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Episode 28: The Return of Thom

Alvin and Brady welcome back longtime Steinhilber’s waiter Thom Violette, who reflects on the challenges of the pandemic and what might lie ahead as short-staffed restaurants prepare for a busy summer season. Thom also talks about his recent marriage and getting to ride in a hot-air balloon.


Episode Transcript

May 27, 2021


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 anyone who has anything to do with food drink or hospitality, and 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, cohost 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 people who like to dine in restaurants.


Brady Viccellio

This episode features Thom Violette. Thom is our first returning guest and is one of our most popular we've had so far. He's been a server for more than three decades at Steinhilber's. Glad to have you back, Thom.


Thom Violette

Great to be here. All that hanging out around the back door when you guys were doing the podcast finally paid off and he invited me in.


Alvin Williams

Tom, welcome back to the check. You are legendary. So it's good to have you back as our first recurring podcast guest.


Thom Violette

Well, it's great to be here. Obviously, the pod life is treating you well. Brady's over there drinking Pappy Van Winkle. Got a cigar.


Brady Viccellio

That's all I drink.


Thom Violette

Where'd you get that smoking jacket. It's like an early Hugh Hefner.


Alvin Williams

He gets the Pappy Van Winkle and I get mint tea.


Thom Violette

Great to be with you guys.


Brady Viccellio

A lot of restaurant workers have decided they're going to stay home during the pandemic. And you've been one of the warriors who stuck it out the whole time. Give us an overall sense of what it's been like working through this. And if you've noticed any stages that you can identify.


Thom Violette

Well, I appreciate the warrior moniker but that’s being a little bit generous. But we had a lot of people my family served in the military that actually put their life on the line at a grandfather Normandy another one that the Pacific Korean multiple tours in Vietnam, brother was a career Navy officer, uncle, Dad as well. But one thing that I did learn from them is when there's a job to do, you know, to kind of put your nose to the grindstone and get it done. And I think that's basically been what this year has been about. But there have definitely been some stages. As far as that goes, it's kind of been a roller coaster. Initially, we had some fear, you know, in a great deal of uncertainty. And we were trying to kind of work through that and see if we could actually even stay open. During this, then once the payments came in, things settled down a little bit. And it felt like people were getting a little more comfortable. And it seemed like we had a good system out in the yard. And, you know, with the social distancing, people were still able to, you know, I think, put on a good show for people and celebrate their special occasions, and, you know, night and night out and all that. Then, um, November, December, the bottom kind of fell right out. And we were, you know, a great deal of uncertainty, we probably lost 90% of our Christmas parties during that time. And it was a pretty dark, and the COVID numbers were up. And you know, it me personally, it was a tremendously frightening time.


Brady Viccellio

Yeah, that's right. December was really tough on us. And we went from, I think, a capacity of we were allowed to do parties up to 250 outside, I think, and then that changed to 25, maybe outside five outside tenants and inside. Yeah, in a two-day period, we lost literally 1000s of people in business.


Thom Violette

And now it seems like things are speeding up. And you're we're almost going to, you know, almost a warp speed right now. And it's I'm not sure it's any less scary than it was this time last year, because we've got our uncertainties, you know, with increased business as we did with the decrease business early on.


Alvin Williams

So when you're a guest on the podcast last summer, we talked a little bit about how all this may change restaurants long term, and the experiences that you know, people have when they Dine Out with almost a year of this additional perspective. How would you answer that question today, Tom?


Thom Violette

Honestly, with the coming mask, mask mandate coming down, and I'm shocked at how back to normal, we've gotten this quickly. People seem like they were raring to go. We're as busy as we can possibly handle with some challenges with staffing and all that but it just seems like I went to a sporting event the other day and it was as close to normal as anything that anything we'd seen in about 14 months. So I think people I'm kind of shocked at the resiliency of not only your clientele but public as a whole.


