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.
It’s been one year since Downtown landed a new breakfast and lunch joint with the interesting quirk of residing inside a city parking garage. MTO Cafe, which stands for made-to-order, brings with it wraps, omelets, skillets, pancakes and chicken and waffles for breakfast and sandwiches, burgers, salads and more for lunch from chef and partner Johnny Church. With room for 65 at the 14-seat communal table, this Atomic Age diner is replete with leather banquettes, stainless steel accents and a black-and-white terrazzo floor that will remind you of Hollywood in the '50s and '60s. And now it’s on the verge of opening a second location in Downtown Summerlin this month. Here, owners Ben Sabouri and Matt Moore of Shift Solutions LLC talk about the first year of business at what’s become a neighborhood favorite.
How did MTO Cafe come together?
Ben Sabouri: It came together when we were looking for a space Downtown. I walked by this location. It was the last day for an RFP the city put out. They wanted retail. We submitted our deck. It was 70-pages long. We thought we’d just send it in and see what happens. The city had us come in for a meeting. We walked into a conference room. This is what you’re going to do here.
We just wanted to know, did we get the space? They looked at me and talked to me like we got the space. "We want to go to contract," they said. They liked the idea and the concept.
Matt and I met three years ago on a car ride to LA. Ten hours later we decided to open a company together. Now we’ve opened five companies together. We handle the marketing and everything that was involved in a business. We built all the pieces as we went along.
What have you learned in the first year?
BS: You spend a lot of time focusing what’s bringing people in the front door. I can say for myself that I never read a Yelp review in my life before this restaurant. People found us on Yelp. People really find you in the strangest ways. You have to pay attention to everything.
The first year you spend a lot of time making sure that you know where your business is coming from and you do everything to make sure they come back.
What were you thinking about in terms of design of the restaurant?
BS: The one thing that we didn’t see when we looked at places downtown was that this space had big open windows. It was a part of the exterior that I wanted to maintain. We wanted something that you would find in Seattle or Austin or D.C., these cool little niche places. It was only 2,000 square feet It’s not a big restaurant.
What was the menu testing process like?
BS: Johnny [Church] is our partner. He came up with some ideas as a group. We had one tasting and changed a few things. We were good to go.
Has Vegas embraced the restaurant?
BS: Absolutely. We have a lot of locals that come down here regularly. We have delivery. We started doing a lot of catering for local events as well.
Six months in, what changed?
BS: What changed was people were coming here through word of mouth and the buzz we had. When we initially opened, we didn’t spend a lot of time on marketing. We’ve watched the business ever grow and it never shrunk, even with more places opening up.
The difference is that we went to our location and we were looking at it long term. After East Fremont Street development finishes out, this will be an area with a lot of traffic, development and growth.
What's the must order dish of the moment?
Matt Moore: I’ll tell you what I enjoy — the New England clam chowder with some fries on the side. It’s New England approved. Easy to get in and out.
BS: I would say the must have is the fried apple rings. I don’t think there’s anything better. I can lie to myself and say they’re healthy.
MM: That’s the first thing I send out to people.
How have the Sunday Suppers gone over?
MM: One of the great things about it is that people love the food day to day. The Sunday Supper series let’s people see the depth of Jonny’s skill sets. It’s not just breakfast and lunch. He makes very detailed multi-layered dishes like bacon-wrapped bacon. Everybody’s used to what the menu is and see that other layer of culinary experience. It adds to our brand and shows what he’s capable of doing. They can see we can do a full dinner with catering. It shows we’re well rounded on food side.
BS: I always looked at it as a shame we’re not open at night. It was a fun dinner and great idea when you bring a lot of people together and showcase what we can do. It’s a memory you can carry around with you. That was always another motivator. People are excited to come to that dinner.
You have another MTO opening at Downtown Summerlin in November. What can we expect there?
MM: I just left the job site so it’s still on the top of my mind. Downtown Summerlin is amazing experience as a whole. We’re really excited about that — Ben and I and the rest of our team. The space is on a great corner on the main street. We’ll have some additional menu items for dinner. It’s more of a walkup counter where you order a meal we bring it out experience. We have patio seating, 1,000 square feet of patio there, that’s great for people watching.
BS: It’s just such a unique space. It’s really exciting for us. We are absolutely a destination where we are now between Fremont Street and the Arts District. There’s nothing really around us. People come here because they chose us. We want to make sure we honor that. At Downtown Summerlin, 25,000 people a day are going to walk by there. I think it’s very different in that aspect.
What's on tap for the future?
MM: We never stop looking at opportunities. When Ben and I met three or four years ago, it was timing and luck and opportunity all rolled up into one. We’re absolutely in the position to look for additional space. The MTO Cafe brand has been so well-accepted. We’re excited for a second location in Summerlin and hopefully additional spaces shortly after.