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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Vicia's Kara Flaherty Embraces the Challenge of Hospitality in the Coronavirus Era

Posted By on Tue, Aug 25, 2020 at 6:10 AM

click to enlarge Kara Flaherty finds respite from the chaos of 2020 in her job as beverage director at Vicia. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • Kara Flaherty finds respite from the chaos of 2020 in her job as beverage director at Vicia.

Kara Flaherty vividly remembers the moment when she realized that things were about to get real with the COVID-19 pandemic. Standing at the host desk at Vicia (4260 Forest Park Avenue, 314-533-9239), where she works as beverage director and sommelier, she was looking out at the crowded dining room and felt surprised that people were still coming to eat. Within a week, the city had shut down all the restaurants for in-person service.

"Service at Vicia is so precise and detail driven, that I remember standing there at the host desk and thinking, 'Maybe we should stop folding people's napkins when they get up from the table,'" Flaherty says. "Everything just steamrolled from there — we were shutting down snap-of-fingers style. Things moved so fast, it didn't even seem real."

For Flaherty and her colleagues at Vicia, that level of detail-driven service has not changed, even as COVID-19 has dramatically altered the notion of hospitality. In fact, the challenges of serving guests that the new dining reality has presented crystalizes why she got into the business in the first place back home in southwest Florida.

Flaherty always had a knack for customer service, but she never considered working in the restaurant business until a manager at a nightclub she used to frequent offered her a job bartending. Since she'd only worked in retail, she was confused by the offer.

"I'd never made a cocktail in my life," Flaherty recalls. "I used to drink Bud Light and shots of vodka. She told me 'That's the easy part. I can teach you to make drinks, but you have a genuine knowledge of customer service and are good with people. I can't teach that.'"

Flaherty accepted the offer and got up to speed quicker than she imagined, working at a bar that was constantly packed three people deep. Though she enjoyed the work, she decided to move to St. Louis and then to the U.S. Virgin Islands, working hospitality jobs at each location.

After leaving St. Thomas, Flaherty went to Oregon, where the area's renowned vineyards piqued her interest in wine. She carried that burgeoning passion with her back to St. Louis and Sidney Street Cafe, then eventually Elaia where the acclaimed sommelier, Andrey Ivanov, opened her eyes to a world of wine that she didn't know existed. It would change the course of her career.

"I've never been super crazy about classic things like Bordeaux or Burgundy," Flaherty says. "But I found Hungarian wine and Moroccan wine and all of the craziest stuff you can find. That was intriguing to me and is what interested me in what wine has to offer. It's what finally hooked me."

Flaherty eventually found herself working at Vicia, where she rose from server assistant to beverage director, a position she's held since last year. In that role, she spent her shifts guiding guests through their beverage pairings and helped them select wine — interactions that were the highlight of her day and that have become fewer and farther between in the COVID-19 era.

Still, she's not letting that impact the way she interacts with guests. Granted, the interactions may be shorter, but Flaherty feels there is still  opportunity for hospitality in even the littlest things, like knowing the curbside menu inside and out or putting together an online retail wine shop with a focus on providing the best value to guests. In doing so, she can still allow herself to get lost in her job — something that gives her strength to get through these challenging times.

"For me, it's those few hours a day I'm at work that I like to pretend nothing else exists," Flaherty says. "I can take a break from all of the questions and thoughts that plague us during the day and get into service and unwind. I know that's probably not normal, but that's the way I've always been; I use work to take a break."

Flaherty took a few moments to share her thoughts on the changes to the restaurant industry in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, including how important it is to support small, independent businesses and what's giving her hope in these times.

As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
As a hospitality professional, I think it's part of my job to make sure my guests have no clue that I'm going through anything while they are trying to escape what they are going through.

What do you miss most about the way things were at your job before COVID-19?
Being in A/C! But seriously, I miss our menus. We had a three-course Farmer's Feast and a five-course tasting menu that would be very difficult to execute in our current setting. Getting to pair wine with those menus was the highlight of my day. Watching guests' eyes get bigger and bigger as we delivered the first course of the tasting menu, which included filling the table with numerous small bites. I miss it all so much!

What do you miss least?

I honestly loved everything about our restaurant before, but if I had to say something, formal footwear. I get to wear sneakers now! My feet are a lot happier.

What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Hmmm, I don't do anything every day. I did start hoarding plant life, so watering them on the same day every week and keeping them alive has been a "new normal" routine.

What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I don't really eat or drink because of stress. I do, however, binge watch really silly, happy-go-lucky TV shows like Parks & Rec and Community. However, when we were furloughed for two months, I did make sure to cook elaborate meals almost every night. That served a dual purpose: It took up a lot of time and helped us preserve “date nights."

What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Patience, wine and food for my animals. They go really crazy if they see the bottom of their food dish.

You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
My husband and my two best girlfriends, Jen and Katie. I know for a fact we can all sit on the couch and binge watch TV. That's very important in a quarantine friend.

Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
Get a haircut. I think my last haircut was in January! I'd also have a dinner party. I finally have a formal dining room. I can't wait to fill it with good friends, wine and food.

What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
I feel like that is so far away, it's kind of hard to say. I'm hoping that the small independent restaurants can hold on so we are not subjected to only chain restaurants and fast food. #saverestaurants.

What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
Seeing all of the people enjoying family time outdoors.

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