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Las Vegas Restaurants Seek Recipe To Succeed Amid Headwinds

Las Vegas restaurateur and chef James Trees says too many of his competitors went out of business during the pandemic because they failed to put aside a rainy-day fund.
James Trees

Las Vegas restaurateur and chef James Trees says too many of his competitors went out of business during the pandemic because they failed to put aside a rainy-day fund.

Las Vegas restaurants were among the first businesses to feel the pain of the pandemic during the shutdown. Today they continue to face headwinds, with challenges finding workers and coping with rising prices.

The bumpy ride began in spring 2020, when the pandemic forced restaurants to close their dining rooms.

“We didn’t know what was going on in the world,” said Jeff Weiss, who shuttered his Valencian Gold restaurant in southwest Las Vegas. “The world was upside down and we said, ‘OK, let’s close; let’s regroup because you can’t even get toilet paper.’”

Weiss used the downtime to remodel Valencian Gold and bring it back at the beginning of September as a more upscale Spanish restaurant, and customers have returned.

“I have this big ol’ woodfire grill maxed out,” Weiss said.

He said he used the time his restaurant was closed to bake bagels for first responders and participate in Delivering Dignity, a public-private effort that uses volunteer drivers to deliver food to people shut in by the pandemic.

“I don’t think I’ll ever do anything more impactful in my life and my career than servicing this community to the tune of over 70,000 meals,” Weiss said.

Fellow restaurateur James Trees, a 2020 James Beard Award finalist for his work at Esther’s Kitchen in the Las Vegas Arts District, said the pandemic started with professional heartbreak.

“One of the hardest days of my life was the day that I had to call my entire staff of 42 and tell them that I couldn't keep the restaurant open,” 

Trees said he had a cash reserve that allowed him to tough things out, but too many competitors went under because of a failure to plan.

“For the first year and a half of at Esther's, I didn't take a dime out of it because I always knew that you need a rainy day fund,” he said. “A lot of people in this industry, they run on two to three weeks of cash. That's it. And we have to change that model.”

He said that his savings and government assistance allowed him to remain whole and he’s now expanding his stable of restaurants.

Trees and Weiss both said finding workers has been a challenge, with some new hires never showing up to work. Weiss said that might be changing now that the federal government has reduced long-term unemployment benefits.

“The applications are up, and the folks looking for jobs are up,” Weiss said.

The next issue facing restaurants could be the higher prices and labor costs they face, and whether they can pass those along to consumers.

“The bottom line is the price of food, the price of product, the price of living has gone up because the supply chains are really in a difficult place,” Weiss said. “We have to address that in our pricing in order to be able to survive as businesses.”

Jeff Weiss, restaurant owner/chef, Valencian Gold; James Trees, restaurant owner/chef, Esther’s Kitchen, among others; Heidi Knapp Rinella, food and dining writer, Las Vegas Review-Journal; Mark Steele, founder and primary educator, Restaurant Hospitality Institute

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Mike has been a producer for State of Nevada since 2019. He produces — and occasionally hosts — segments covering entertainment, gaming & tourism, sports, health, Nevada’s marijuana industry, and other areas of Nevada life.