Brady Viccellio

The CDC now says that masks are optional. If you're fully vaccinated. What do you think about This and in general, and what are you doing personally, when it comes to masking up at work?


Thom Violette

Well, I was ready for it. It was kind of like a dehumanizing thing for me. I really was. I'd put up with it. I think about as long as I could obviously, I was going to follow the guidelines, but it was, it was starting to take its toll. Yeah, I was ready for the mask. To come off, I thought the vaccinated people would be afforded the option to unmask for so I got my vaccinations as early as possible. As far as waiting tables, I keep my mask on. There's no way for me to know how comfortable a patron may or may not be with an unmasked server. So I want to err on the side of caution and make them as comfortable as possible.


Alvin Williams

So obviously, this has been a rough year for restaurants, the people who own restaurants, and people who work in restaurants, and the people who dine in restaurants. But um, Tom, what has been the hardest experiences you've had over this past year, personally and professionally?


Thom Violette

Well, professionally it's been in this has kind of been changing lately, because the guests have been returning, it's just so many people that I hadn't seen, during the pandemic, you know, people that would routinely have business, business functions, you know, they missed out on birthday celebrations that they did every year. That was the professional personally, there was a great deal of economic uncertainty the industry is, I don't need to tell you to, but those were the two, the two biggest things when you are used to celebrating somebody's birthday with him every year, and you know, you miss a year, it doesn't seem like a big thing. But it's, you know, you missed those people there, you know, you become part of their part of their family, they become part of yours. And it's it's one of the great parts about the job. And it was something that we didn't get to share with everybody on on a positive side.


Brady Viccellio

I know that you've had some good experiences over the past year. Can you tell us about some of those?


Thom Violette

Well, initially, one of the one, one of my best experiences was working with you to try to, you know, to serve the people during the early stages of COVID. I think we really, we really did the best we possibly could as far as that went with the social distancing outside. And, you know, thinking of every possible contingencies, our guests felt safe, our employees felt safe, and we could still deliver the best product possible the best experience possible for our guests. It was a puzzle that remains, it remains a puzzle remains a puzzle, but that was mean, that was something that I'll never forget.


Alvin Williams

It's been said that adversity is one of our best teachers. And I think that the word pivot was the one of the most highly used words this year. What have you learned in the past year about people about restaurants and about yourself?


Thom Violette

You know, there's always that phrase pride Zilla that people use for you know, for anxious brides. I


Alvin Williams

think I've met her several times.


Thom Violette

But But honestly, the, one of the some of the most resourceful and people that handle this with the best were the brides whose weddings we did during COVID. You know, they've been planning and waiting for this day, their entire life. And they envisioned one thing. And then the grace and the poise that they just pivoted, you know, had a wedding. That was not what they had always envisioned, but it was just as special to them. And it was just as memorable hopefully, you know, I was always an all of them. They were really some of the most impressive people that I dealt with during the entire pandemic. Yeah,


Alvin Williams

we experienced some of that to it seemed like their mindset shifted from, you know, what this perfect wedding and the flowers are going to look like this. And this is going to look like this and, and then they realize that they're thankful to be here and having a wedding at all. And it just shifted their whole mindset, just to be thankful to have an occasion.


Thom Violette

I agree. I think they realized what was important.


Alvin Williams

Yeah, yeah. That's pretty cool to watch.


Thom Violette

What did you guys think as far as the challenges in from an owner’s perspective, what was difficult on you? And you know, what made you feel what makes you feel proud about how we handle this?


Brady Viccellio

I'm proud to still be in business.


Thom Violette

Amen.


Brady Viccellio

I think that certainly at times, I thought that, well, we're not going to be able to make it through this. And looks like we might, you bet we might Fingers crossed, you can


Thom Violette

bet we might.


