A little more than two weeks into the state’s “pause” that restricted restaurants and bars to 25 percent capacity, permitted only four people per table, and required reservations to slow the spread of COVID-19, independent restaurant owners on the Strip are still trying to figure out how to adapt to make these mandates work. Gov. Steve Sisolak called for three weeks of new restrictions ahead of Thanksgiving, just as restaurants were preparing to serve visitors prix fixe menus of Diestel Farms turkey slices and wedges of pumpkin pie that had, in the past, been a slight revenue boon for November. The new mandates reduced capacity by half of what it had been the previous six months, putting new obstacles in the way of restaurant owners and chefs who await a response to their call for a new round of bailout money from the federal government.
Many already started offering takeout, although they admit that tourists who come to Las Vegas tend not to want to eat in their rooms and locals rarely drive to the Strip for a meal to bring home. December typically brings thousands of cowboys and their fans for the National Finals Rodeo, the finale of the high-stakes event with cattle roping, bucking broncos and bulls, bareback riding, and barrel racing. Instead, the rodeo set up camp in Arlington, Texas, while Nevada continues to cap conventions and events at 250 people.
Tourism in Las Vegas remains low, bringing weekend occupancy rates of 64 percent in October, according to the latest figures from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, while weekday rates are even lower at 39 percent. All of this takes a toll on restaurants, which are fighting to stay afloat, if not alive.
But these restaurant owners and chefs remain resilient, adapting to these new restrictions that they cannot change, depending on the state to lift the new temporary mandates. The governor already warned that he doesn’t want to impose stricter guidelines to keep hospital rooms from being flooded with COVID-19 patients, but he may when his three-week pause ends on December 15.
The state reported 3,053 new COVID-19 cases on December 9, the third-highest daily number of new cases recorded since the pandemic began in February. The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services reports 25 deaths, bringing the total statewide to 2,448 since the beginning of the pandemic with 179,409 cases recorded to date. Nevada now has the highest number of people hospitalized per capita of any state at 58.8 people per 100,000 residents, a record level it hit on Friday.
Here, four restaurateurs with operations on the Strip share how they are coping with the new restrictions and looking ahead to winter, with the possibility of even fewer tourists coming to the city for Christmas, New Year’s Eve with fireworks displays canceled, and a January with no Consumer Electronics Show.
Eater Vegas: How would you sum up business during the new restrictions with 25 percent capacity, mandatory reservations, and a maximum of four people per table?
John Kunkel, founder and CEO of 50 Eggs Hospitality, with Chica, Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, and Spritz Restaurant & Bar at the Venetian: It’s absolutely impossible for any restaurant to turn a profit at 25 percent capacity and frankly, it feels like a slap in the face to our entire industry. We’re not changing what we do, we’re just changing the way we do it to ensure our guests still receive the level of service and quality of food our teams pride themselves on offering consistently.
Susan Feniger, co-owner of Border Grill at Mandalay Bay: With 25 percent occupancy and four to a table, it takes more room to serve less people. With only 11 tables in the dining room being allowed, when you mix in tables of one or two people, the restrictions lower the amount of guests below 25 percent capacity. Mandatory reservations would work to assist with staffing, but at the moment we’re noticing the majority of reservations are being made within an hour of when the guest would like to dine.
Tom Kaplan, Wolfgang Puck’s managing partner with Cut at the Palazzo, Spago at the Bellagio, Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at the MGM Grand, Lupo at Mandalay Bay, and Wolfgang Puck Players Locker at Downtown Summerlin: It is more challenging to be sure, but definitely better than zero percent occupancy. Guests are still dining with us, whether on the Strip or in the suburbs, keeping 25 percent of our tables occupied 80 to 100 percent of the time, so there is some reasonable revenue being generated. Our restaurants with leases require a new round of negotiations with landlords. We are being creative with our labor schedules to minimize layoffs, especially during the holidays. We will have cash burn but again, better than being closed.
