When COVID-19 came to St. Louis, Catlin O'Toole sprung into action.
When Catlin O'Toole talks about her love for hospitality, the conversation quickly turns to her dad. As a kid, it was the norm for her to watch as he generously entertained guests and welcomed people into their home for food, drink and conversation. It made a lasting impact on her.
"My dad was the ultimate giving, home-hospitality kind of guy," O'Toole says. "He's just the kind of person who puts a drink in your hand once you get two steps in the door; he'd keep filling your plate with food and give you some to take home. He always cooked a lot, too, so I grew up cooking with him and loving food. He really loves food, and I do too, so it was a way to connect with him."
As assistant general manager at Brasserie by Niche (4580 Laclede Avenue, 314-454-0600)
, O'Toole draws upon those foundational experiences to take care of her guests, something that has been equally challenging and rewarding over the past year. It's a huge change from the environment she worked in when she started out in the business at her uncle's restaurant and bar. There, she cooked, washed dishes, worked the cash register and fell absolutely in love with the energy of a packed room. She knew that this was where she belonged.
O'Toole did not immediately pursue the restaurant business as a career, however. Instead, she went to college for psychology, not quite clear on what she wanted to do with her degree. She traces part of that uncertainty to her free spirit and the other to her genuine love of the hospitality industry. One thing that was clear was that she wanted to be in restaurants. While in school, she worked at places like the storied Jimmy's on the Park, and she could not shake the feeling that this was what she was meant to do.
O'Toole left St. Louis to live with her aunt in California, where she continued to make her living in the hospitality business. After she returned home to St. Louis, she stayed on that track before landing as a hostess at Brasserie. For seven years she worked her way up at the restaurant, jumping at every chance to go above and beyond her regular job tasks to prove her mettle.
That spirit would serve her — and the restaurant — well when the COVID-19 pandemic upended St. Louis' service industry last March. Though she had not yet been promoted to her current role, O'Toole sat in on management meetings where it was clear, even well before the March shutdown, that things were going to get bad. O'Toole sprung into action.
"We were all like, 'Oh no. This is happening,'" O'Toole recalls. "When it all went down, I was helping people get on unemployment and trying to do everything I could to figure out how to help. I was asking everyone, 'What can I do, how can I help, and what do we need?' I thrive in chaos, and that side of me just took over. I guess it's a fight or flight response: We need to survive, so what are we going to do?"
In the course of the pandemic chaos, O'Toole was promoted to assistant general manager, a role that has allowed her to help guide the Brasserie ship through this tumultuous, pandemic-induced moment. As the restaurant slowly reopened for carryout, then in-person dining, she's been mindful of her role that balances safety and service. She works hard to create an environment where people can feel like they have a momentary escape from the outside world, because they feel safe with Brasserie's protocols. Moving forward, she see's that as her ongoing role — and the ongoing role of service, in general.
"I feel like hospitality is all about empathy, but also intuition too," O'Toole says. "I think it’s just being able to read people's boundaries. Some people want to come out and celebrate whatever occasion they are celebrating, but they are still scared. You can feel people being more tense, and our job is to try to meet them where they are. Every table and guest has different expectations, so having a strong, empathetic staff that you can trust to tell you what's going on is super important. We're trying to make people feel as comfortable as possible. When they are coming in they are trying to escape whatever is going on on the outside, and, for the most part, people are just happy to be there. It's given people a little more gratitude that they are able to come out."
O'Toole took a moment to share her thoughts on the state of the St. Louis food and beverage industry, her love for music and why a little kindness — and a lot of mac and cheese — will go a long way.
What is one thing people not many people know about you that you wish they did?
Maybe some people do know this, but I also write music, play guitar and sing in a band called O’Ivy. The other is that I’ve been alcohol free for over two years!
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Drinking hot tea in the morning, cuddling my cats and soaking in a warm bath.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
So many. Melanie Meyer, owner of Tiny Chef, is one of my best friends and also happens to cook for me on a regular basis. I love so many restaurants though. Banh Mi So, Pho Grand and Cafe Mochi will forever be my favorites. I love Yaqui's pizza too. Indo is incredible for a fancy date night.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
I would say rice because it’s a great supporting dish that can highlight the main ingredient but versatile enough to be great on its own. Plus, like me, it’s best when cooked under pressure!
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Playing music, but since it doesn’t always pay the bills, probably voice-over acting or pet grooming.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
It’s very tough. Working with the public in a pandemic can be risky and stressful, so a little extra kindness and appreciation from guests goes a long way.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
Needing to be extra mindful of COVID safety protocols at all times adds an extra layer of stress to the job. I miss the days when everyone’s health and safety didn’t have to be so forefront in my mind.
What do you miss least?
I don’t miss the super late nights. The 11 p.m. curfew has been nice!
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
My comfort food is deluxe boxed mac and cheese, and let’s just say I’ve been needing lots of comfort lately. I also love binging on salty stove popped popcorn with olive oil and nutritional yeast.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
Although it’s not nearly the same experience as dining in a restaurant, I think people still really enjoy the convenience of picking up a nice meal curbside. With so many restaurants having to pivot to those business models, I imagine take-out will likely continue to be a more normal practice even after more restrictions are lifted.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
I think there is a lot to be hopeful about. It was remarkable to watch so many kind people donate to our employee relief fund when everything was so uncertain. Also, seeing more politicians elected into office that align with empathy and the way I think makes me very hopeful. And more recently, talking with people that have received the vaccine and feel safe again is truly uplifting.
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