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April 19, 2014

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Riding the economic rollercoaster in the kitchen

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Barbara Kraft

Wazuzu at Encore.

Where the hell is this economy going? I think I speak for a lot of Las Vegas restaurant operators when I say I just want to throw up my hands in frustration.

Coming out of last year, a year that was a tough one for the casino food and beverage industry, we expected a very lackluster Christmas and New Years. We all were staffed down thinking that ho hum was going to have to be enough. I thought about the bare minimum staff I could run and that I probably wouldn’t need too much of the good stuff, like live fish, lobsters and abalone. We knew had some prominent players on the books, so we prepared for a modest pop.

But Christmas and New Years were massive! We were busy beyond belief; it was like the proverbial old days! We were so crushed I was running to 99 Ranch and International markets in my own car to keep us stocked up in the kitchen. So naturally, I thought OK, it is a new year; people have a renewed sense of hope. It’s a new beginning and only better things are coming. Looking ahead, we had Super Bowl smashed next to Valentine’s Day, smashed up to Chinese New Year, smashed up to the MAGIC tradeshow! We’re in the money!

So the few weeks between the end of the New Year rush and beginning of CNY were all about ramping up. We crafted a new CNY menu and looked for some new sushi chefs and new cooks to keep us well-stocked. A lot of us threw a lot of resources at preparing for the upcoming tidal wave. I was chomping at the bit for giant 600 cover days, ready to count the money and have a great February that would kick-start an even better March.

But the windfall never fell.

Super Bowl was actually super-boo. V-day rolled in at the start of CNY and it felt like a regular Sunday. No extra covers! Red flag. And the oh no’s start. We have extra bodies on stations, extra product everywhere. CNY officially starts and for the first three days, covers and numbers are even softer than regular days. I had even more staff than I did for V-day, and now the oh crap’s in me start to fire. OK, shake it off. MAGIC is going to be awesome. We’re going to get it back.

Nope, never popped.

Being new to this great city, I find myself asking the old heads and trying to tap into their wisdom. There’s only one problem: All of them, I mean 100 percent of them, are totally perplexed. There is no way to predict anything, they tell me. All the old rules are out the door.

So now I find myself reaching again for my Magic 8 Ball, shaking it and asking, WTF? When is this lull going to turn around? How tightly must an operator batten down the hatches?

Even running super lean doesn’t mean much if not enough people are coming to Las Vegas. And this is coming from an operator who works at one of the best properties in town. In all honesty, we’ve turned profits across the board, but it’s still very depressing. I can’t imagine what it’s like at the places that aren’t making money, and I’m sure there are a lot of them. At the end of the day, we are all in the same boat.

So predictions? I only have one: It’s going to stay rough out there. One thing is for sure; here comes another spring and summer of hold on to your chef whites. If this great recession is over, I wonder how long until that trickles down to us.

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