Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater Vegas sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Dan Coughlin can get some of the credit for helping reinvigorate a struggling downtown Vegas into an area locals want to find. After all, when he opened Le Thai last November, downtown offered few dining options off the Fremont Street Experience for good food that was inexpensive. Le Thai started with a very small menu, just five items in a downtown brick building with one hot commodity aside from crazy good Thai food, an enclosed 800-square-foot patio. Here he talks about the struggles of opening an independent restaurant and learning to cook for 350 people a day.
How did the Le Thai come together?
I had Mix Zone Cafe on Charleston in the Omelet House parking lot. My mom owns the King and I Thai at Tropicana and Maryland. When I told her I wanted to get in the business, she told me to it check out. UMC was nearby, so I thought I would probably get a few people for the lunch crowd. When you own a restaurant by yourself, you do all the cooking, hiring, the payroll.
Finally I got through it at Mix Zone. My girlfriend is a professional deejay and at night she plays her own music downtown. This was 2007 to 2008. Around 2009, I met Michael [Cornthwaite] from Downtown Cocktail Room. We did a private party for his wife Jennifer. She needed food. I think Don't Tell Mama did the after-party. We stopped by there. While walking there, we saw our favorite spot but our hands were tied in too many things. The next day I got the number. The Plaza owns the building.
We figured we could catch the downtown lunch crowd with all the lawyers and government officials down here. We were a little worried that at night, nobody would be down here. But the Ogden was full so we thought we would have to have terrible food not to be full. We hung out down here and we were hungry. We wanted to be part of the scene. I didn't want to be in a strip mall forever. I'm from Milwaukee. I was over driving to a shopping center.
What changes did you have to make to the space?
We would hope someone would come forward with old photos. When we got it, it was gutted The front was down to the studs. There were weeds in the patio.
We had a budget and we stuck to it pretty hard core. Now it seems it wasn't half bad. I bought Mix Zone very cheap and now I was seeing this six-figure project. Holy smokes, that's a lot of pressure.
This was even before we found out that Zappos was moving out here. That was just a cherry on top. I was talking to Michael and said, "I believe in it down here, but I think it's going to take five or 10 years to take off. I need a reason to stay down here. People driving out at the end of the day wasn't sustainable. We need people who are staying here."
Michael said he was trying to convince his friend to move down here. I didn't know it was Zappos. That's a big piece of the puzzle down here. Someone saying I'll help you is a big weight off your shoulders. We hung out down here a lot. I thought it would be better to at least try it and fail. If someone else takes it and I had first dibs [on the space] and we didn't do it, I didn't want to think, "We could have had that spot."
What did you learn?
I learned how to cook for about 350 people a day. We did a lot of our numbers off Mix Zone and mom's restaurant at its peak in 2007. At Mix Zone, we would order three cases of chicken in a week. Here we do 12. To get a perspective, each case is 40 pounds.
I didn't know how to do that before. We would just wake up earlier and earlier. My staff is super cool. I told them, "If we can get through this first four to six months, it's going to be easy." We were the new kids on the block. If we continue to cook really good food, people will come in.
I live at the Ogden, which saved us. I would go to Chinatown midday to get flat noodles. You know how hard it is to find Asian food? I have a good system now. I'm not gong to give up.
At Mix Zone, lunches were kind of crazy. There's not a lot of places to eat down here and that are affordable. We're in it to have people come three or four times a week.
Every single day I cook. Every day I'm trying to get better at every dish. Then I show the guys next to me. If people start saying, "Dan's not here, I'll come back tomorrow, that's the worst-case scenario." That's why I'm hard on these guys in the back. You have to be able to trust other people to cook like you cook. I tell them, "If you're not feeling it, say I need a day off, but don't come to work and do it halfway." I tell them to pretend like you're cooking for a food critic every day.
What was the menu testing process like?
Well we switched it up. We did have this bigger menu. Then I started to panic when the day to open was getting close. We opened on Nov. 1 with like four or five items and we would do that for a couple days. Then we added four or fives dishes and I showed these guys how to make them. That worked. Then we started adding appetizers, noodles and salads.
I always wanted to do a smaller menu. It's kind of the In-N-Out Burger philosophy. They have lines out the door because make one burger amazingly.
Our kitchen is tiny. There's no room for anything else. I don't mess with seafood except for shrimp because unless we're a seafood restaurant and flying it in daily, it would be frozen and rubbery.
Do you think guests have embraced the idea behind the restaurant?
Yes, 100 percent. We would be nothing without word of mouth advertisement. We don't advertise. It's all word of mouth. I think they genuinely like being here. The music is good, the patio is nice. Even when we get the heaters in it will be nice here.
Six months in, did anything change?
The entertainment license. I was supposed to have music because we're in the entertainment district. Beauty Bar, The Griffin, that's why they all have music. The people at the city have been cool. We're a restaurant.
We're getting more tourists. I would say we're about 30 percent tourists. At night, we definitely get tourists who are eating here. We designed the place to be like when you visit New Orleans, like a hole in the wall that you find. Cool tourists find us. We're easy to find.
What's the must-order dish of the moment?
The pad Thai is the No. 1 seller. We've gotten a lot of press on that. Trust me, I get a lot flack for it. It's not an Americanized version. Our pad Thai is an ode to my grandma, how I think it's supposed to be.
The short rib fried rice has been selling like nuts. I ordered some short rib and added some Thai seasoning. It just falls off the bone.
Pad Thai trumps every dish almost two and a half to one. We sell 50 pad Thais in a day and on Friday sometimes 75.
What's in store for the future?
We have two other ideas for restaurants downtown, smaller joints, but more hands off for us hopefully just helping out. Our parents believe in us even more, and they'll help finance them, which is cool. But with the other two concepts, I'm not there. I'm giving someone else a chance to step up. If it's too hands on, I would get an ulcer. We want to see cool places downtown. The more restaurants the better for all of us.
· All Coverage of Le Thai [~ELV~]
· All Coverage of One Year In [~ELV~]
Dan Coughlin [Photo: Susan Stapleton]