On the first warm and sunny day in late April, Winberie’s is busy, not quite packed. A relaxed buzz drifts over the restaurant, punctuated by the background of tinkling tableware and the muted clatter of plates as staff move from table to table.
This culinary anchor at Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue across from Scoville Park is a microcosm of Oak Park diversity, seating a variety of races and ethnicities, ages and interests. People in jeans, businessmen and women in suits and ties, young mothers with children, senior citizens.
This is Gary Nebiolo’s world, where he’s at home and at ease. In his early 50s, he’s dressed well but casually in dark olive slacks and a blue patterned shirt. He moves slowly, purposefully and professionally among his staff, observing and assessing.
And helping. As a waiter walks up with place settings, Nebiolo walks over and puts three small tables together, then places a wooden child’s chair at one. As the patrons settle in and a waitress arrives with menus, he returns with a sheet of coloring paper and asks, “Too young for crayons?”
“Yes,” says the young mother, thanking him.
Satisfied everything is OK, he drifts away from the main entrance to the south room. As he moves about the restaurant, Nebiolo’s eyes are mostly slightly downward, glancing at tables. Throughout it all, he appears relaxed but attentive, calmly addressing each need as it arises.
Five minutes later, he returns to the main room, balancing three plates along one arm as he serves a table of business people. On his way back, a plastic baby bottle skitters across the floor. Nebiolo calmly reaches down and retrieves it. “There you go,” he says with a smile as he hands the container to the mom with the coloring page. Three seconds later he’s gone.
It’s all part of Nebiolo’s model for success: being not just the boss, but the maitre d, server, supervisor, mentor, go-fer, greeter and overall happy participant in the daily dance of running a popular restaurant.
Nebiolo likes it that way. “It would be very boring to be just a director, to stand back with my arms folded.” There’s not much chance of that. He likes the interaction too much. He may be in charge, but he doesn’t stand apart.
“Staff can’t be expected to do everything every time for customers,” he said. “Our role is to fill the gaps.”
Nebiolo recalled an old Mike Royko column, its exact details lost in time, but the spirit fresh in his mind – of Royko talking with alter ego Slats Grobnik as they sit in a fern bar, circa 1980, the sort of joint Royko loved to loathe.
Long story short, Grobnik tells Royko what he thinks is wrong with modern foo foo eateries is that the owners don’t attend to the little things. Alluding to the old-school Greek restaurant owners he and Royko grew up with, Grobnik says to him, “The Greeks would do whatever they had to do.”
“That’s my philosophy,” Nebiolo said. “Do whatever you need to do.”
Nebiolo said he got into the restaurant business “through dumb luck.” He’d been considering studying to be an accountant like his older brother.
“If you don’t like sitting at a desk, don’t become an accountant,” his brother told him bluntly. “Best advice I ever got,” said Nebiolo.
After community college, Nebiolo enrolled at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (in Indiana, Penn.), which had a school of nutrition. Within that school was a food service management program. After earning his hospitality degree, Nebiolo was recruited by Stouffer, an elite restaurant corporation, which opened Winberie’s predecessor at Oak Park and Lake.
At his first restaurant, in Pittsburgh, he learned what the restaurant business was about – or should be about. That’s where he first realized the value of having experienced, loyal staff.
“[The restaurant] was 50 years old at the time, and they had employees who’d been there 20, 30, 40 years,” he said. “They served in a day what we serve here in a week. I learned firsthand what a real restaurant was.”
Early on in Nebiolo’s career, he was a basically a restaurant gypsy, a troubleshooter moving from one eatery to another to straighten out problem operations, then on to the next challenge. In the early 1980s, he did stints at Stouffer’s two James Tavern restaurants in Northbrook and Downer’s Grove.
“It was a year or two in any restaurant,” he recalled.
Around the time he arrived in Oak Park, in March 1984, the establishment that would become Winberie’s, known as The Cheese Cellar, wasn’t doing very well. Within his first year, the restaurant abandoned the old dark-wood concept and re-opened as J.B. Winberie’s. Then in the early ’90s, they got rid of the cramped booths, exposed the brick walls and really opened things up.
“That was a little bit breezier,” said Nebiolo. The restaurant began to take off. Still, Nebiolo figured his time here would be limited.
“I assumed I’d last a year, no more than two.” But Oak Park, as he put it, stuck.. “All the years I’ve run this business, I’ve loved it ever since.”
Boss, colleague, friend
While there are no 30-year employees at Winberie’s, Nebiolo’s proud that none of his employees have less than two years’ experience – most have much more. Yvonne Hill, who’s waited tables at Winberie’s for going on four years, gave Nebiolo the ultimate complement for a boss: tough but fair.
“He’s a good, hard boss,” she said. “He puts his foot down if need be; otherwise he leaves us alone to do our jobs.” Perhaps more to the point, Hill said, “he’s got a good sense of humor.”
Bartender Susie Crombie first started working at Winberie’s while she was a student at Columbia College. Eight years later, it still fits into her life.
“One thing about this place, a lot of people have been here a long time, she said. “It’s a good place to work.” She agrees with Hill about her boss.
“He’s loyal to his employees, and they’re loyal to him.”
Nebiolo is quick to admit the restaurant “is my home. This is my environment.”
