By Heidi Knapp Rinella and Al Mancini Las Vegas Review-Journal
December 16, 2020 – 8:47 am
With Southern Nevada restaurants and bars facing another month of being limited to 25 percent of capacity, owners and managers are coming up with creative ways to add square footage and offer services tailored to a pandemic-prudent public, while coping with mandatory reservations and tables limited to four people.
It hasn’t been easy.
“I used to be 55 and now I’m 91,” quipped Peggy Orth, general manager of the Peppermill on the Strip.
James Trees, chef/owner of Esther’s Kitchen in the Arts District, has been particularly creative. This week, Trees added eight cabana-style structures, complete with floor coverings, to the parking lot behind the restaurant. They’re arranged around a patch of artificial turf crowned with a fire pit. The structures actually are mobile greenhouses, each with its own lighting, sound system and heater.
Thursday evening, Hash House A Go Go will debut the Hash House 2 Go Go food truck at the chain’s location at 6800 W. Sahara Ave. From 5 to 8 p.m., it’ll be joined by the El Tamalucas and Nick’s Shrimp House food trucks and possibly more. Hash House 2 Go Go will be offering buy-one-get-one-free on all menu items and $1.50 domestic beers.
Jim Rees, co-owner of the company’s five (soon to be six) locations in Southern Nevada, said representatives had been thinking about launching a food truck before the pandemic struck because of the popularity of its fried chicken and the opportunity to enter the chicken wars.
“When this hit, it was all the more reason to get it going as quickly as we could,” Rees said. While Trees said he had to get his landlord’s permission before launching the parking lot operation, Rees said the company owns the property, which simplified things. And because the restaurant currently serves dinner only on Fridays and Saturdays, the lot would be empty. If this one goes well, they plan to make it a regular Thursday event, beginning in January.
Many restaurants also have expanded takeout services, including Trees at Esther’s Kitchen. He recently created takeout-friendly versions of two pasta dishes and is working with suppliers to obtain packaging that will enable takeout orders to stay fresher during travel.
Via Brasil on Fort Apache Road recently introduced online ordering and curbside pickup of its a la carte menu, and co-owner Anna Gomes said the restaurant is offering 2o percent off online orders with the promo code “curbside.”
In August, the Asian-fusion restaurant Graffiti Bao began began offering pizza and sandwiches through its ghost kitchen, Gemma Gemma’s. Last month, the Lazy Dog chain launched a virtual concept called Jolene’s that offers wings and beer for pickup and delivery from all locations nationwide, including two in the valley. And Summerlin’s La Strega recently began selling Italian piadine flatbread sandwiches from a walk-up stand on the sidewalk next to the restaurant.
“We have a clientele here that’s a little bit more cautious, with corona and everything,” said Gina Marinelli, La Strega’s chef/partner. “So for them to come up and get contact-free piadine, salads, spritzes and things to take home, or go the park, or do whatever — we’ve created something really special and safe for them.”
And sometimes innovation means contracting instead of expanding. With limiting hours at most of its restaurants, Rees said Hash House A Go Go has reduced its menu from eight pages to a two-sided sheet for food and one for drinks. It’s in part to convert the menu to a single-use, disposable page but also focuses on signature items that can be prepared with fewer staff. Rees said the reduced menu has prompted very little negative feedback from guests.
Which definitely hasn’t been the case with the state’s reservation-only mandates, especially at restaurants that don’t normally accept reservations.
“It’s not easy to do, for sure,” Orth said. “We’re working on it, and we’re getting better at it. It’s the people who walk in without reservations that are tough. That’s money that’s walking out the door.”
She said she’s not swayed by customers who say other restaurants aren’t following the practice.
“I’m doing what I need to do to protect my boss’s business,” she said.
“It discourages people from coming in,” Rees said. “That’s really the big part.”
Juan Vazquez, owner of Juan’s Flaming Fajitas on West Tropicana Avenue and in downtown Henderson, had a lot of pushback in the early days after reopening from people who weren’t used to making reservations. Now, he has the reservations-only policy listed on his website and posted on the door with the phone number; those who attempt to walk in can call and, if there’s room, they will be seated.
The requirement applies to bars as well, such as the Sand Dollar Lounge on Spring Mountain Road.
“I don’t know what other people are doing,” co-owner Benito Martinez said. “I do get the sense that people are surprised when we mention it.”
But he said it dovetails nicely with the bar’s plans to require reservations anyway for the second annual Miracle on Spring Mountain event, going on this month, when the place is particularly busy.
“Some will come to the door and say, ‘Why can’t I just sit at the bar?’ ” he said. “We just tell them to go outside and go to OpenTable on their phones and wait in their cars.” He said they also don’t allow people to congregate outside, which is the philosophy behind the no-walk-ins rule.
They’re also limiting people to an hour and 15 minutes during Miracle on Spring Mountain, which he said is particularly vexing to longtime regulars.
“They’re there for the community aspect, which is what we’re trying to eliminate at this point,” he said.
Orth and Rees said the four-person-per-table limit can be a problem, especially in the case of two parents with three kids, who have to split to two tables.
“If they don’t know, it puts us in an awkward position,” Rees said. “And if they do know, it discourages them from bringing their family in. We’re a big brunch restaurant and typically get a lot of big tables.”
Trees said more creativity will be required in the months ahead. Even if 50 percent capacity is restored, that doesn’t pay the bills, he said.
“So we still need more ideas, which causes us to just push ourselves in a way that will make us more innovative over the next few months,” he said.
“I love the creativity in the community,” Marinelli said. “Everybody is really thinking outside the box, and that’s what chefs are really good at.”