Alvin Williams

I found that, you know, everyday, we have different challenges that we have to deal with, you know, one day, it's the plumbing and the next day, it's something else. And we deal with those things from day to day. And that becomes our restaurant life. But we had some big challenges this year. You know, like, do you ask your staff to come to work? Do you do you close your restaurant doors this day on that day, you know, some major questions that you have to dig deep inside and talk to your partners about and it was really tough, but we still managed to get through it. And like Brady says, you know, we're fortunate we're still here. I guess you got to take one day at a time on these things. He's done. Just see the picture step by step instead of just looking at it globally because it can get real scary if you one day at a time one day at a time.


Brady Viccellio

Yeah, I agree and it gets even, you know what the staffing it's been very difficult on everybody and the staff showed who they are a lot of them in a lot of ways. And I've been overall, very impressed with, with the people who just powered through it. You know, some people I didn't really expect, kind of became people, you know, just they weren't going to not go to work when,


Thom Violette

I remember Bobby Huber's first day here. When he came in, he walked up to me and he goes, I asked around about you. And I said, Oh, really kind of, oh boy. And he said, because I kept hearing that, you'd be a great person to be in a foxhole with. And I thought that was flattering. And I just kind of and I kind of thought about it. And every time things seem to get tough that always comes into my mind is you want to be there for your be there for your you know, your company and be there for the guy next to you. I miss Bobby.


Brady Viccellio

I do too. For those who of you who don't know who we're talking about Bobby Huber was a local celebrity chef, almost he was known to kind of bring modern food to this area. One of the ones passed away, what about five years ago? and worked for us for probably about three and a half years? At least a while. Yeah. And he was he was great, great chef, rich chef, good friend and a lot of fun. Yeah,


Alvin Williams

He had incredible personality -- never a dull moment. So Thom, let me ask you about outdoor dining, a cobalt, we're getting ready to build a an outdoor patio. Because outdoor seems to be such a popular outdoor dining rather seems to be such a popular option. And I wanted to ask you because this is going to mean a little more walking for our servers. And I hear that you know you and Larry over here at a Steinhilber’s are keeping track of mileage per day. I know at least diaries Are you keeping track of your mileage?


Thom Violette

Well, Larry does keep track he has one of those fancy Dick Tracy watches on his wrist that he talks and records the steps.


Brady Viccellio

We talked about what do you know, what were his top? Top nightlights when it 16 miles 16. That's what that's what he claims he claims to have walked 16 miles and well actually is a double. So it's a double shift, I guess was brunch and dinner.


Thom Violette

I do not keep track of that. I do know, the way I keep track is I go to my garage. And I've had to punch two new holes in my belt.


Alvin Williams

You know, Brady, if Larry's walking 60 miles a day, you should charge him for like gym service?


Brady Viccellio

Yeah, that's a good term subscription. He should be thanking you. He looks great. He does look good.


Alvin Williams

Yeah. So what do you think about the outdoor dining time you think that's going to be the wave of the near future?


Thom Violette

I think that's a genie that is thankfully out of the bottle. It's for us. We've got that great, great resource back there with that beautiful lawn, a great view of the river. And it is a really peaceful, peaceful environment. You know, it's a treasure, and I'm glad people get to enjoy it. I enjoy going out there. I don't it's a little bit of walking. But, you know, like I said, keeps you in shape.


Brady Viccellio

It does. And people really appreciate it. And it's great to see the look on our guests faces when they walk down those steps. And they see that view.


Thom Violette

Yeah, it really is -- makes you feel good.


Brady Viccellio

So we could eat here. Yeah. As summer is fast approaching, people are dining out more and more. What message would you have for those restaurant workers who have decided to remain on the sidelines and collect unemployment?


Thom Violette

You know, a lot of some of them have legitimate reasons, you know, with the children going virtual, that's made, you know, be somebody's got to be there with me just can't leave your kids at home with a computer. If they're looking to come back now is a great time. There are opportunities all over the place. If you're, you know, front of the house worker that wants to you know, put another tool in your toolbox. I'd like to try the back of the house. There are kitchens all over Tidewater that need help. If you're somebody from the back of the house that says, hey, look, you know, I've always wanted to be out front, you know, everybody's looking for everybody's looking for waiters and waitresses. I just think it's now's a great time to to look for a job and get back in the game.