And it’s an environment many enjoy dropping in on for lunch or dinner and other social events. A comfortable and welcoming place with consistently good food and pleasant, knowledgeable service, Winberie’s enjoys a large and loyal clientele.
The buzz in the restaurant on this particular afternoon is that there’s a “who’s who” dimension to the local lunch crowd. Around 1 p.m., Wednesday Journal’s management and sales teams, meeting with advertisers over lunch, passed by on their way out. Publisher Dan Haley comes to Winberie’s regularly, for all the reasons anyone frequents a restaurant – good food, good service, good atmosphere.
“He knows everybody, all his customers,” said Haley. “For a small chain restaurant, it feels like Gary’s restaurant. That’s an accomplishment.”
River Forest schools Superintendent Thomas Hagerman followed soon after, accompanied by former District 90 interim superintendent David Bonnette.
“Tell them we enjoyed our lunch,” Hagerman said with a smile.
Minutes later, outgoing Oak Park Village Clerk Sandra Sokol stopped at the front door and was more than happy to sing Nebiolo’s praises.
“I’ve never had a bad experience,” said Sokol. “It’s always a pleasure to bring people here.” Calling Nebiolo “professional and helpful,” she said, “he really cares about the community and runs an excellent restaurant.”
If Winberie’s doesn’t feel corporate, that likely has to do with Nebiolo’s conscious effort to be as involved in as many different facets of the community as possible.
“An early influence in Oak Park was Art Replogle,” he recalled. “He introduced me to so many Oak Park business people.” Nebiolo credits Replogle as a mentor.
“I built on those loyalties by being involved in the community,” he said. “We support so many activities in the village.”
Of all the things that have changed in the restaurant business, Nebiolo says, one thing stays the same: There is no typical day.
“What changes is the dynamics of every day, of every meal period,” he said.
Asked what the hardest part of his job is, Nebiolo has to think a moment.
“I used to think employee issues might have been,” he said. But that hasn’t been the case for years. “I have a very loyal staff, very loyal customers.
“There’s the occasional unrealistic request,” he said after mulling it over. “People with idiosyncratic tastes, or persnickety expectations about service. All you can do, in the restaurant business, is deal with it. We may put out what we think is a quality experience. It doesn’t matter. It may be just that one individual who doesn’t like it.”
The business has certainly changed. Restaurants need to be more flexible with their offerings, he said.
“Allergies didn’t seem to exist 30 years ago,” he said. “We’re more flexible today.”
The toughest times Nebiolo ever faced “was probably when the basement flooded,” he said. “Years ago it happened with much more regularity.” On second thought, he said a second later, there was the afternoon of the 2000 Oak Park and River Forest High School graduation, when the power went out.
“We had 300 plus reservations and no power,” he said, adding that not everyone was understanding.
But those pale in comparison with the rewards that have come with a quarter century at the corner of Lake and Oak Park – the people, the friends, the sense of purpose and connection.
Outside Winberie’s window, an endless stream of locals pass by, people who have trekked to Oak Park to visit the Hemingway birthplace or the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio and a dozen other attractions. Many stop here.
Asked about the people he’s met in his 25 years in Oak Park, Nebiolo reaches into his pocket, pulls out a handful of business cards and sorts through them. There are a dozen or so names written on the back of each.
“I have a stack of these this high,” he said, holding his finger 4-5 inches above the bar. “All people I’ve gotten to know.”
As the conversation winds down, another familiar face walks through the front door around 1:30, after the main lunch rush. “Good afternoon, Alderman,” Nebiolo says to 29th Ward Alderman Isaac Carothers.
“Hey, good to see you,” Carothers says pleasantly, waving back. “Known him since he became an alderman,” Nebiolo offered.
For the forseeable future
His enthnic roots, half Polish with touches of German, Italian and Swiss, come with the DNA for a long, strong life. His dad died at 94. His mom is still around at 92.
“I’m blessed with good genes, so I know I’m going to live to be 100,” he said. His very name suggests he’s right. Nebiolo, he noted, refers to the noble grape of Italy: Nebbiolo. Grown mostly in Italy’s Piedmont region, the grape used to make Barbaresco and Barolo wines, dates back at least to the mid-13th century.
His line of work helps him stay active and fit.
“I’ve never put a pedometer on,” he said of the days spent constantly on his feet. “I’ve wondered what it would be.”
A long time cyclist, he decided to do the Chicago Triathlon three years ago. It was, he said, “an unbelievable experience.”
And then there’s softball. “I still play,” he said with a smile. “50-plus and I love it.” Still plays the outfield, in fact, though he admits he no longer makes any diving catches.
“I’ve perfected my sliding catch,” he said, laughing. Like so much of his life, his role with the team started through the restaurant. He first got involved as a team sponsor.
“I sponsored the team, and one day I said, ‘Hey, OK if I play?'”
The only time Nebiolo is taken by surprise over an hour-long conversation is when he’s asked about his future. He doesn’t have a clear answer.
“For now I run a great business,” he said. “That’s my now answer.”
Noting that he still does not have a cellphone as he writes down his home number, he said, “My kids say, if they need me, they know where to find me.”
Just like everyone else in Oak Park.