations,

Alvin Williams

What I will say is that we're still not out of the woods. Restaurants are still down in comparison to other businesses. And one of the hardest things for us to do is to maintain those standards that we had pre COVID as much as we would like to. But it's really hard for us to attain that goal, because we're doing it with a lot less staff. You know, it's hard for us to get more kitchen staff, it's hard for us to get more floor staff because people are still scared about returning to work and catching the disease. It's very challenging for us to meet the expectations of all our customers, although we're definitely trying our best and we try to bat 1000 and get everything absolutely perfect, but it's just not realistic. And we just really hope that our customers will understand that and still ride along with us through these times that are still challenging. But have you noticed customer expectations? Have they changed recently? Or are people still at the same attitudes as they come in for dining?

Brady Viccellio

Oh, yeah, everything's changed Alvin, but here's the thing, from the worst of the COVID crisis, really, there's been very little that has changed except for what we're allowed to do, how many people we’re allowed to have in the front door. We're walking a really fine line with a doing enough business that we can stay in business, be serving as many people as we're capable of and keeping our customers happy and being accessible to our guests. What a lot of people don't understand is that the employment market challenges that we faced over the past six months have been huge. And previous to that, I would say in the past two years, we've had a very difficult market. So Alvin, when you put an ad out how many responses go you get?

Alvin Williams

A lot, we get a lot of response.

Brady Viccellio

Let's just say you get 50 responses, how many do you decide to interview?

Alvin Williams

I would say probably 10 out of 50. And that's not because I'm better than them or anything, but some are forklift workers, or…

Brady Viccellio

So you interview 10 out of 50?

Alvin Williams

No, no, no, no, I schedule interviews for 10 out of 50.

Brady Viccellio

How many of those people show up for their interview?

Alvin Williams

So out of the 10, typically, two would show up.

Brady Viccellio

Out of those two, how many do you feel would be a good hire?

Alvin Williams

Usually one out of the two.

Brady Viccellio

And how often does that one guy show up his first day of employment?

Alvin Williams

About 50% of the time -- no less than 50% of the time, probably about 35% of the time that one person will show up.

Brady Viccellio

And that's very similar to my experience as well. So then they show up, and they might work for a day or a week. And then they decide it's not for them for whatever. It's just too much work, or it's just not… For whatever reason, we've been seeing this trend for over two years, I think. Since COVID. It's been exponentially bad.

Magnified, yeah.

Brady Viccellio

Alvin, we've both been doing much more to-go food. We've probably done more in the six months in the past six months than we've done in the past six years,

Alvin Williams

For sure. And I know that from how many to-go boxes, we've been ordering and paper supplies.

Brady Viccellio

What do you think is going to happen with that?

Alvin Williams

Well, I think the trend is definitely leaning towards a lot of people wanting to take out but I think a lot of people are going to want to come back out and dine with us, I really do. The current trend, at least at my restaurant is people want to sit outside. So we are currently trying to figure out how to get more space outside. And as we go into the winter months, that's going to be challenging, because now we need heaters. But you know, you don't have money to pay for the heaters or for the tents because you don't have enough customers coming in. It's a really bad catch 22 situation, but we'll get through that. But that being said, I think the trend is more outdoor dining and more takeout. And if people do come out in droves, after all this is over, I just hope we can handle it. Because, again, we're not up to speed with service stuff.

Brady Viccellio

Yeah, I think there's a question of momentum, I think that there's momentum with to-go food and people get in habits of getting to-go food. It kind of felt like, like there was a rubber band that was stretched, and it was stretched and stretched and stretched. And finally, it broke and snapped on your finger. It’s like people were stretched so long, not being able to go out, that when they finally did, they came out. And they were extremely happy to be out and they kind of came out en masse under that Mother's Day was one day that we just got completely bulldozed over and over run, right? I'm wondering how much of that we're going to see when they finally have a vaccine, when people start to feel safe to go out again.

