Two weeks into Nevada’s moratorium on dine-in service at restaurants, Gov. Steve Sisolak extended his March 18 mandatory 30-day nonessential business closure through the end of April. For restaurants all over Las Vegas, this solidified a hard truth amid the growing coronavirus pandemic: The next several months will be about survival, not profit.
During a drive through the western communities in Las Vegas, the faux-Italian streets of Tivoli Village were quiet, the normally crowded parking lots at Boca Park were empty, and the Regal Cinemas movie theater that anchors Village Square was closed.
Though a sense of gloom hangs over the neighborhood, a number of restaurants remain open. Some offer comfort food, others unique to-go items geared toward families with restless children to entertain. Many have quickly pivoted to take-home cocktail kits as a result of a new permit allowing liquor sales with takeout orders. This provides a sharp contrast to the nearly vacant Strip, where casinos are locked and sidewalk patios are empty. For a city that is typically perceived as catering to the tourist sector, restaurants on the more locally oriented western side of town have been able to stay open as a result of the people who actually live in Las Vegas.
In addition to its to-go options, Honey Salt has turned its bar into a marketplace featuring the kind of farm-fresh items the restaurant is known for, such as sunchokes, avocados, lemons, and limes. Restaurateur Elizabeth Blau noted the popularity of Honey Salt’s comfort food dishes, including fried chicken, meatloaf, short ribs, and make-your-own pizza kits. Blau has been an important voice for local Las Vegas restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic. After starting a petition directed at Sisolak centered around the need for state and federal aid for food and beverage businesses and employees, she helped create Delivering with Dignity, a program that brings meals to elderly and immunocompromised individuals in Las Vegas. Recently, Blau reported that employees at Honey Salt had prepared more than 1,600 meals as a part of this effort.
“There are so many people in our community who need prepared food,” Blau says. “Our team unanimously voted that they wanted to stay open despite any risks they might have with customers or vendors. They believe in Honey Salt and they believe in us providing some solace to the community. You see a real sense of pride. It is an extraordinary heartwarming effort.”
In Tivoli Village, a number of restaurants, including El Dorado Cantina, Echo & Rig, Pressed Juicery, PKWY Tavern, and Cupkates, are open for takeout and delivery. Having recently gone on hiatus, Italian restaurant Ada’s has transformed into a pop-up pizza takeout and delivery space for Downtown’s Evel Pie.
Steakhouse and butcher shop Echo & Rig temporarily closed its restaurant, while keeping its butcher shop open and adding daily grab-and-go items including soups, sandwiches, and stir-fries, plus five cocktail kits ranging from palomas to “bottomless” bloody marys, complete with an entire bottle of vodka plus celery sticks and olives. Tivoli Village has long been a popular destination for well-heeled Summerlin residents, and the future of the businesses offering takeout there may be dependent on their disposable income.
Chef Sam Marvin, who typically commutes weekly to Echo & Rig from California, has been focused on handling business operations from his family’s home in Santa Clarita. “I talk to the team five or six times a day,” Marvin says. “It’s a lot of phone calls, a lot of Zoom and Skype. It fills the void. Yes, I wish I was there, but I have two boys and a wife and we’ve been secluded in our house for 17 days.”
When asked what he imagines the future of dining will look like in Las Vegas, Marvin predicts increased support for the local dining scene. “Everyone thinks you want to be on the Strip, but I think there’s going to be a 180-degree shift,” he says. “The hotels on the Strip won’t be as full as the restaurants in the community, because it will be the locals who will be supporting the city for a while.”
A short walk from Echo & Rig, local bakery and tea party space Cupkates offers to-go items with children in mind. “Our company is geared toward kiddos, so it’s all about giving them something,” says the bakery’s namesake founder, Kate Anyanwu.
To-go items at Cupkates include make-your-own cookie kits and tea-party kits with disposable floral tea cups and bottles of pink tea with edible glitter. The bakery offers free delivery in the Summerlin area.
“It’s a family business,” Anyanwu says. “The other day we had my husband driving and me and my daughter in the backseat doing deliveries.”
In addition to Cupkates, Anyanwu operates Party Ever After, a service that brings princess characters to events. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the fairy-tale characters have gone online, appearing in children’s homes upon request via Zoom.
Over at Boca Park, espresso devotees from the nearby affluent Summerlin community still stop by Sambalatte for their morning caffeine fix. The coffee shop, which has three other locations in Las Vegas, is open for curbside beverage service and also has a pop-up market with grocery staples such as rice, pasta, eggs, and butter.
“We opened during the recession, and now it’s like another recession right now,” says founder Luiz Oliveira. “But back then I did my research and learned that alcohol and coffee are recession proof. Coffee is a necessity, just like water. People may drink less of it, but they still have to drink it.”
So far, consumer buying trends have supported half of that equation, with data from Foursquare, Yelp, and Womply indicating increased traffic to liquor stores, an increase in revenue, and a spike in online searches for alcohol during the month of March.
Next door, Cheesecake Factory, Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, and Panera Bread are open for takeout and delivery. The Target store that anchors Boca Park ensures that some foot traffic — albeit far less than the usual amount — still brings business to the area’s restaurants.
A mile and a half away, most restaurants in Village Square remain open for takeout. This includes Napoli-style pizza restaurant Settebello, local Las Vegas Thai chain Archi’s, Khoury’s Mediterranean Restaurant, Chicago Brewing Co., which has growlers of craft beer available for takeout, and Korean fusion hot dog restaurant Buldogis Gourmet Hot Dogs. This shopping center serves a number of nearby apartment complexes and residential neighborhoods, and remained relatively busy despite the temporarily shuttered movie theater at the center of the plaza.
“We’ve lost over half of our business,” says Boyzie Milner, who owns Buldogis with his wife Mi Sun Han. “I have a staff of 10 people and I had to cut it down to three people. It has been tough, but as long as I can break even I can pay them. I’m not even trying to make money.”
Near the entrance to Village Square, local Mexican-American restaurant Nacho Daddy is open for curbside pickup and delivery. Having quickly obtained a permit for liquor takeout sales, the restaurant now has to-go margarita kits that come with tequila, margarita mix, lime, salt, and glasses.
“I’m surprised at how quick and painless it was to offer the cocktails,” says Nacho Daddy president Paul Hymas. “That was a pleasant surprise.”
As Luis Oliveira at Sambalatte observed during his recession-era research, liquor sales offer a lifeline for restaurants even — or perhaps especially — in a city like Las Vegas, where employment is cratering and anxiety is rising. From to-go liquor permits to alcohol delivery startups, spirit sales are up nationally.
“We first heard about the to-go cocktails on Friday and had it going the following Monday,” Hymas says. “We got the word out on social media and had people calling for it right away.”
For western Las Vegas communities, such as Peccole Ranch and the Lakes, a trip to the Strip or Downtown Las Vegas has always required a 20- to 30-minute drive, making destinations like Tivoli Village, Boca Park, Rampart Commons, and Village Square more practical options for dining and drinking. Amid the growing coronavirus pandemic, the near total closure of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street has kept locals in their communities. Restaurateurs who serve these communities, many of of whom have had to innovate by offering pop-up markets and take-home cocktail kits, seem determined to continue their efforts, even if the methods for doing so have drastically changed.