Friday, May 28, 1999 | 11:01 a.m.
Wolfgang Puck is well known as the man who taught Las Vegas that tourists are happy to spend a lot of money at fine dining restaurants.
Now he's being credited with something else: giving locals something new to do on the Strip.
"I go down to the Strip more now than I ever did before," said UNLV professor Patti Shock, a restaurant expert. "We go over to the Strip all of the time to eat at the good restaurants. (Before the Puck era), locals didn't go to the Strip too often."
About 15 percent to 20 percent of Puck's business here comes from residents, said Tom Kaplan, a partner with Puck in four Las Vegas restaurants.
"If a local calls in, we'll get them immediate seating or reservations," Kaplan said.
The placement of Puck's Trattoria del Lupo testifies to that. The restaurant lies about 100 feet from the Mandalay Bay parking garage's entrance. Puck says that's intentional -- it makes it easier for a local customer to drive to his restaurant and easily find parking.
"We always try to attract the local people first," Puck said. "In every city where we are, we want to go for the locals, because they are here in December or June when it's slow, and there are no conventions. That's really our first priority.
"It's not that we don't want the tourists, because they're in the hotels, but we want to have the local people here. It's nice when you own a restaurant to see the same faces coming back."
Puck's leadership of the fine dining market here -- for both tourists and locals -- will intensify this summer when his fifth restaurant opens.
Puck says he expects to gross $40 million a year here when the fifth restaurant opens -- a quarter of the total sales of all of his ventures combined.
"I don't know of any (celebrity chef) out there who has restaurants in any city in many more places," Puck said. "Our main place will be Las Vegas."
Puck owns 35 restaurants, including eateries in the Los Angeles area, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Mexico City. He also owns a variety of lower-cost cafes at various locations around the country, and a line of frozen gourmet pizzas.
Last month Puck opened the Italian Trattoria del Lupo. Within four months, he'll open Postrio, a bistro in the Venetian. Puck also owns Spago and Chinois in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, and the Wolfgang Puck Cafe in the MGM Grand.
Kaplan, Puck's general partner in Las Vegas, said Puck's local restaurants now draw 2,300 customers a day (excluding the MGM cafe). Postrio is expected to push that number to 3,100.
His nearest celebrity chef challenger in Las Vegas is Emeril Lagasse, who owns the New Orleans Fish House in the MGM and Del Monico's Steakhouse at the Venetian.
"Am I surprised we have so many (in Las Vegas)?" Puck said. "I am, in a way, because I never set out to do that. Unlike some companies, where they set out and say, 'We want to own a thousand restaurants,' I am not interested in that. I expand if the demand is there, and I have the people. I wouldn't open a restaurant if I didn't know if I had the chefs to manage it."
Shock, a professor in UNLV's tourism and hospitality department, said she believes Puck's five Las Vegas restaurants are the highest concentration of operations by one celebrity chef in one city.
In Los Angeles, Puck's hometown, his four restaurants are more spread out, from Santa Monica to Beverly Hills.
Kaplan too believes this is one of the highest concentrations of any restaurateur in any city.
"We felt if we could do different concepts, we wouldn't compete with ourselves," Kaplan said. "There's a tremendous demand here, and we felt we've positioned ourselves on different parts of the Strip.
That's the result of the unique opportunity Las Vegas presented in the early 1990s. A the time it was a major tourist destination with few high-end restaurants.
"When he came in here, he didn't have a lot of competition on that level," Shock said. "Now he does, but he was first, and he established his presence. Imagine how tough this would have been in San Francisco."
Puck's decision to open Spago Las Vegas in 1992 is generally credited with opening up the fine dining market in the city. Today, Shock lists 10 celebrity chefs as operating in the city.
"We got an education when Wolfgang Puck proved to us that people will line up to get good food," Mirage Resorts Chief Executive Steve Wynn told the Governor's Conference on Travel and Tourism in December.
The renaissance in Las Vegas dining is having a substantial impact on the spending of its visitors.
In 1998 the city's 30.3 million visitors spent an average of $140.80 on food and drink per visit, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. That's a 13.7 percent increase from 1998, making it the fastest-growing sector of the tourist economy.
By comparison, shopping spending rose 6.8 percent, to $79.88. Hotels, shows and gambling all declined: Hotel spending fell 0.9 percent to $216.18, shows dropped 15.7 percent to $28.02 and gambling declined 9 percent to $469.29.
How long can the high-end boom continue?
Puck and industry observers say it can continue as long as developers continue to put up more high-end hotels on the Strip, since people who stay at hotels like the Venetian, Mandalay Bay and Bellagio are much more likely to eat at a high-end restaurant than a mainstream one.
"As long as the economy holds, we'll do fine," Shock said.
But that doesn't mean Puck plans to continue expanding rapidly. He has no future Las Vegas developments planned at the moment. If there are future developments, he says they'll probably be smaller restaurants, like Trattoria del Lupo, rather than large operations, like the 20,000-square-foot Spago. That decision is being spurred by stiffening competition.
"Five years ago, when people came from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, they knew one (high-end) restaurant, Spago," Puck said. "Now, they have the choice to go to 20 other places.
"The large restaurants do very well when it's very busy. But when there's a downturn, when there's no conventions, like July, you still have a heavy payroll. And it's easier to fill a 120-seat restaurant than a 220-seat restaurant."
So for the moment Puck wants to keep growing the business he already has.
"One restaurant is a big investment, so we really have to take it one at a time," he said. "When you open a new restaurant, you sign a lease for 10 to 20 years, so you have to continue to grow the restaurants you already have.
"It's like having kids. Making them is easy. Raising them is a different question."