Alvin Williams

What's going to happen is when that happens, and I'm sure it will, there's going to be a lot less restaurants around. I mean, restaurants are disappearing in the hundreds and thousands day by day. So it's, you know, it's a survival of the fittest, it's, either who has deep pockets and can wait it out. It's either who's pivoting and learning to deal with the situation day by day and staying alive that way. Those of us hopefully, you know, we'll both be in the game, we're going to have to figure out how to deal with that demand when it comes, right. Because the last thing we want to do is annoy or irritate the customers that are coming by giving them bad service or bad food or a bad experience. That's the last thing we want.

Brady Viccellio

I think that in some aspect, I think to go food is here to stay and another aspect, I think the restaurants are here to stay, people are going to always want to go out and they're always going to want to be part of the energy and the activity of a restaurant. I'm sure people were looking forward to your band nights and people are looking forward to your wine dinners and all the kind of more social things that happen in restaurants and just being able to go out on a date and just be part of something is almost a human need, I think.

Alvin Williams

Yes, absolutely. I agree wholeheartedly. Let me ask you a question. So who do you look to for guidance and inspiration because you're a restaurant guy and a hotel manager guy and, I've had certain chefs that I look to who I think are heroes and who I look to for inspiration and to see what they're doing. You'd be more front of the house, who do you look to for inspiration and guidance? Is it like a Danny Meyer, or…

Brady Viccellio

Danny Meyer is definitely a bit of an idol. I've read his books multiple times. And there's nobody that I talk to on a regular basis. Except for people here on my staff, like Tom V, for example. We talk service all the time. Kelly, the manager, we talk service all the time, Tom Land and I talk service all the time. And I talk with you about it, I talk with my mother, I talk with my brother, I talk with my father, I talk to my guests and to get their perception of certain things, my regular guests. And if I have some question about something that I just can't get an answer to, I find it online somehow. But as far as service goes, I was probably about 27 or 28. And in my head, I felt it like a gear dropping into, into place. When I finally understood and it was more than understand standing, then, like somebody telling me, it was just the light bulb turned on, when I first actually realized that service was completely about the guest. I know that sounds cliche and ultimately simple. But when you remove yourself as much as possible from the service experience that the guest is having, that's when the magic happens. And I think that that was around the time that I read Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. And I think that that was probably in there somehow. Because that was who you mentioned at first. And I think that it had something to do with that. But I think it was described in some way in there about that magical silent service that just happens. That thing that I always talk about when you get to that you're on your way out of the restaurant. And it's almost like a dream, you don't really remember the server being there. You just remember things happening in a perfect in a perfect manner, being fully informed about any question you had or anything with the menu, things arriving at the table unobtrusively with no elbows in your face? No people reaching across or even speaking. Pardon this, pardon that, here's this, here's that--just magic. To do that you have to become transparent. And if you're focused on yourself, and not focused on the guest, and it sounds so simple, but it's not. And, you know, when you start to focus on the guests, and just try to be transparent, as transparent as you can. That's when it happens. You know, I think I got that from my Uncle Steve, my mother, from Danny Meyer's book. And all the people here you know, there's early waiters that were here. These guys from when I was a kid -- Mr. Gary and JJ Trotman. And Ike Newsome and Philip Jones. They're all gone now, they've passed away. That old-style service that is so hard to find these days.

Alvin Williams

Professional lifelong servers. That was their profession, just like a car mechanic or a bus driver, your profession was to be a waiter. It wasn't a fill-in job job or something.

Brady Viccellio

But it was more than that. I mean, there are professional mechanics that that don't do a good job fixing cars. These guys were pros, I mean, pros in a way that I mean, they were the yardstick. They were amazing. So who do I go to? I go to you, I go to my mom, I go to my family.