Brady Viccellio

I also think it's a great opportunity for younger workers who are less experienced, because frankly, we're in need of employees, and where somebody less experienced might not be chosen. Now there's a huge opportunity to come in and get training and get paid for it. Absolutely. If you get the opportunity to work with somebody like Alvin and come in and learn the ropes from him and not have you know, a lot of people that are in front of you for certain jobs, your opportunity to come and show what you can do and you know, make a positive impression.


Alvin Williams

What do you think about that from this perspective, that, okay, so we, if we're lucky enough to get some more people in, we're going to have to take that time to train them. And right now, we're ramping up into our summer season, which is super busy. So we're going to have time to train people while we're trying to you know, take care of people.


Thom Violette

That’s the huge challenge, I think that we're facing right now, but we're facing it across the board, you know, the front of the house, you 2004 and 2005 we'd have interviews for weeks on end to hire three servers and we just have all these people with this incredible fine dining experience. Now, if you've ever eaten in a restaurant before you're under heavy consideration, yeah, exactly.


Alvin Williams

But it's not just it's not just restaurants time. It's hotels and it's, you know, stores and all these businesses down at the oceanfront.


Brady Viccellio

Restaurant Depot.


Thom Violette

I got a I got a job offer in the freezer and restaurant depot this morning. Not really, but it was taking a while to get the stuff out and I almost inquired.


Brady Viccellio

And by the way, if any, if any listeners happen to know anybody who is out of work, or a young person who's looking for work or are interested in the restaurant business, now is, again, a great time to get into it. And not only is it great, because you have such potential for growth and fast promotion. But we're also offering at Stein hellebores, we're offering a referral bonus of $200. If you send somebody in, and they stay for 30 days and add that 30 day mark, that new employee gets a $200 bonus,


Alvin Williams

Just send that send that person to your favorite restaurant doesn't have to be ours, any restaurant, everybody's looking and people have got bonuses out there, they're doing hiring bonuses and vaccination bonus if you've been vaccinated, or a retention bonus if you if you continue to work for a certain period of time. So there are good deals out there. And there's good opportunities.


Brady Viccellio

Everybody's looking for people. In a previous podcast, Alvin and I talked a lot about special orders and things like that, that really kind of throw the kitchen off the rails, which is in a normal environment challenging. And when we're so short staffed, and coming off of this pandemic, it's sometimes debilitating. I think that our guests, the ones that have been at home for a year, are are just chomping at the bit to go out and be social again and enjoy themselves. Actually, we're still in a pandemic, and we're still, you know, between a half and I don't know, three quarters staff depending on the night, Tom, what is it that guests can do to make their experience the best it can be?


Thom Violette

You're 100% right about people, people that hadn't been out in a year, I waited on a couple the other night with a small child that was probably about 15 months old that had never been in a restaurant before. So that you know, the energy, they were, they sat down had a great time, and it was but you could tell that they had been kind of chomping at the bit to get in there. I have not had anyone really, that I would say was rude or impatient. I think most of our guests have, we're very fortunate have been very understanding. But if you do, if you're out to eat, and you find yourself getting a little bit anxious, you know, we always try to put ourselves we always say put yourself in the guest position. I think, you know, during these challenging times, we'd kind of need to be a two way street, you also need to think you know, you've got young people that are waiting on you that may not have the most experience and are doing the very best they can you have chefs and owners that are working as hard as they possibly can to get a menu that can be delivered at the highest quality food in the shortest possible time. And make your experience as good as possible. Everybody's working as hard as they can please try to keep that in mind. Because if you know your foods taken a little bit longer, believe me nobody's nobody takes it as hard as a staff does. They are people are back there trying to get trying to get it trying to make you happy, because that is the very best part about this job is looking down and knowing that you've created a special celebration for four guests. There could be two people in there on their first date, you know, you deliver a magical experience, those people could end up getting married. And people come back every year for their anniversary, because hey, we had our first date here. And if you make that make that experience magical, you know, those things are possible. So I mean, that's what we're trying to do, because that's what we're here for. Thank you.


