Chris Connors, owner of Me Gusta Tacos and the Local at the District at Green Valley Ranch, was preparing to shut down his restaurants and bar before this week’s mandate from the Governor’s Office that all casinos and nonessential businesses would close for 30 days.
“We were cutting our orders down to a minimum and carrying less inventory, which is a big thing for restaurants,” Connors said. “And then on Monday we just called it and shut down our District locations. If I don’t feel comfortable working the front register, I’m not going to have my employees do it.”
Local restaurants have the option to stay open if they can operate via food delivery and takeout services only, and Connors’ franchised second location of Me Gusta Tacos at 7423 South Durango Drive is doing that. But the challenges for the local restaurant industry created by this statewide shutdown are only beginning.
“It’s crazy because it’s like we don’t even know what day it is. People are just lost,” said Connors, who employed 30 at his businesses. “It’s tough. I’m trying to give employees links to helpful sites so they can collect unemployment and give them updates every day. Restaurant owners are used to dealing with adversity, but we haven’t dealt with anything like this.”
Las Vegas is known for the fantastic restaurant portfolio that lines the casino resorts of the Strip, but the off-Strip dining landscape has blossomed in the past decade. That landscape is facing its greatest threat now due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s very likely that many dine-in restaurants closing their doors in the coming days won’t survive.
Elizabeth Blau, a pioneering developer of the Vegas culinary scene on and off the Strip, is among a group of local restaurateurs organizing to help each other and lobby for state and federal economic assistance. Her group, including other founders of the newly launched Women’s Hospitality Initiative, has contacted Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office and started a petition to request that Nevada’s government lobbies for emergency unemployment benefits for independent restaurant workers, tax credits so businesses can maintain employee health benefits, eliminating payroll taxes and other measures that will give the local industry a fighting chance.
In a letter to fellow local restaurateurs asking for petition signatures, Blau wrote: “We need to be sure our voices are heard so we don’t get lost in the recovery efforts by bigger organizations. We have spent the better part of a decade, some pioneers here even longer, creating this local restaurant community. It’s time to fight for our recovery.”
Currently there are more than 1,000 signatures and 185 comments on the online petition.
“It’s not just restaurants. Think of the ancillary businesses we support, like florists, farmers and fishermen. If someone actually calculated the local impact of these businesses, it’s overwhelming,” said Blau, who first came to Las Vegas to build the dining program at Bellagio and currently operates Honey Salt in the Summerlin area and Buddy V’s at Venetian.
She’s also aligning efforts with other independent restaurant operators across the country like Tom Colicchio, the celebrity chef and restaurateur who operates two steakhouses at MGM Resorts properties on the Strip and made national headlines this week with bleak predictions. “This is terrible. This is the end of the restaurant business as we know it,” he told The New York Times.
The Trump administration is reportedly assembling a stimulus plan that would include assistance for travel, tourism and hospitality companies, and the president met with executives from national travel and restaurant companies on Tuesday, but independent restaurateurs in Las Vegas and across the country are afraid those benefits will be reserved for larger corporations and won’t trickle down to neighborhood eateries.
The U.S. Small Business Administration is offering designated states low-interest federal disaster loans that could help some restaurants affected by the pandemic, but Sisolak would have to apply for Nevada’s eligibility, and the narrow profit margins in the perpetually risky restaurant industry don’t leave a lot of room. It could be impossible for a reopened restaurant to pay back such a loan while trying to recover from a month of zero revenue.
“There’s a domino effect. They say [the closure is for 30 days], but it might be more,” Connors said. “And these are really business months in our industry. A lot of restaurants get ahead for the year because they do so well in March, April and May.”
Another local operator sent messages detailing how he was navigating the shutdown. He wrote: “Keeping the staff calm is my main goal. Many [employees] are the only breadwinners in the house, [and I’m] … trying to make sure they are inspired to do the right thing.
“[It] feels like the days right after [September 11]. I have to remember that none of my staff went through that. And that no matter how bad things are, it will get better.”
“We are getting people to pay attention at the highest levels, and we’ve started a Facebook page to connect with the community,” Blau said. “That’s what we need most. We’ve got to be a community working together, because it’s unprecedented, the catastrophic nature of this thing.”