Getting Fresh at The Vinoy: Rethinking F&B at the Landmark Hotel

ST. PETERSBURG, FL—To say Barbara Lippert Readey has a real appetite for change is easily an understatement. Since taking the general manager helm at The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club here almost a year ago, the industry veteran has put her trained eye and operational vision to work to raise the bar—almost literally—on the historic 361-room hotel’s food and beverage—make that B&F in Vinoy-speak—programs.

Staying current in all things beverage and food is important not only to The Vinoy, but to the Renaissance brand overall, said Readey. “It’s always changing,” she said.

A steadfast career executive for parent Marriott International, who is now in her fifth GM slot for the global chain, Readey’s vision for change at The Vinoy started with the hotel’s strongest asset: its people. She revamped several positions, including making Executive Chef Mark Heimann director of restaurant operations with the quirky title Chef + B, and gave long-time Director of Operations Doug Fisher the responsibility of overseeing the bars and restaurants, including Marchand’s Bar & Grill, Veranda Café, The Clubhouse, Alfresco’s, Veranda Bar and Patio and Fred’s Steakhouse.

“So, that brought the heart of the house together with the front of the house, and the synergies and collaborations that have resulted are phenomenal,” said Readey.

Fred’s Steakhouse, in particular, is getting a lot of attention. Right now, it’s in the process of being reinvented from both a design and menu perspective.

An innovative ploy for the space has been the creation of a “pop-up” restaurant that takes over Fred’s once a week. A different menu, usually with a theme and matching decor, is presented to members of the private Vinoy Club, as well as overnight guests of the hotel, both of whom get preferential reservations. “If we’re not full to capacity, we will allow folks to walk in,” said the GM, noting the concept has been very well received. “We’re actually serving more customers through the pop-up events than we do with our traditional steakhouse menu.”

The most recent pop-up centered on a New Orleans Mardi Gras theme and appropriate menu. Others have included: Spanish Tapas, NFL Sports Bar, 1920s Speakeasy, Seafood House, Peruvian Night and French Brasserie.

“It’s a really great way to stay fresh and be always changing,” said Readey, adding Chef Heimann is committed to using local ingredients.

Fred’s itself also is changing in what Ready described as a partial refresh that will be complete in April. Local designer Michael Mastry of Haven Home Design is handling the interior.

“We’re lightening it up, making it more modern, and changing the lighting fixtures, as well as the art. And, in the beginning of April, we’ll move away from Fred’s as a steakhouse, and it will become more of a constant pop-up with different things happening in there. Occasionally, we’ll have the traditional steakhouse menu, but there will be an ever-changing variety,” said Readey.

As might be expected, the GM was concerned about the sustainability of such a concept in terms of costs and profitability; however, she said the team is able to make it work. “They look at groups that are in-house and the menus that have been selected, then they capitalize on the inventory they project to be on hand so they can maintain the efficiencies that allow it to be sustainable,” she said.

The GM said there is a reason it’s called B&F at the brand, as there is a strong emphasis on beverages. “We have a craft cocktail movement that’s going on and, every month, we have a ‘Behind the Bar’ series where we can educate and engage our guests. We showcase different bartenders and their skills, as well as different ingredients. In April, we’re going to have a ‘Discovery Hour,’ implementing a ‘beverage ritual’ in our lobby,” said Readey. She explained that guests checking in will be able to try complimentary beverages for one hour as a welcome to the landmark hotel, which is owned by FelCor Lodging Trust, Inc.

The Vinoy also partnered with local supplier Three Daughters Brewery, with which it collaborated to create a citrus-infused craft beer, Paul’s Landing. The brew is a nod toward William Paul, a St. Petersburg pioneer who planted orange seeds in the area around the time The Vinoy opened on Dec. 31, 1925.

Readey is no stranger to pushing the envelope to get the most out of the Marriott properties she has led as general manager, including the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay, Denver Marriott, Tech Center Renaissance St. Louis Airport and what was then the Marriott Romulus in Detroit.

“We’re always looking to raise the bar for our customers’ experiences. I think my energy and my leadership have brought more of a culture of collaboration. The dynamics have sort of changed and create an environment of empowerment, which is more likely to cultivate daily innovation,” said Readey.

—Stefani C. O’Connor