TAMPA — Behind him, a team of chefs, apprentices and food runners whirled into action as they prepared dishes for the 900-plus diners expected to go through Bern's Steak House on this busy Super Bowl weeknight.
In front of him, 30-plus servers and hosts buzzed through the restaurant's eight dining rooms, trying to meet every request of their guests.
But when dining room manager Joseph Donoian picked up the house phone between the kitchen and the dining areas Thursday night, he had a more immediate question on his mind: "Has Mr. Roker arrived with his party?"
For Donoian, the championship challenge during this championship week is managing the Bern's staff while meeting the expectations of a clientele that includes ESPN's Chris Berman, Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher and noted restaurateur Drew Nieporent.
Before the doors closed, Donoian had welcomed the Today show's Al Roker along with his colleagues Meredith Vieira, Jenna Wolfe and Kerry Sanders, and eight Chicago Bears players.
Not only does Donoian have to accommodate noted guests, he has to handle the desperate latecomers seeking last-minute reservations for a week the restaurant started booking in August. He oversees the front-room staff and also monitors the restaurant for "gawkers," folks who flitter from room to room hoping to see a celebrity or get an autograph.
It's common for this prestigious steak house to draw celebrities, and it strives to deliver its best every night. But serving up a memorable evening does take on a higher degree of significance during Super Bowl week.
This week, people hoping to secure a table have offered inducements ranging from sporting event tickets to an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas.
"I always say, 'That is not necessary sir,' " Donoian said. " 'I'll do what I can, but please keep in mind I have very little flexibility.' "
The flexibility became more limited Thursday because of rain and traffic, factors that can delay arrivals and cause reservations to back up. Donoian, 58, preaches patience to the guests, a trait he has developed during 32 years in his business.
"It's definitely an acquired art," he said of his even temper. "If someone becomes irate, I make sure to keep an eye on them. I never allow anyone to leave the restaurant unhappy.''
The mission is much the same for Bern's two head chefs, Habteab Hamde and Andy Minney. Despite the frantic pace, they're appearing on a Super Bowl edition of the Today show Sunday morning. That won't leave much time to sleep.
Minney said it's not a problem.
"You have to love working while the rest of the world is partying," he said. "That's what we'll be doing this weekend.
"I tell people, if you don't love working while everybody else is partying, you are not in the right business."