Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater Vegas interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
Sami Ladeki's route to owning 18 of his Sammy's Woodfired Pizza & Grills in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego came by a rather circuitous route. Ladeki attended the College of Hotel and Restaurant Management near Munich, Germany and then spent a year at London's Westbury Hotel before he was recruited by the Sonesta resort chain, which assigned him to the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans' French Quarter. After nearly a decade of management service at the 500-room property, Ladeki joined Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to work as food and beverage manager. From there, he moved on to the Princess Hotel in Bermuda.
In 1983, Ladeki opened La Cave de Rois, an upscale restaurant and nightclub in Houston. But after several visits to San Diego, he fell in love and chose La Jolla as his first Sammy's Woodfired Pizza & Grill in 1989. By the mid-1990s, Ladeki opened two Sammy's outlets in Tokyo, which helped he form his Roppongi concept several years later.
His latest restaurant, Sammy's Restaurant, Bar & Grill opened last fall in Henderson. "Food is like fashion," Ladeki says. "You shouldn't sit still or you might find yourself out of style."
Here, he talks about 25 years of Sammy's Woodfired Pizza, how to stay on your toes and more.
What makes your pizza so good?
The secret is in the dough, a recipe that has been perfected over the years using proprietary cooking techniques. Our dough is made fresh daily, and baked in a wood-fired oven at 800 degrees. We only use oak wood, giving the pizzas a unique flavor.
Do you have any good war stories from your career?
I have enough stories to fill a newspaper. In this industry you often take two steps forward and one step backwards. Things happen when you least expect them and the key to success is how you deal with them.
I remember one time when I just got home from the gym and turned on the TV to watch the news and saw one of my restaurants up in flames! But you know what, you make the best of every situation and you just keep moving forward. There is a lesson in every story.
How has it been balancing everything since you've been expanding so much?
The key to balance is starting with a good product and building from there. As demand grows and you start becoming successful the most important thing is to build a strong management team and to have the right people in place, allowing them to perform to the best of their abilities. My team is proud of our product, has passion, commitment and determination to succeed. Working together as a creative team allows us to balance everything and keep moving toward success.
You're not really a chef. You're more of a restaurateur. How do you come up with great food?
It's true, I'm not a chef. But I love food, I love to travel and I love to experience new cuisines. You don't need to be a chef to know or make good food. Food has always been something I enjoyed and I have lived it through out my career. I'm continuously observing culinary trends and how it is constantly changing…and just like I always say, food is like fashion.
Internally, a lot of thought goes into our culinary development. We have continuous tastings, we are constantly evaluating new items and how to make existing items better. We look at everything from new olive oil to bottled water, and how the simplest things affect the quality and the guest experience. We make choices based on quality, not driven by price.
What are your other favorite pizzas in Las Vegas?
I like the pizza at Spago, and at Honey Salt. I'm very impressed with Honey Salt and I think it is one of the best neighborhood restaurants in Vegas. I dine out a lot, Vegas has some of the best restaurants in the world. The veal osso buco at Ferraro's on Paradise is to die for, you can't get any better than that. I visit Circo at Bellagio at least once a month for their Bolognese. I'd argue that it's the best in the whole world.
Which pizza should people order if they've never been to Sammy's?
It depends what people are in the mood for, pizza is very personal choice. We have 20 different pizzas, several types of crust. However, my favorite is our brie and truffle oil artisan thin crust pizza, and the five cheese pizza because of its simplicity. If someone is in the mood to try something new and different I always recommend the pear and arugula pizza or yummy honey pizza, made with Manouri cheese and honey. Of course, the New York pizza for the traditionalist is always a pleaser.
What keeps you motivated? How do you stay fresh? How is it still fun?
The mountain of success is very small, and it is very easy to fall. So I'm always operating with this in mind. I am constantly motivated and look for ways to improve our menu, the design of our restaurants, and our atmosphere. By staying on top of trends from dietary needs to health trends you keep relevant to guests and you keep providing them with a product that fits their needs.
I stay motivated because my name is on the door, it is like inviting people into my house. I want them to come in, enjoy themselves, relax and have a great meal that makes them want to come visit me again. I want to provide the best experience for every single guest, and I constantly strive for perfection.
This is a very difficult industry, and some days are better than others. But everyday is a new day and I wake up and seize what's in front of me. I love waking up in the morning and going into the restaurants and then seeing our team with energy and happy to be at work. Then you see the customers dining and enjoying their meal. It is moments like that that make you realize all your hard work is worth something, and you see the results of your efforts — and for me, that is fun and rewarding.
Anything exciting happening in the future?
We have several exciting endeavors on the horizon. We just completed opening our largest Sammy's concept in Green Valley last fall, Sammy's Restaurant & Bar. Our restaurant and bar is the future of our brand, building on our popular menu with new entrée items and an expanded healthily dining focus, plus a bar and lounge. We are opening up our first Northern California Sammy's Restaurant & Bar in Sacramento this summer, which will then be our largest Restaurant & Bar at more than 8,000 square feet.
We are also in the process of introducing two smaller quick service concepts, Sammy's Pizzeria and Sammy's Healthy Salads. Our first locations will open in high-traffic areas in Las Vegas later this year.
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