Twenty years is a long time to work at the same restaurant.
You get used to the rhythm and flow of the dining room, the hush at the beginning of service, the chaos and buzz of a busy Saturday night, the calm as the rush finally begins to ebb and the quiet right before the lights are turned off.
After two decades doing the same thing every day and every night, certain things cement themselves as routine.
For Matt Villeneuve, it’s the personal relationships that help punctuate that routine.
“The people add the depth and all the color to that experience,” he said.
It’s the friendly banter with his colleagues inside the Rhone Room at Bern’s Steak House, where Villeneuve has worked as a captain for several years. It’s the daily check-ins with the restaurant’s sommelier. It’s the regular customers who always ask to be seated in his section.
“It’s hard,” he said. “Those relationships are what keep you going during the day. Work is the anchor that sets your rhythm for the week — you need that rhythm to keep your balance.”
Since losing his job on March 20, Villeneuve has had to readjust. He’s found that getting up a little earlier in the morning helps. (In the Before Times, he often wouldn’t leave the restaurant till midnight or later.) Doing yard work helps. Finding small projects around the house helps. Talking to his wife helps.
“You have to keep busy,” he said. “You have to remember to shower and shave.”
Sometimes he calls Bern’s, which pivoted to takeout when the shutdown began and just recently started offering limited dine-in service, just to talk to whoever is there and happens to pick up the phone. He plays Xbox on his couch, joined virtually by one of the sommeliers at the restaurant. He’s gotten better at keeping in touch with people online and through social media.
Villeneuve started training at Bern’s two days after he graduated college. The restaurant world was the only place he really wanted to work, Bern’s in particular.
“I’ve never looked back,” he said.
Villeneuve began as a waiter-in-training at the restaurant in 2000, working his way through a 10-month program and landing “on the floor” as a server after about 15 months.
As a captain, Villeneuve helped train other servers in his dining section, and worked five days a week, about 30 to 35 hours. Before the shutdown, his paychecks were roughly $1,000 to $1,500 a week after taxes, depending on how good the tips were.
After the restaurant was forced to close, it took a little over a month until his unemployment payments started rolling in, and they’ve been “sporadic,” he said. His wife, Lucia, also lost her job as a server at Eddie V’s in Tampa, and while the couple were able to defer some car payments and other bills, Villeneuve said he expected to be back at work by now.
“It’s been pretty disappointing,” he said.
May 8 would have been Villeneuve’s 20-year anniversary at Bern’s.
In anticipation of the milestone, he made a reservation for his family at the Tampa restaurant. His mother’s birthday was the day before, and all she wanted was the off-the-menu special steak sandwich.
Of course, the dinner never happened. On May 8, the restaurant was still closed for dine-in operations. Instead, Villeneuve and his wife picked up a curbside meal the night before and hosted a feast for his parents in their backyard.
It might have been different than what he expected, but the evening was still special.
“It was great to smell the onion rings again.”
Bern’s Steak House reopened for limited dine-in business on May 12. Villeneuve was not part of the initial reopening team and is still waiting to get his old job back.