Spring 2020 turned Las Vegas into an eerie, unknown place. Its standout features have been darkened dining rooms, networked shops, and cyclists riding down an empty strip.
Normality blossoms this spring. The casinos are open again, the capacity of the restaurant has increased to 50 percent – even day clubs are back, at least as quieter pools for adults, just without a party. People still wear masks and opt for elbow-tapping when they shake hands, but with vaccination rates steadily increasing, cautious optimism seems to be the collective mood. For the Las Vegas restaurant industry, comparing spring 2021 to spring 2020 leads to feelings of relief, exhaustion, and hope.
“We’re excited to see how it looks to get out of COVID,” says Wyndee Forrest, who co-owns the CraftHaus brewery with her husband Dave. The couple opened the restaurant’s second location (the original is in Henderson) in the Arts District in September 2019. The events of that opening night – beer tastings, sausages, people mingling – felt like a distant memory just months later when the pandemic broke out. Tourists disappeared and businesses in the Arts District opened their doors. The new location was temporarily closed and the Forrests focused on offering roadside sales at the Henderson CraftHaus location. Wyndee recalls that she has filled around 1,200 orders herself. CraftHaus also began offering direct sales online and shipping beer to a handful of states.
Just a year after the CraftHaus Arts District opened, the brewery hosted a virtual party with take-away beer kits, followed by tastings and live music on Facebook. “One of the keys to survival is being a storyteller and finding different ways to connect,” says Wyndee.
After the pandemic, the brewery plans to continue connecting virtually by producing tasting guide videos that consumers can watch while drinking CraftHaus beer at home. This is the most important lesson forests learned during the pandemic: adaptability. Wyndee says, “With so many doors closed and literally locked on our faces and we couldn’t function as a traditional brick and mortar facility, we really had to rethink our sales channels and know how we can reach our community in different ways. “
Similar to CraftHaus, Founders Coffee also opened a location shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic – in this case the first. The cafe then opened a second location in November 2020 amid COVID-19, an endeavor that Brittney Riskus, Director of Operations, describes as “nerve-wracking.” With locations in Henderson and southwest Las Vegas, Founders Coffee serves a local clientele. According to Riskus, this enabled the company not only to survive, but also to grow. “The Las Vegas community is much stronger and closer than I thought,” she says.
Another surprise: the drive-through window. During the moratorium on indoor restaurants in Las Vegas (and the subsequent reopening with capacity constraints), Riskus noted that people stopped to linger and chat while ordering coffee from their cars. “I’ve been working on COVID every day,” she says. “I realized, wow, our church just longs for friendship and they came to the passage. It was a big surprise to see how many people just wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t their kids, spouse, or whoever they were quarantined with. ”
Riskus has no plans to put the hand sanitizer away anytime soon. “I hope we can get through this in a healthy way,” she says. “We want to stay open.”
Todd Clore, head chef and owner of Todd’s Unique Dining in Henderson, shares this feeling. “I’m surprised at how people think they are Teflon and as soon as they step into the restaurant the mask is taken off and they are suddenly immune to it all. We tell people to wear their mask when they don’t eat but we become cops and it is shocking to me how many people are nervous about going out, but as soon as they go to a restaurant they want to run around like the virus doesn’t exist. “
Clore views the pandemic as “an interesting learning curve that I don’t want to go through again”. His restaurant specializing in seafood and steak did not offer takeout food prior to COVID-19. However, when so many restaurants in the area were closing, Clore offered a roadside pickup which was pretty good. This service persisted when indoor dining opened at 25 percent capacity due to low availability of reservations. “Everyone likes to eat around the same time – 6pm to 7pm is the average range,” says Clore. “I could get a seat, and that’s about it. After 8 p.m. in the suburbs, that’s not really meal time. I am glad that we are again at 50 percent capacity. I think we will all do a little better. “
From left German Castellanos Jr. and German Castellanos Sr. in Camarrada’s Mexican-Italian cuisine Louiie Victa
For food trucks in Las Vegas like the Mexican-Italian fusion spot Camaradas Mexican-Italian Kitchen, indoor restaurant restrictions are inherently no problem. Camaradas is permanently parked in front of a gas station on West Sahara Avenue. When COVID-19 hit, the restaurant simply removed the benches in front of the house and continued to serve food. “Since we are a take-out company, the weather is our biggest competitor,” says owner German Castellanos Jr. “We have been a take-out company since the first day of business.”
Despite this advantage over stationary restaurants, operations during the COVID-19 were not without their challenges. Camaradas sources many ingredients from Mexico, and supply chain disruptions made the business model difficult. “Protein prices have skyrocketed,” says Castellanos. “Our bakery for our tortas is closed. For us this was our second year in business. The first year you run in the dark, just hoping you don’t step on a crack and roll your ankle. In the sophomore year, you hope to tweak it, but suddenly this curveball came up to us. ”
Castellanos and his team responded by optimizing their menu. Surprisingly, much of it was influenced by how eating habits changed during the pandemic. Before COVID, guests were eager to try unique fusion products. As soon as the shutdown swept through Las Vegas, tastes shifted towards familiar comfort foods. “I’ve seen how many palates have returned to tradition,” says Castellanos. “The less noticeable things were the things people longed for the most during so much uncertainty in their lives.”
As spring warms up to summer, Las Vegas restaurant owners ponder what the traditionally busy months of June, July, and August might be like. Wyndee Forrest sees it as a time to prepare for the return of live events this fall – the annual music and food festival Life Is Beautiful, for example, returns to downtown Las Vegas in September. Brittney Riskus is focused on maintaining increased disinfection procedures until the pandemic is really over. Todd Clore is excited to continue serving local guests in Henderson instead of worrying about tourist numbers on the Strip. German Castellanos is just excited to experience the joy of people eating together again – friends reconnecting over lunch, families meeting over dinner – all the culinary occasions that make summer in Las Vegas (or any time of the year in Las Vegas).
“You kind of miss hanging out with people outside and doing things together,” says Castellanos. “When everyone is in a happy mood and partying, it’s good for restaurants because where else would you want to do this?”
• How Coronavirus Affects Las Vegas Food and Restaurants [ELV]