By JOAN PATTERSON


When Chris Connors decided to open his own restaurant, a cozy franchise called Rachel's Kitchen that serves everything from gourmet vegetarian sandwiches to homemade macaroni and cheese, no one had to tell him it was a risk in this economy. But, they did.

In fact, when you ask Connors just who was giving him all the well-intentioned advice, he simply says, "Everyone, everyone."

Yet, with plenty of restaurant management experience to call upon, and the support of his wife and business partner, Stacy, Connors opened his franchise last February. Now he serves the lunchtime work crowd and weekend shoppers at The District at Green Valley Ranch in Henderson, overseeing a staff of 14 and suffering only from the sweet exhaustion of fulfilling a lifelong dream.

"I knew the odds were stacked against me but it was a gamble I was willing to take. And I knew if I worked hard at it, I knew it would work," Connors said.

"I'm always here. I don't even keep track of my hours. I get here, I wake up and have my cup of coffee, and I get home when we close. ... But it's a passion for me. I love coming to work every day. I just love doing it."

Connors, whose restaurant hit its six-month anniversary in August, is doing well so far, and he is certainly not the only restaurateur to take a risk these days. Whatever the economic outlook, there always will be diners looking for the chance to relax and enjoy good food, or even grab a fast, affordable meal in the course of a busy day.

According to the National Restaurant Association, dining out has increasingly become a part of our everyday lives during the past few decades. Sales for 2010 are expected to reach about $580 billion and the overall unemployment rate within the restaurant industry is currently lower than the national averages for other segments of the economy.

At the same time, "the 2008-2010 time frame has been the most challenging for the restaurant industry in decades," according to Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association. Overall sales dropped by nearly 3 percent in 2009, and restaurant operators report that the economy is the top challenge they face right now. Three years ago it was recruitment and retention of employees, Riehle noted.

"Consumers have incorporated restaurants into their daily lives but the purse strings have tightened, so consumers are much more discriminating in how, why and when they dine," Riehle said.

The good news is restaurant operators are an "adaptable, extremely entrepreneurial group," Riehle said. They are currently offering more specials and taking a closer look at their customers' demographics to see just what they are looking for in a restaurant during tough economic times.

Locally, that has even translated into the opening of new establishments, whether it be a bevy of sandwich shops and hamburger franchises, or a globally themed restaurant with a menu that fuses the tastes of nearly every continent. Even in tough economic times, restaurateurs are taking the risks, understanding that Las Vegans will always have a big appetite for dining out.

For John Simmons that means opening up a third location of his restaurant, Firefly Tapas Kitchen and Bar, in Summerlin this month. The new restaurant, inside what was formerly the Z'Tejas restaurant on West Sahara Avenue, joins his first Firefly on Paradise Road which opened seven years ago and another location inside downtown's Plaza hotel-casino.

Simmons attributes the restaurant's success to the tapas style of eating, or dining on several small, appetizer-size dishes such as gazpacho or veggie empanadas, which allows today's diners to try lots of different foods without breaking the bank. A typical tapas selection on the Firefly menu is easily under $10 and Simmons estimates the average check at his restaurants to be about $35.

"I think we have just been doing the right thing at the right time," he said. "Even on the Strip they've been trying to become more casual and keep prices down, so they're shifting into my area."

Simmons points out that one of the advantages of the current economy is the opportunity to lease or purchase property at a better price than a few years ago. He estimates that within the past year he has been contacted about a dozen times by property representatives looking for renters "and throwing in the kitchen sink sometimes to get you to lease with them."

Eventually, there will be about 50 employees working at the Summerlin location including cooks, dishwashers, servers and bartenders. This will be on top of the 140 employees spread out among his other two restaurants.

Town Square Las Vegas, the upscale shopping center at 6605 Las Vegas Boulevard South, has seen plenty of activity lately with the opening of three new restaurants, including a Florida-based chain that chose Las Vegas as its first location in the West. Miller's Alehouse opened in July, and offers a homey feel with nautical and sports-themed memorabilia along the walls, and big portions of everything from baby back ribs to Cajun mahi mahi pasta.

"Even though the economy is down right now, we see a lot of potential in Vegas," noted Mike Dowell, the restaurant's general manager.

Located inside a free-standing building that seats 537 and encompasses about 10,000 square feet, the restaurant is lined with televisions for sports fans and recently started offering a small breakfast menu on the weekends for football devotees who like to enjoy their games as soon as they hit the airwaves.

