Spring 2020 transformed Las Vegas into an eerie, unfamiliar place, its prominent features becoming darkened dining rooms, boarded-up businesses, and cyclists riding down an empty Strip.
This spring, normalcy is in bloom. Casinos are back open, restaurant capacity has expanded to 50 percent — even dayclubs are back, at least as more serene pools for adults, only without the party. People still wear masks and opt for elbow taps over handshakes, but with ever-increasing vaccination rates, cautious optimism seems to be the collective mood. For the Las Vegas restaurant industry, comparing spring 2021 to spring 2020 brings up feelings of relief, exhaustion, and hope.
“We’re excited about what coming out of COVID looks like,” says Wyndee Forrest, who co-owns CraftHaus Brewery with her husband, Dave. The couple opened the restaurant’s second location (the original is in Henderson) in the Arts District in September 2019. The events of that opening night — beer samples, charcuterie, people mingling — felt like a distant memory just months later when the pandemic hit. Tourists disappeared, and businesses in the Arts District boarded up their doors. The new location closed temporarily, and the Forrests shifted their focus to offering curbside sales at the Henderson CraftHaus location. Wyndee recalls fulfilling about 1,200 orders herself. CraftHaus also began offering direct-to-consumer sales online, shipping beer to a handful of states.
Just a year after the opening of the CraftHaus Arts District location, the brewery hosted a virtual party with take-home beer kits, followed by tastings and live music on Facebook. “One of the key factors for survival is being storytellers and figuring out different ways to connect,” Wyndee says.
Post-pandemic, the brewery plans to continue connecting virtually by producing tasting guide videos that consumers can view as they drink CraftHaus beer at home. This is the key lesson the Forrests learned during the pandemic: adaptability. Wyndee says, “When so many doors were being closed in our faces, literally being locked, and we weren’t able to function as a traditional brick-and-mortar, it really forced us to rethink our channels of distribution and how we can reach our community in different ways.”
Much like CraftHaus, Founders Coffee also opened a location — in this case, its first — just before the onset of the pandemic. The coffee shop then opened a second location amid COVID-19 in November 2020, an endeavor that director of operations Brittney Riskus refers to as “nerve-racking.” With locations in Henderson and southwest Las Vegas, Founders Coffee serves a local clientele. According to Riskus, that is what allowed the business to not only survive but grow. “The Las Vegas community is a lot stronger and a lot more tight-knit than I thought it was,” she says.
Another surprise: the drive-thru window. During the indoor dining moratorium in Las Vegas (and subsequent reopening with capacity restrictions), Riskus noticed people stopping to linger and chat while ordering coffee from their cars. “I worked every day through COVID,” she says. “I realized, wow, our community is just yearning for friendship, and they came to the drive-thru. It was a big surprise to see how many people just wanted to talk to somebody who wasn’t their kids, their spouse, or whoever they were quarantined with.”
Riskus doesn’t plan on putting away the hand sanitizer anytime soon. “I hope that we’re able to get through this in a healthy way,” she says. “We want to continue to stay open.”
Todd Clore, chef and owner of Todd’s Unique Dining in Henderson, shares that sentiment. “I’m surprised by how people think they’re Teflon and as soon as they take one step into the restaurant, off comes the mask, and they’re suddenly immune to all this. We tell people to keep on their mask if they’re not eating, but we become police officers, and it’s shocking to me how many people are nervous about going out, but as soon as they go to a restaurant, they want to walk around like the virus doesn’t exist.”
Clore views the pandemic as “an interesting learning process that I don’t want to go through again.” His restaurant, which specializes in seafood and steak, did not offer takeout before COVID-19. However, when so many restaurants in the surrounding area shut down, Clore began offering curbside pickup, which did fairly well. That service remained in place when indoor dining opened up at 25 percent capacity due to the scarcity of reservation availability. “Everyone likes to eat at about the same time — 6 to 7 p.m. is the average range,” Clore says. “I could get one seating, and that was about it. After 8 p.m. in the suburbs, that’s not really dining time. I’m happy we’re open to 50 percent capacity again. I think we’ll all be a little bit more able to make it.”
For Las Vegas food trucks like Mexican-Italian fusion spot Camaradas Mexican-Italian Kitchen, indoor dining limitations are inherently not a concern. Camaradas is permanently parked outside a gas station on West Sahara Avenue, so when COVID-19 hit, the restaurant simply removed the benches out front and kept serving food. “Since we are a takeout operation, our biggest competitor is the weather,” says owner German Castellanos Jr. “We’ve been operating as a takeout operation since the first day of business.”
Despite this advantage over brick-and-mortar restaurants, operating during COVID-19 did not come without challenges. Camaradas sources many ingredients from Mexico, and supply chain disruptions complicated its business model. “Protein prices shot up,” Castellanos says. “Our bakery for our tortas shut down. This was the second year in business for us. The first year, you’re kind of running in the dark, and you just hope you don’t step on a crack and roll your ankle. The second year, you’re hoping to optimize it, but all of a sudden this curveball came our way.”
Castellanos and his team responded by streamlining their menu. Surprisingly, much of it was informed by how dining habits changed during the pandemic. Pre-COVID, diners were eager to try unique fusion items. Once the shutdown swept through Las Vegas, tastes shifted toward familiar comfort foods. “I saw a lot of palates revert back to tradition,” Castellanos says. “The less flashy items were the ones people craved the most during so much uncertainty in their lives.”
As spring warms to summer, Las Vegas restaurant owners are contemplating what the traditionally busy months of June, July, and August might look like. Wyndee Forrest sees it as a time to prepare for the return of live events in the fall — the annual music and culinary festival Life Is Beautiful, for example, returns to Downtown Las Vegas in September. Brittney Riskus is focused on upholding elevated sanitizing procedures until the pandemic is truly over. Todd Clore is happy to continue catering to local diners in Henderson rather than worrying about the tourist numbers on the Strip. German Castellanos is just eager to witness the joy of people dining together again — friends reconnecting over lunch, families reuniting by dining out — all of the culinary occasions that make summer in Las Vegas (or any season in Las Vegas, for that matter) special.
“You kind of miss hanging out with people outside and doing things together,” Castellanos says. “When everyone is in a jovial mood and celebrating, it’s good for restaurants, because where else would you want to do that?”