Las Vegas Sun

August 29, 2014

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Puck’s Vegas food empire grows

Wolfgang Puck owns or manages several fine dining restaurants across the country. This list does not include the company's franchised restaurants or catering operations.

  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles
  • Hawaii
  • Minneapolis
  • Northern California
  • Coming soon

Wolfgang Puck American Grille is scheduled to open June 30 at Borgata Casino Resort & Spa in Atlantic City.

As Las Vegas' resort empire grows, so does the business of its most famous chef.

Wolfgang Puck, the humble Austrian who brought Californianized cuisine to the masses, has plans for at least three additional Puck-owned and managed eateries around town.

Potential sites include the upcoming Palazzo and CityCenter casino resort projects. Palazzo is under construction beside the Venetian, already home to Puck's posh Postrio and Riva, a poolside restaurant that caters to hotel guests. CityCenter is under way next to Bellagio and owned by MGM Mirage, which operates two Wolfgang Puck restaurants.

His Los Angeles company, Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, owns or runs six restaurants in Las Vegas - his largest business center.

The company runs 14 fine-dining restaurants including Cut, which opened this month in Puck's home base of Beverly Hills. A Wolfgang Puck American Grille will open at the Borgata resort in Atlantic City on June 30 - Puck's first foray on the East Coast.

Rather than expanding worldwide, Puck prefers to stick close to home. Las Vegas, which he considers a California appendage, is the kind of place Puck wants to grow in.

"I think that we can achieve whatever we want in America, with Las Vegas being our main hub," Puck said in a lengthy interview with the Sun's sister publication In Business Las Vegas. That article will appear in the June 16-22 issue.

Puck was in town to host a dinner for MGM Mirage Chief Executive Terry Lanni and check on Spago, which gave birth to the celebrity chef trend in Las Vegas when it opened 13 years ago at the Forum Shops at Caesars.

Puck was recruited by Forum Shops developer Sheldon Gordon, a fellow Californian who bemoaned the lack of fine dining in Las Vegas.

"I decided the easiest way to get rid of him was to say 'yes' so he wouldn't bug me anymore," Puck said.

Puck couldn't have anticipated Spago's effect on the Strip's tourism industry.

After a rocky start, the offshoot of his famed Beverly Hills restaurant bloomed in the desert, prompting casino executives to recruit other name-brand chefs.

The restaurant opened just before the December holiday season - the slowest time of year. Looking at a virtually empty room for the first couple of weeks, Puck second-guessed his decision about coming to town.

"I was hearing from all these rich people, the high rollers, that they could get free food, free caviar, free Dom Perignon," he said. "How can I compete with that?"

His venture soon grew popular with local diners, who remain his most loyal clientele. Within a few weeks, Spago was thriving, its success carried locally by word-of-mouth.

As Las Vegas' shopping scene went upscale, Puck benefited from the new tourists, who are younger, wealthier and more brand-conscious than in years past.

"Because of the Food Network and all these magazines and newspapers writing about food so much, now people really know" about food, he said.

Young people are also freer spending than older people, he said.

In its sheer volume of high-end restaurants, Las Vegas ranks at the top of the heap with New York, the longtime culinary capital.

Las Vegas' star power is staggering, with at least a dozen name-brand chefs running gourmet eateries. They include Joel Robuchon, Jean Georges Vongerichten, Emeril Lagasse, Alain Ducasse, Bobby Flay, Bradley Ogden and Michael Mina.

Once-skeptical casino bosses are now branding well-known chefs to enhance their hotels and lure well-heeled customers.

Puck recalls that it wasn't that long ago when he was urging reluctant casino managers to hire French chefs before they became hip. Casinos that operated expensive but mediocre restaurants for high rollers are now offering top-notch cuisine that can measure up to its lofty prices, he said.

Puck won't disclose profits for his privately held restaurant company but said each gourmet eatery averages about $8 million in revenue per year. Puck also oversees more than 100 franchised restaurants nationwide.

Chefs and casino bosses alike can be a pretentious bunch. But successful ones like Puck know how to change old habits when it makes financial sense.

"If someone wants a baked potato, we will make a baked potato for them. When I was 24 years old if someone wanted a steak well-done, I would say, 'No, tell him to eat the chicken.' "

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