There are 170 employees working at Miller's Alehouse, from doormen to prep cooks, and any future job openings will be listed on the Town Square Las Vegas website, or job seekers can simply stop by the restaurant and fill out an application, he said.

Dowell has been so pleased with the quality of his Las Vegas employees, he said it would have been easy to staff a second restaurant.

"The potential talent out here is incredible. ... This is such a service, hospitality town. You have the Strip and those casinos have a benchmark, and you pretty much have to match or surpass that. Like I said, I wish I would've had another location we could have hired for."

Lolita's Cantina and Tequila Bar also opened in July inside Town Square and is the brainchild of entrepreneur Eric DeBlasi, chief executive officer and founder of the Medusa Group. DeBlasi has owned 40 different properties including nightclubs, restaurants and hotels across the United States.

He wanted to open a Vegas restaurant that appealed to locals and offered the laid-back party feel of South Beach, Fla., and Mexico's Baja and Mazatlan, according to a press release announcing the opening.

The 10,000-square-foot, second-floor restaurant serves contemporary Mexican fare for lunch and dinner including ceviche and chipotle-glazed baby back ribs, then turns into an after-hours nightclub. About 2,000 potential employees applied for positions at the restaurant and 250 were hired.

So far, customer numbers have exceeded expectations, and DeBlasi has already gotten some inquiries from local casinos and out-of-state developers interested in bringing Lolita's to their properties, he said.

"I thought, over the long haul, this would be a good project, but we had a wait of an hour and a half the first night, and a line (of customers) out the door for the nightclub," DeBlasi said.

A small group of investors, including two local physicians, partnered up to create another Town Square project called Nu Sanctuary Lounge, which takes a world view when it comes to both cuisine and aesthetics. The "global-fusion" menu is influenced by the flavors of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and, yes, even the United States, and the décor is a combination of deep earth tones and the surrealistic work of artist Salvador Dali, according to assistant general manager George Assaf. The roots and branches of a sculpted Tree of Life, for example, wind their way along the ceiling and floors.

The restaurant also includes a hookah lounge and at around 11 p.m. turns into a nightclub to create what Assaf calls "more of an experience" than your typical restaurant. So far, about 50 employees have been hired to run the restaurant, lounge and nightclub that opened about five months ago.

"I would say it was a gamble (to open a new restaurant) because of everything going on around us but, at the same time, people are looking for something different and unique that is worth their money," Assaf said.

And then there are the more traditional eateries that are continuing to win over busy, cost-conscious Las Vegans. Franchisee Dave Dworak will be opening a fifth Famous Dave's BBQ by the end of the year on Mall Ring Circle across from Sunset Station in Henderson.

He will be looking for 75 to 100 employees to fill management, server, host, cashier, dishwasher and prep-cook positions. Openings will be posted on the Famous Dave's BBQ website, he said, or applicants can look for the hiring trailer in the parking lot once renovations to the building are under way.

Dworak is looking for workers who truly understand the mantra of the hospitality industry: The customer always comes first.

"People are eating out less and when they do go out, they expect to be taken care of," he said.

Denver-based hamburger franchise Smashburger is also making its presence known in the valley. The first Vegas restaurant opened in March and now there are three locations in the northwest part of the valley, with a fourth Smashburger opening soon at 4725 S. Maryland Parkway, according to Mark Huttanus, vice president of operations for the Las Vegas area.

Several more of the restaurants, which serve cook-to-order burgers and sides such as haystack onions and seasoned sweet-potato fries, are expected to open throughout Southern Nevada within the next five to six years as quick-casual dining continues to be the fastest-growing segment of the dining industry, Huttanus said.

Each restaurant employs 20 to 30 workers, he added.

Subway Restaurants, which now has more locations in the United States than McDonald's, had one Las Vegas franchise 27 years ago and now has 145, according to Donna Curry, Subway development agent for Clark County. According to Curry, who opened that first franchise back in 1983, there are five more Subway sandwich shop locations expected to open by the end of the year including one at Centennial Parkway and Ann Road, and Paradise Road and Harmon Avenue.

Clark County still remains near the top in terms of restaurant growth for Subway compared to other areas of the country, she said. The current economy has actually helped franchisees renegotiate leases and many are being approached by landlords wanting to fill empty space, she added.

Subway shops also are more convenient to open than most restaurant businesses because they do not require a lot of space. In fact, there are Subways in locations such as the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Bishop Gorman High School, Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs and a convenience store in Beatty, Curry said. The typical franchise employs about 12 workers and job openings are posted on the Subway website, www.subway.com.

 

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