Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dick Toda, Director of Food Services

From the Shrimp & Lobster Pasta in the Skye Terrace to the chicken wings in the Sports Gallery, Dick Toda is the point man for culinary delights that dull the pain of a photo finish beat at Tampa Bay Downs. Since joining the track as Director of Food Services in 1996, Toda has focused on dining quality. His philosophy is that no racetrack visitor, from the $2 bettor to the millionaire owner, should have to stop on their way to the track for a good meal. In his first two years, the Skye Terrace kitchen was completely rebuilt and the Sports Gallery underwent a massive overhaul. Continual upgrades have solidified the track’s reputation for haute cuisine and given Toda a cult following among food connoisseurs. Dick and Lucille Toda have been married 35 years and have five children: Rene, Richard, Michael, Lisa and Michelle, and six grandchildren.
When somebody comes up to me and says ‘I just had the greatest meal here,’ I get a high from that. Food is a delicate thing. You are never going to please everybody, and sometimes it is just a matter of taste. But we set our standards here as high as possible. If something is not right, we are not going to sell it.
I don’t know if I’ve been lucky or good, but I’m fortunate to have the nucleus of people we possess. My assistant, Roger Inman, moved here from Las Vegas with a background in food management and hospitality service. The rest of my team has been with me since I arrived. They are all very dedicated and do their jobs well.
My executive chef, Bob Schwertz, was with the Clearwater Hilton for a time. Cliff Adams, Bob’s first assistant, coordinates all the parties. I have a great Maitre d’ in the Skye Terrace, Pam Satory, who is very good about remembering people’s names. Keith Frank is my commissary person. It is his responsibility to see the stands get their needed supplies every day.
On a big day, we could have six or eight parties going on at any time – from the pavilion to the garden area, upstairs and downstairs in both buildings. It is work, but it is a lot of fun. We meet at least once a week to touch base, and we keep a lot of records. If we have a large function, we want to know how we handled it the last time so we can strive to do it even better.
Sometimes patrons suggest something that needs changing, and I have to take that with the compliments. We send out survey review sheets to all our group sales parties so that when they are returned, we can tell what kind of job we are doing. We work hard at the hospitality end of things. In the Skye Terrace, our entire wait staff is in tuxedo wear, with linen on the table and stainless-steel flatware.
I’ve been a friend of Mrs. (Stella) Thayer (owner of Tampa Bay Downs) for 30 years. She used to eat at our Ole Style Deli restaurant a lot, and we would talk about the horses. She would always give me a yearly pass, and I made a habit of coming to the races just about every Saturday. When she decided to hire me, I made a lot of changes, which were all for the betterment of the food and beverage service.
I brought in Nathan’s Hot Dogs, arguably the best on the market, and Boar’s Head meats. We put in some fun places, like the center of the grandstand, where we have cappuccinos and sell fresh pastries. Matt and Tanya’s Ice Cream is the best available because it is made fresh and delivered that week.
I believe when you get a sandwich here, you should thoroughly enjoy it. We have a very nice menu in the Skye Terrace, which is medium-priced and offers excellent food. We have some items in the Sports Gallery and Silks Poker Room you aren’t going to find anyplace else.
Our Sunday brunches have become very popular. They attract sort of a different crowd. We will put our brunch spread up against anybody else. We make omelets and everything else to order, and it is all prepared here at the track. Kim, our baker, has quite a reputation for the sweets she makes.
People love to talk about food, but we also sell a lot of coffee throughout the track, especially during the winter. We sell Colombian coffee, which is a little more expensive, but again our goal is to provide the best.
I used to own some horses with a group in the 1980s, and I owned some with Mr. (George) Steinbrenner when he was a regular here. It was fun to watch my horses run, but the expenses were always greater than the profits. I think maybe I needed better luck or better skill – or deeper pockets!
About 10 or 11 years ago, I flew with George in his Lear jet to watch his filly, Dream Supreme, run at Saratoga. It was a very festive mood going up. We listened to Frank Sinatra, enjoyed fresh rolls and fruit and were literally on Cloud 9.
But after she lost, things were totally different. His personality could change very quickly. As everyone knows, he was a very good winner, but he didn’t like losing.
George would call me three or four times a week and bounce different things off me, get my advice on trainers and jockeys. He actually gave me some voice in his organization. He would ask me about ballplayers, and we would talk about life. He had a lot more good about him than bad. There was a side to him that was very giving.
My late father owned a few riding horses in our hometown of Warren, Ohio, and when I was younger, I thought about becoming a jockey. By the time I was 16 or 17, I was too big. Since I left college at Youngstown State, I’ve been in food.
We had the rights to seven Southern cities for Arby’s. I thought I was going to be the next millionaire, but the franchisor imploded. I took a job in Detroit heading up a chain of supermarkets, but Lucille and I still hated the cold, so we came here for good and opened the Ole Style Deli.
Lucille still works at the restaurant in downtown Tampa that we’ve owned for more than 30 years. She cooks hot meals there every day, things like meatloaf and lasagna. Lucille has always told me that you should do everything as well as you can. Any time I’ve thought I can’t, she has been there to reaffirm ‘Yes, you can.’ She would never allow me not to do my best and has always been my inspiration.
On my days off, I love cooking gourmet meals for Lucille. Mediterranean foods are my specialties, all the foods of France and Italy. I’ll prepare lamb a lot of different ways, and I’ll usually make a Greek salad to go with it. The vegetable usually is whatever is fresh at the produce market.
I played tennis as an amateur, and I’ve been to Wimbledon, Roland Garros in France and to the U.S. Open in Flushing, N.Y. several times. At home, I enjoy playing the piano. Lucille and I are members of Cheval Golf & Country Club, and I try to play golf once a week.
I’m also on the board of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America-Tampa Bay Downs Division, and we do the food service for their big fundraising day every February.
Back in Ohio, my father and several of my uncles had a very unusual hobby: they were pigeon racers. Most people wouldn’t know that a pigeon race can have a purse of $100,000, more than a lot of horse races. I would help to feed them and clean their coops. They are no different than horses in that sense – you have to keep their environment clean and train them.
That was an interesting part of my life. The people who raced pigeons could be bank presidents, or a bank robber just out of prison. The only commonality was the birds and whose were fastest.


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