By Jeff Maisey
Few industries seem to be as impacted coming out of the pandemic as the restaurant business.
While customers have returned to near pre-Covid numbers, restauranteurs in Hampton Roads and across the nation have seen their food costs and overall operating expenses dramatically increase due to inflation and supply chain challenges.
Arguably the biggest issue facing restaurant owners, however, is staffing, whether it’s finding line cooks to show up on schedule and work their complete shift or servers — the frontline and face of a business — who determine whether a diner is satisfied and likely to return.
The later is not an issue for The Coach House Bar & Grill in Norfolk, where the quality, efficiency, friendliness, and knowledge possessed by its food servers and bartenders is a pleasure to observe, a sight to behold.
First and foremost this aesthetically pleasing neighborhood restaurant is properly staffed — a rarity these days. As soon as you walk in the front door, a pair of smiling hostesses stand eager to get you seated.
Once seated, your assigned wait person arrives at your table, welcomes you to the restaurant, and gives you a moment to peruse the drink menu. Craft cocktails and beer are offered. An eclectic and well curated wine list impresses both in quality and reasonable pricing.
As a frequent diner at The Coach House, I’ve noticed the staff operate similar to the gears inside an old school wrist watch. They are constantly in motion and in harmony. One person may arrive with your martini and bottle of Quilt Cabernet Sauvignon, another person delivers your appetizer and entree.
For regulars — and there are many — the staff are like friends. After a few visits they know your preferences, what salad you ordered last time, and even where you vacationed last month if it came up in conversation.
Most joined the team not long after the restaurant opened. Some members of the staff have professional day jobs and moonlight a few evenings as a waitress. One is essentially a scientist by day working in the peanut industry tasked with enhancing the yield of each plant. A bartender literally doubles as a comedian and awaits is big break in show biz. Smart people.
When I dine with my partner, Lynn, and friends, more often that not Annie Rostov is our waitress.
“Hi, friends,” she says.
Rostov is the exception at The Coach House in that waiting tables is her full-time job of choice.
“It’s pretty much all I’ve ever done,” she said.
Her first gig in the food business was multi-tasking at Five Guys in Ghent. She flipped burgers, fried the fries, washed dishes, the gamut. She then switched an apron for a server’s pad and worked at Route 58, a now defunct New York City style Jewish deli in Virginia Beach.
“That was more of a turn-and-burn,” she said of the deli experience. “Here at The Coach House, we want you to take your time, enjoy a few appetizers, and your dinner. I feel like most people stay here for 1-1/2 to 2 hours.”
Establishing a rapport with customers and coming across as genuine are attributes Rostov and her co-works seem to share.
“I have always loved people,” she said. “One of my most favorite things is getting to know people in a personal way; what makes them them; what have they gone through. I really like connections.”
The Coach House Bar & Grill was opened in 2020 by wife and husband team Dana and Kevin Kern, along with John Power, who was an original owner of The Blue Point restaurant in Duck on the Outer Banks with chef Sam McGann.
The Coach House name, of course, harkens back to a restaurant at the same location by the same name back in the 1980s. The former Coach House was popular with locals for its comfort food and live music. Rockabilly-meets-blues band The Jailtones regularly performed at the old joint. The focus now is on the dining experience.
Where Dana minds the bar, the front of the house, and is on her way to being a certified sommelier, Kevin’s in the kitchen making sure every dish destined for a table is cooked by request to perfection.
The Coach House has a core, consistent menu. Some of the entrees and accompanying side items are slightly altered based on the season. They also offer fresh, seasonal specialties like soft shell crabs or rockfish.
Some of my personal favorite items include the Faroe Island Salmon, Bison Meatloaf, and NY Strip (covered with a black pepper tart cherry goat cheese and served with asparagus and baked potato salad). The most popular entree, I’m told, is the Creole Etouffee. For diners, the staff is well informed of the ingredients used in each menu item, right down to knowing whether onions or onion powder was used in a sauce.
Annie Rostov says hiring the right people who fit and complement the existing staff is vitally important to the unique chemistry people find so appealing at The Coach House, but the managing ownership’s outlook and care is the ultimate determinant in a quality, reliable staff.
“A huge part of it is management and how you are treated by your bosses,” she shared. “They really do create a very comfortable, happy environment.”
Rostov explains the across the board enthusiasm of staff comes naturally.
“We’re like a big happy family here. Even though there are so many different kinds of people who work here — people from all walks of life — I feel like we really mesh well together. It’s the best team I’ve ever worked with.”