Alvin Williams

Right, Tom, you're right. You know, we've had some great customer feedback, you know, everyone's enjoying the food and the service and they're really having a good time and most of the people are playing along with not playing along with it. They understand that the struggles that we're going through. I think it's good if customers understand a little more about our time management. You know, our servers don't always have so much time to spend at the tables anymore. Talking about you know, yeah, we are day to day because they've got so much to do.


Thom Violette

Yeah, which is which isn't useful for me because I get telling a story and writing for you know, my pagers right with, with the food being prepared. Yeah, but that is, you know, we need to keep our interactions at the table a little more brief because we're probably have a higher than ideal number of tables with the short staffing.


Brady Viccellio

I remember reading a Harvard study a few years ago, that said that a star for a restaurant on Yelp was worth 10% to their bottom line. And if you look at that through the lens of the pandemic, where, you know, we're doing the best we can, but sometimes, it's not exactly perfect. And we've gotten reviews, I'm sure we've both got reviews album, where there were being picked on for imperfection. And there's a difference between negligence and not caring, and a struggling staff who's doing the best they can to make everybody happy. And then being penalized for a poor Yelp review. Yeah, when they say things like, the food was fantastic, or service was great. But I'm deducting a star, because it took, we seem to wait a long time for appetizers.


Alvin Williams

Or they made us check our temperature or something. But we haven't had many negative reports or reviews. There are some, but it's important to say that these reviews matter. And to some to some restaurants, it's live or die. And, you know, a lot of people take these restaurant reviews to heart. So just think about what you're writing, because you really don't want to damage someone who's trying to just take care of their families and, you know, keep people employed. And your words can be, you know, not vicious, but they can be …


Thom Violette

Your words have impact.


Alvin Williams

Just be careful what you say. Because you could be potentially putting somebody out of out of business.


Brady Viccellio

Or really compromising a brand or a company that's just playing with a very difficult hand and doing the best absolute best they can, with the cards they've been dealt.


Alvin Williams

And they're on the line, they're living on the edge. And just one bad review could push them over onto the other side. And that would not be cool. And that's everyone, that's not our restaurants, that's all restaurants all across country because everyone's going through the same thing. And hotels and boutiques and you know, and everything else. So just be kind.


Brady Viccellio

Well, I think, I think that I think that we really need to concentrate on the positive right now as a society. And if you have a really great experience, I think that's the time to do a review. And I understand you know, you're upset, something doesn't go right. And you need to vent. Maybe wait a week. And, and if you feel about it, go to a few other, go to a few other businesses and see how they're doing, on the way passing Help Wanted signs in every window. And maybe, you know, just think about it for a little while. I mean, the positive reviews, by all means get them out. Let people know how hard everybody's working, and how much you appreciate it.


Thom Violette

Because it's read by the staff and the staff really appreciates that to that, knowing that they gave a good experience to one of the patrons.


Brady Viccellio

Even just an experience that was better than expected or, or surprisingly good or whatever. I mean, the perfection. Perfection is always the goal. But it's farther away right now than it ever has been. On a personal note, Tom, you just got married.


Thom Violette

I did. 50 years in the making.


Brady Viccellio

Tell us a little bit about that. I know you got married in a balloon or something?