Alvin Williams

It's funny when you say you got to me. I had a an issue the other day, and sometimes these things keep me up at night. Sometimes they don't. But this particular one did. And my wife's like, What is wrong with you, because I get up and I start writing in the middle of the night over the bed side of the monitor, so I can watch the baby. And I have a pen and a paper and I start writing stuff down. She's like, you know, the lights on? I can't sleep, take it somewhere else. So I write this down. And I was going to put it on Facebook, you know, or Instagram, what my thoughts were. And then in the morning, she said, Before you do that, why don't you know, talk to Brady, talk to Robert and see what they think first? So I did so I wrote my thoughts down, then I sent them to you. And you both were like, no. Don't put that on social media. Why not? These are my thoughts. What is wrong with my thoughts? And you're right, it was the best thing not to post it.

Brady Viccellio

We all have these moments that are frustrating. And I'm sure in any business, people have a frustrating moments and they're angry at about, they're angry with a manager or they're angry with an employee or a co worker. Maybe they're angry with a family member or, you know, they just feel wronged. And I think that you felt you were offended, and you're you felt wronged and disrespected. I'm not sure that your emotions were unfounded. But we work in a business that we have to keep our emotions in check. And those types of emotions we, we have to it's backstage and onstage.

Alvin Williams

We can't make it about ourselves. And we can't take it personal personally.

Brady Viccellio

It’s not about you and it is about the guest. And if there's something going on that you don't like, it needs to remain behind the curtain. We can't show that the inner workings of our minds that like that. I mean, in this forum, I think we can talk about it, we can talk through it.

Alvin Williams

So while you while you're saying that, what do you think is the importance of our podcast? Or is there any importance? Why did we start doing this? Why do we continue to do this?

Brady Viccellio

I would like somebody to do it for me, I would like to listen to, I've been listening to them. I enjoy listening to them. And I think for, for our guests, and for our employees. And maybe it's not ours, maybe it's employees in another restaurant. But I feel like the most that that we can do for our industry, and the more information that we can get out there. And there's some entertainment as well. I think that we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to our industry to be a voice and to talk about these things, to talk about what we're going through. And know that we've gotten ideas from each other, and from other guests that we've had on how to handle certain things. To do that in a public forum and be able to share it with listeners, it's important, and I think it does a service.

Alvin Williams

I think it's great.

Brady Viccellio

And it’s enjoyable. It's fun.

Alvin Williams

Yeah, it's fun, to get opinions and, and different views and different ideas from other people in the restaurant industry. That's paramount. It's cool. And I think that when people listen to us, and they hear our stories, they have similar stories. And you know, they write us little notes and tell us things and say thanks, and keep on doing it. And that keeps us motivated to do it. So I think it's cool.

Brady Viccellio

I think that the first, the first thought about it was that I just really wanted to talk about things to keep calling you on the phone and belly. You know, there's only so much that we can do to each other. And then let's put our thoughts together and talk to more people about it.

Alvin Williams

Well, also people who come to our restaurants, I guess they get to find out a little bit more about us personally, because there's only so much time you can spend at the table because people generally go out to eat with themselves with their wives or their husbands or their family. They don't want to sit down and hanging out for two hours. And we're at work. And we're at work so we have things to do. So as much as some people would say, Oh, come on, sit down Alvin. Let's talk. Let's catch up. You know, I would love to do that. But I literally don't have the time because especially now you know, I'm on the line. I got to go back there and cook.

Brady Viccellio

Alvin we've taken this trip down memory lane. What goes back to you pulling your key out of your mail slot and me riding around on my grandfather's lap on the tractor. It's been fun.

Alvin Williams

It's been a fun, but a long journey.

Brady Viccellio

That's right.

Alvin Williams

Well, we want to thank our listeners for listening. And if they want to see or hear any more information, they can visit thecheckpodcast.com.

Brady Viccellio

Where they'll find transcripts, photos, other episodes…

Alvin Williams

Aand links to other people's restaurants and what they're doing and prior guests. Well, it was a great having you with us. I'm Alvin.

Brady Viccellio

I'm Brady.

And this is The Check.

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