“Where To Eat Next?” Safety is the new hospitality for Vicia, Winslow’s Table

Michael and Tara Gallina, owners of Vicia and Winslow’s Table

Cheryl Baehr

Tara Gallina has a hard time wrapping her head around just how different things were last year at this time. Back then, she and her husband, Michael, were celebrating a series of professional successes achieved through their two restaurants, Vicia and Winslow’s Table. Thankful for where they’d been and optimistic about the future, they felt like they finally had the wind at their backs. Then, everything changed.

“If I had to go back to where we were a year ago, everything was sort of going our way,” Gallina says. “We had just gotten into our groove at Winslow’s and had been listed as the top restaurant in St. Louis by Ian Froeb at the Post-Dispatch. Michael had gotten his James Beard nomination, and it was our third-year anniversary at Vicia. It was just an optimistic time. We felt like we had worked hard and were making it, so to speak. That is really quite a bookend to where we are now.”

A veteran restaurant professional who honed her service skills at the acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York, Gallina has seen a lot during her time in the business. However, nothing she has experienced prepared her for the unprecedented challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has heaped upon the restaurant industry. Forced the reimagine the very foundation of hospitality, Gallina has spent much of the past year thinking through everything she’s been taught, how to apply it in the current pandemic reality, and what it means to take care of guests when circumstances put service and safety at odds with one another.

“Safety is the new hospitality,” Gallina says. “I didn’t coin that phrase, but it’s really driving all of our decisions – for our customers, for our team. If Michael or I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing, we wouldn’t ask someone else to do it. That’s our guiding principle.”

Since mid-March of last year, Gallina and her teams at Vicia and Winslow’s Home have been working to translate the experiences they would have provided to their guests inside the restaurants to a carryout and socially distant in-person model. It hasn’t been easy. When the virus first hit St. Louis last March, the Gallinas decided the best way to take care of their guests and staff was to close completely. They gradually reopened both restaurants for takeout, then outdoor dining, always anticipating what could happen and how they would handle it, as well as how to take care of their guests when the experience is so different from pre-covid dining.

“For us, we try to think of the little details and how to put a special touch on things,” Gallina says. “We print lovely copies of our menus and attached those to orders. Kara [Flaherty, Vicia’s sommelier] provides notes for wine pairings and takes the extra step to tell people why she chose the wine and its backstory. We engage on social media to tell stories the way we used to do in person and even just help people navigate our website over the phone. We still think of ourselves as providing service and hospitality even though it’s in a nontraditional way. We’re always thinking of the other small things we can do that don’t cost anything but can wow people because they are unique and special.”

Though Gallina is emphatic that the guest experience is at the heart of everything she and her teams do at Vicia and Winslow’s Home, the pandemic has opened her eyes to thinking about hospitality in terms of her employees. As she explains, the challenges of the past year have made her – and many others in the service industry – realize that taking care of their own people is the first step to taking care of their guests.

“I think one of the real positive things that has come out of this experience is that it has refocused our energy on not just how we make it great for our guest but our staff, too,” Gallina says. “How they feel is really important as well. It’s not that we didn’t feel that way before, but this has really put a new light on it, and that won’t go away. There has been a real learning lesson related to hospitality in that we are going to stand up for ourselves more and an industry and as forward-facing individuals. If we don’t feel right about something, we are not going to put up with it and do things that make us feel unsafe. It’s a hard shift, because it’s ingrained in us that the customer is always right, but this change is a good thing, and it feels like we now have the opportunity to do it.”

For all of the challenges, uncertainty and shake-ups she and her restaurant colleagues have had to endure this past year, Gallina feels optimistic for the future, because she thinks the industry will be better for having to think through these many complex issues. As she and Michael get ready to reopen their dining rooms and look forward to a time in which the acute part of the pandemic subsides, they stand ready to serve, no matter what that looks like.

“This has definitely pushed me to my edge, but it has also helped me hone in on who I want to be, what I want our business to be, and what I think hospitality is,” Gallina says. “I think when we come out of this we will be stronger than ever. It’s been a long journey, but I don’t feel defeated. I think people will be so excited to have experiences again, and we want to be ready for them.”