How have you approached takeout and delivery during the pandemic?
Jeffrey Bank of Alicart Restaurant Group with Carmine’s at the Forum Shops at Caesars and Virgil’s Real Barbecue at the Linq Promenade: We had a very successful app launch just last month for Carmine’s and Virgil’s that rewards our customer for their loyalty.
SF: Takeout helped while the pool was operating at full capacity. Unfortunately, being inside a casino on the Strip means our takeout has been limited to the guests in the hotel, and the guest that is willing to venture into Border Grill to pick up their order. We would love, love to have more locals ordering takeout. This would help so much to support our staff, who all live in Vegas, are part of the Vegas community, and who mostly grew up in Vegas. They all desperately need to stay working. We have always supported so much of the community, starting from day one with Opportunity Village and Three Square Food Bank, to One Drop and HRC, and on and on so having the support of the locals is so important. We are doing these fantastic family meal kits that people can pick up, put in their fridge at home, and pretend they did all the cooking the next day.
JK: We’ve introduced a takeout program for Yardbird Southern Table & Bar and Chica, but due to the fact that we’re in a casino, it makes the process challenging for locals or visitors picking up in comparison to freestanding restaurants or those who offer delivery.
TK: No Strip takeout, only Wolfgang Puck Players Locker, and it was strong at the initial shutdown in March to early May and is strong again. The neighborhood community loves and welcomes it. Our menus are varied, change frequently, are of exceptional quality, not pricey, touchless payment, and in-car delivery.
Has it helped your business? If so, how?
JB: It immediately increased our takeout sales and has shown us how much locals love our barbecue from Virgil’s and the value at Carmine’s with its wow-factor portions. Even though historically locals don’t eat on the Strip, the app has helped prove this wrong.
TK: Yes. Few locals want to journey to a Strip casino. Our menus reflect Spago and Cut without the drive.
JK: We’ve seen some success with Yardbird’s family packs in other cities and are promoting them locally, through Secret Burger’s #Homegating program, to garner awareness and hopefully see some traction with locals. Due to the limited capacity, we have experienced an uptick in takeout business from hotel guests as a result of the lack of available dine-in seating.
SF: When the pool was fully operational, we absolutely did better than now. With weather getting colder and restrictions tighter, we have seen a decrease, but we are hopeful that people over the holidays might need some delicious support in the kitchen and would count on us to help them with their holiday meals at home, [whether] it’s smoked brisket, Yucatan pork, chicken enchiladas, tamales, brownies, chocolate chip cookies.
ELV: What else will you be doing to mitigate lost revenue? Any new endeavors you took on?
JK: Our saving grace for 2020 was the launch of Spritz Restaurant & Bar poolside at the Venetian. We got a late start on pool season, opening with the property on June 4, but the response was much greater than expected since it’s our only all-outdoor dining venue. We’re looking forward to March, when we reopen Spritz and also introduce a yet-to-be-named new poolside restaurant located on the Palazzo pool deck.
SF: We listed our Border Grill catering and delivery menu on websites such as EZCater. Making ready to eat or reheatable family meals for pick up has been an avenue that we really want to try to grow. So far it’s been challenging, but we want to get the word out as these restrictions stay in place.
JB: We are also selling Carmine’s gift baskets and marinara in 32-ounce jars on our website, and those sales are starting to take off for the holidays.
ELV: How will you approach Christmas and New Year’s Eve this year?
JB: As long as the government allows us, we will be open in the dining room. Both locations are extremely large, so the social distancing is sometimes even more than 10 feet. We also expect a lot of takeout based on the phone calls we have been receiving.
SF: We are approaching Christmas with the same model as our regular service and, of course, some holiday specials. With occupancy down in the hotel and without a significant increase for the week of Christmas, we will conduct business as we always do, with delicious food and great service. For New Year’s Eve, we will stay open later than normal with several amazing a la carte specials. Without events happening around town we expect to see a slower New Year’s Eve this year, but if we can help people to celebrate virtually or safely with their families, we would love to plan that celebration.
