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.
Michael Fuller brought his American izakaya with a nightlife flair Lucky Foo's Restaurant & Bar to Henderson just about one year ago, and since, it’s been 364 days of the highs and lows of operating off the Strip. Here he gives an honest and open look back at the year of serving executive chef Shawn Giordano’s Asian and Mediterranean flavors cooked over a robata grill fueled by Japanese coal heated to 1,000 degrees.
How did Lucky Foo’s come together?
I was personally looking for a change in my life and to start a new group focused on hospitality development and management. I was reviewing a large amount of deals in various cities and had several concepts I built and was sitting on. None of the ones built worked for the space so Lucky Foo’s was an original concept built and activated in 2014. It was a collaboration among several of my partners. The name itself sounded fun, whimsical, easy going and once we connected it to the Foo Dog, the Chinese guardian lion, and an old school Vegas sign style for the logo, we fell in love with it immediately. It just felt right.
What have you learned in the first year of running the restaurant?
Not only is this the first year of the restaurant, but it is also the first restaurant I ran as the managing partner/owner. Until this project, I worked with big teams of talented people; you learn a lot with a much smaller operation. Some of the lessons learned on this project so far are:
• Always secure more initial investment money than you need. Rest assured, your best plans will get thrown out the window and whatever can go wrong, will go wrong in the first year.
• The suburbs are nothing like the casinos. The summers are way more drastic. Although our reviews were stellar, revenue solid and overall buzz strong, we still saw a 36 percent dip from peak as we dove deep into summer. We weren’t perfect by any means, but by reducing the marketing budget to maintain cash reserves the public just moved their attention to the next spot opening.
• The growth period to get to your critical mass of guests to stabilize the business takes much longer than you would think.
• If you aren’t talking to your customers on a daily basis, someone else is and odds are they are listening. The old paradigm that great restaurants don’t market is dead. The key to restaurant marketing though is to target the three-mile surrounding radius. You will rely on those people for 95 percent of your business.
• Open your restaurant when everything is ready. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, especially now that a person’s personal opinion can be seen exponentially on social platforms.
• Engage and embrace your social fans. Address concerns and earn repeat visits. Most problems can be fixed with an offline conversation.
What were you thinking about in terms of design of the restaurant?
The key words we used in the design process were aspirational luxury, approachable, whimsical, fun, versatile and immersive. We have a large mix of customers using the space for a variety of reasons due to the location. Some come in right after the gym in workout clothes, full families come in for early dinners, date nights in the 'burbs, and business luncheons. So we designed the space to have micro-environments so we can cater to different moods and types all at the same time. The place really is rocking when we have a private event in the back and our dinner service in the front all happening at the same time. We want guests to get a different experience every time. One day they may want to enjoy a beer while watching the game in Belly of the Dragon or have a family dinner in the backroom with cartoons on the TV for the kiddos. These experiences simultaneously happen every night. It’s pretty awesome to me.
What was the menu testing process like?
The executive chef, Shawn Giordano, was moving from New York to Las Vegas and was in search of the best ramen shops, izakayas, and robata grills. We combined the thoughts he had with some specific ideas of mine and came up with a very approachable, eclectic menu highlighting Americanized versions of heavy Asian influenced dishes. I wanted a true local area customer to be able to visit more than once or twice a week and have a great deal of options. I also wanted to please the diversity of the guests at every table. Some don’t want sushi, some want steak, or a burger, or a healthy salad option. This menu was designed to satisfy that diversity of needs. Our construction was ahead of schedule so we didn’t have as much time in the kitchen as we would have liked. After being open a few months, we recognized what worked and what didn’t and made the necessary changes.
Has Henderson embraced the restaurant?
There isn’t anything else like it on this side of town, so the residents who have tried it, really like it. It seems that due to limited restaurant options in the Henderson/Green Valley area, they are still very caught up in the big box franchises. The smaller, non-chain restaurants have a hard time penetrating the marketing noise. I hear day in and day out how much people love our space. I see our core friends and customers dragging all of their friends and family in stating "Foo’s is the best!"
Six months in, what changed?
After three months, I took over the general manager role and became very hands on. I had to revisit all food and beverage costs, service standards, labor strategies and the general marketing plans. We dug deeper and pushed to produce a better, more consistent product. Because we opened so fast, we recruited a solid team to help in every area. By the six month mark, we started to stabilize the revenue and expenses, but then summer hit. The first summer of a restaurant this size (200-plus seats) in Henderson is brutal. You have a natural attrition that occurs with your customers. With temperatures rising, summer travel increasing and new restaurants opening every week, the challenge becomes very, very real.
What’s the most unexpected thing that happened in the first year?
Summer. I knew a dip was going to happen, but like David Clawson said in a previous interview,"once you step into May the business begins to slow." You begin to check in on your industry contacts for a simple reassurance that you are not the only one in this boat, and I wasn’t. Being that it was my first experience outside of a casino though, it was startling to say the least.
How about the craziest thing?
The craziest thing would be the connection you get with your customers. Primarily being from a casino nightlife background, I am familiar with connecting with fans and loyal customers who believe passionately about brands. Restaurants feel almost more intimate and genuine. When you serve a family or a repeat guest who believes in your restaurant, they take your well being very seriously. I table touch as much as I can. I get to know my guests. They become friends and we share stories and laughs. If something goes wrong and I am not there, I get a call. Developing that rapport or connection with a stranger so quickly is pretty wild. Growing up in Vegas, you get accustomed to not having real neighbors. It may have been because I moved so much, but to see the community I have built around me rally like that is kind of rad.
What's the must-order dish of the moment?
Although the yakitori is the top seller in the business, the forbidden black rice bowl gets the most critical acclaim. The flavor profile on this dish is totally unique and it normally doesn’t even come with a protein. We just launched temari, which is a handmade rice ball with fresh fish and complimentary toppings. It looks almost like a perfect, bite-size truffle. People are also falling in love with the sampler platter right now; it offers ornate elements and flavor diversity.
What's on tap for the future?