It’s every restaurateur’s worst nightmare.
Firefly Tapas Kitchen & Bar had to close its Paradise Road doors in April because of an outbreak of salmonella. The outbreak, which public-health officials traced to contaminated chorizo, sickened nearly 300 people from 27 states and forced changes in how the company ran its kitchen. It hired a dedicated food-safety expert, signed up chefs and managers for food-handling certification classes and added a program to monitor food safety at potential contamination points. The goal? To become an “industry leader” in food safety, co-owner John Simmons said.
Simmons has spent the past seven months winning back regulars and attracting new customers. A month after it closed, Firefly opened a new Paradise Road location down the street, a deal that had been in the works before the salmonella outbreak. (The incident didn’t affect its Sahara Avenue location.) As business ticks back up, Simmons talks about recapturing customers’ trust, his next business move and how he unwinds from stress.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve done to get your customers back?
It’s been more of a process. I liken it to a brush fire. When it flames, there’s not a lot you can really do about it. You have to wait for it to burn out. All of the negative information and misinformation out there — there was not a lot you could do about it. Now, we’ve turned to getting the word out about who we are. We’re a great company, a homegrown company. We started it from the ground up 10 years ago, and we have built it into a company that hired over 200 people. We’re not some guy from out of town who’s mining the Strip for tourist dollars and shipping profits back to New York. We live here, we’re good people, we started a business and a bad thing happened.
How’s business? Are people returning?
Every month, business has increased. The great thing is, most people never stopped coming. We have such a great fan base, and so many people have been to our restaurant so many times. Not a lot of businesses would still be around. It’s a testament to the strength of our reputation and the people who work for us that we were able to survive such an awful occurrence. We also see a lot of new faces, so it’s good.
Where’s Firefly going from here?
We have no plans to open more Fireflys in the near future. Right now we’re still in the recovery phase. We’re making sure our restaurants get better, and people have a good experience when they come in. We’re trying to get the word out. We had never advertised or had a PR company before. We also have new menus coming out, as well as brunch and lunch specials. We’re focusing on improving our current restaurants. I am working on a new place, though — a Mexican restaurant in the old Firefly space on Paradise. I have some great local people who are going to be my partners. We hope to open early next year. The working title is “Tacos and Beer.” It’s going to be mid-priced, with great street tacos and Mexican food, and a couple dozen craft beers on tap.
What’s your favorite restaurant?
I like to go to Honey Salt, and Chocolate and Spice is good. There’s also a new Settebello in Village Square. They have really good pizza. At Honey Salt, I’ve probably tasted the whole menu. I love the burger. That’s usually what I get. But everything there is good, and fresh.
If I go to the Strip, I usually go to whatever the new spot is, because there’s always something new. But my favorite places are Jaleo or Sage.
How do you decompress?
I like to be homebody. I’ve got two young kids and a 19-year-old daughter, and I don’t get a lot of time to see them. When I do have free time, I’m at home cooking, hanging with my wife and kids. We have a Firefly softball team, too.
What do you cook at home?
Mostly slow Mexican food. I make my own masa for tortillas. I make tamales, and all kinds of braised meats you can stuff into tortillas.
What must-see Vegas attraction do you always take out-of-town guests to see?
It has to be downtown. I’ve kind of always been a downtown guy, even though I don’t live downtown anymore. Downtown is where the best bars are, and there are a lot of restaurants opening down there. Plus, on Fremont Street, you have these old-school hotels. It’s really fun to see downtown evolve. We had a Firefly at the Plaza Hotel for a couple of years. I knew downtown was going to take off, but we got down there a little early. I would definitely go back, but I’ve got my hands full right now.