JK: In addition to running brunch all week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, we’re offering special menu additions at both Chica and Yardbird for our guests. A prime rib to-go package from Yardbird will be available for those wanting to skip the cooking and pick up their holiday meal. For New Year’s Eve, we’ll be doing Chica Nights starting at 10 p.m. with a live DJ and bottle service.
ELV: What’s the outlook for 2021 at this stage? I realize there’s a huge amount of uncertainty, of course, but have you been able to plan for early 2021 at all yet?
TK: We don’t see any changes until June or July at the earliest when vaccines are universally deployed and casinos are busy with conventions again. But when businesses return, we believe it will be massively busy, a la the Roaring ’20s post the 1918 epidemic.
JK: Our plans for 2021 are ambitious given the circumstances, but we saw great reward in 2020 opening Yardbird Dallas this fall, as well as successfully reopening all of our restaurants across the country and in Singapore, with the exception of LA, since the closures hit us back in March. On tap is Yardbird D.C. and Chicago, reopening Yardbird LA, and in Vegas, we have our Palazzo pool restaurant and potentially a few brand-new concepts that have been in development.
JB: We expect great sales. Virgil’s and Carmine’s with their scratch kitchens and great value will be what people want when they are allowed back out to celebrate life and all the missed life events of 2020.
SF: Early 2021 we expect to see an increase in vacation business, especially with the rollout of the vaccine. We know people will be cautious, as we want them to be, but hopefully we will see a bit more happening. We are still planning for a nonexistent convention season into early summer. We are approaching this carefully, ready for either being slow or seeing an increase in regular business. The uncertainty makes for difficult forecasting and predictions.
ELV: How helpful has your landlord been during the pandemic? Have you been paying rent or a portion of rent?
SF: I have to say our landlord is incredible. They have always been so supportive, so loyal, so hands-on. Truly, we have had a great supportive relationship with them from day one. They always communicate, give their guidance, and are available whenever we need to connect. We couldn’t ask for a better landlord to work with.
JB: Simon properties and Caesars have been great partners, just as one would expect. David Simon and his team have always been big Carmine’s fans and we have a prior relationship with Eldorado as they had already owned the Tropicana in Atlantic City, where we have a Carmine’s location. They too have been great.
TK: Some good, some not good.
ELV: What could the government do for the restaurant industry?
TK: Easy: We need stimulus ASAP. The government forcing closures or severe reductions must support workers.
SF: There is no question that the government needs to pass the RESTAURANTS Act and give the restaurant community some breathing room to get back on our feet. Everyone should be signing this letter. The RESTAURANTS Act would give restaurants and bars a better chance at fully reopening and employing their teams again. It could reduce unemployment and give restaurants and bars the confidence they need to get through the winter, closures, dining restrictions, and vaccine distribution.
JK: Anything would be better than nothing. The lack of aid to our industry to date is complete BS, and I’m not going to stop pushing for an actual plan to save the millions of restaurant owners and workers that have literally been forgotten in all of the business bailouts and national economic recovery efforts.
JB: Step up and do their job! They all ran on a platform of leadership, so lead. You cannot impose restriction on an industry [restaurants] without a game plan of support. My staff comes to work every day and the government needs to be more respectful in supporting them. Eight weeks of the Payroll Protection Program in April does not cover 10 months of restrictions. Pass the RESTAURANTS Act now. The insurance industry gets away with murder by not paying our business interruption claims; the government needs to step in and backstop the problem. The amount of jobs created by restaurants, the tentacles extend to suppliers and vendors. It is almost surreal that we can be forced closed without support for our employees. Long-term loans would even help us. We may change our name to Carmine’s Airlines or Virgil’s Barbecue Air; maybe then we’d get some support.
ELV: What word best sums up how you’re feeling about the future right now?
TK: Survival: short-term carnage. Need to bridge the gap through full vaccine deployment.
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