Thom Violette

Oh, well, it was Yeah, it was a great experience. It was a Thursday afternoon and I gotten home and I walked in and my now wife said you need next Tuesday off. And this was beginning of March and we didn't have a whole lot of events or anything. Of course Tuesday was the only day for like two weeks that we had an event I could work. So I just start grumbling. We said I said I can't be off Tuesday, I need to make money and she said, we're going to Charlottesville, we're going to get married and then go on a hot air balloon ride. a hot air balloon had been at the top of my bucket list since I was a little boy. So I said done. And we went up there and it was probably one of the one of the most special days in my life. It really was I went to Charlottesville we stayed at the Boa’rs Head. They lived up to their reputation, despite all the COVID stuff, but it really was a day I'll never forget and I'm eternally grateful. Thanks sweets. It was a great time.


Alvin Williams

That's cool. I heard you'd vowed that you would never get married until maybe there was a national pandemic.


Brady Viccellio

So at home, you got your wife now and you've got all these other sentient beings.


Thom Violette

Yeah, the city of Norfolk restricts you to four pets so I officially have four pets that are residing with me. We have cats and dogs and one dog. We just just got our new Gracie Bell, who is amazingly adept at clearing the back lawn of geese.


Brady Viccellio

yeah, we may need to put her on the payroll we do. I was doing some research on that today talking to a geese expert for the podcast.


Alvin Williams

All right, Thom, this is the favorite part of our show, where we like to ask you a few questions and see what your answers are. But you got to answer them quick. It's got to be like, right off right off the hip. Okay, you ready? This is a lightning round. All right. What is your favorite movie?


Thom Violette

Casablanca.


Brady Viccellio

Favorite meal?


Thom Violette

Steiny’s fried shrimp.


Alvin Williams

Oh, good. What three words would you think best describe yourself?


Thom Violette

Loyal. Hard working. Combustible.


Brady Viccellio

You're all of those. If you weren't doing this, what would your other dream job be?


Thom Violette

Oh, basketball coach. My nephew's actually just got named Middle School Athlete of the Year at Norfolk Academy. So congrats, good job buddy. And they play in the state quarterfinal today in lacrosse. So good luck, Bulldogs.


Alvin Williams

Cool. All right, what is the best advice you've ever received?


Thom Violette

I think probably, I believe is named Admiral McCraven. He did a talk about making your bed every day. And I think some of that, you know some of the points in there about getting up early. Being prepared for the day ahead. I think that's probably that was probably resonated with me the most -- I like to get up early. I like to make sure that you know to accomplish as much as I can in a day. Normally only get about five hours sleep and you know, try to pack the day full.


Alvin Williams

Good advice. The early bird catches the worm.


Brady Viccellio

If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?


Thom Violette

Michael Jordan.


Alvin Williams

Michael Jordan now or Michael Jordan back when.


Thom Violette

Michael Jordan 1991 -- now wouldn't be bad either.


Alvin Williams

I was going to say now be pretty good to him. Thom V great having you here again, as our first repeat guest.


Thom Violette

Always a pleasure to be with you guys. Feel like I'm eating the cool lunch table today.


Alvin Williams

Well, if you want to see more of Tom V or pictures, what else do we have transcripts? links you can check us out on our website.


Brady Viccellio

That's thecheckpodcast.com.


Alvin Williams

Correct. So please remember to tell you, your friends and family about the Czech podcast we can be found where all podcasts are found on Spotify, Apple, Podbean. And we had some good news this week.


Brady Viccellio

That's right, Alvin, we did. In breaking news, we were rated in the top 20 restaurant podcasts.


Alvin Williams

It wasn't 20 out of 21.


Brady Viccellio

I think it was 20 out of 25. It was no, it was way more than that. Out of the millions of restaurant podcasts I think we were number 11 or something.


Alvin Williams

Yes, which is fantastic. So thank you all. And please remember to give us five star ratings. If you if you have time. If you remember, we'd appreciate it that it helped us out. So thanks for joining us on The check and we'll see you next time. I'm Alvin.


Brady Viccellio

I'm Brady.


Alvin and Brady

And this is The Check.

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