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Nevadan at Work: Pastry chief: Ex-casino executive thrives dealing doughnuts

For Lou Capone, it was time to make the doughnuts.

Capone began his career inside hotels in the early 1980s, starting as a desk clerk and moving up to positions as an accountant and business-development executive. Capone’s 20-year tour of duty in hospitality led him to Anaheim, Calif., Reno, Laughlin and, finally, Las Vegas. From 2004 to 2007, Capone traveled the world as part of Harrah’s Entertainment’s development team, rooting out gaming opportunities in markets from Moscow to Fresno.

But Harrah’s downsized its development group in 2007, as the recession began and business slowed. So Capone went into business for himself, launching a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise. Today, Capone runs five local Dunkin’ Donuts outposts with roughly 70 employees.

Question: How often do people ask you if you’re related to Al Capone?

Answer: People react differently to it. Some people ask me if I’m tired of hearing it. I say, “No, it’s a great icebreaker.” I was in gaming for over 20 years, and I reached the title of vice president. At that point, you have to start getting licensed (by the Gaming Control Board). My family was originally from Italy. They emigrated to the Bronx in 1960. One day, during licensing, I said to my dad, “I’m filling out 70 pages of paperwork. Is there going to be a problem?” He nonchalantly said, “We’ll find out.”

Question: What brought you to Las Vegas?

Answer: Hilton was looking for someone in finance to move to Las Vegas. They asked me. After a while, it gets in your blood. It’s a one-of-a-kind environment. When I moved here in 1988, that was right about the time we began the unprecedented growth that continued right up to 2007. Every time a new casino would open, my boss and I would go play a couple of hands of “21,” act like tourists and get a feel for the place. We stopped by The Mirage right after it opened (in 1989), around Thanksgiving. It was kind of quiet. I remember saying, “I wonder if it’s going to work.”

Question: Why did you decide to go into business for yourself?

Answer: Gaming properties were downsizing, and I would be competing for jobs with colleagues. I basically saw my time in gaming as wonderful — a long ride on a surfboard. At some point, the ride ends. Also, as my kids were coming out of diapers and starting school, I wanted to be around for their soccer games. My daughter is graduating from high school next year. It’s important to be with my kids right now. I knew, with my own company, that I wouldn’t be leaving town on business, and while it might be long hours, I’d decide when I’d be at work.

Question: Did you mind starting over with a new career?

Answer: Not really. I’d been in gaming a long time, and I was going to learn something completely new and different. The food-and-beverage side always seemed the most grueling to me. Those guys had the most hours. When I was a desk clerk in Anaheim, they gave me an option: I could get promoted into food and beverage as an assistant catering manager, or I could go into accounting. I decided wasn’t going into catering with a four-year degree. I ended up in food and beverage anyway.

Question: How did you decide on Dunkin’ Donuts as a business opportunity?

Answer: Dunkin’ wanted a Las Vegas franchise, and they wanted the owners to be locals. Our experience in hospitality and gaming would make it an easy fit. We liked it because customers are pretty loyal to the brand, especially back East. We thought it was a brand that would do well among local transplants from the East. And it does. Not a day goes by that a Boston Red Sox hat doesn’t walk in door.

It’s fun stuff. After being in a very serious work environment for many years, my partners will joke about it when you say the job is stressful. They say, “It’s only doughnuts and coffee. Why get excited?” And at the end of the day, that’s all it is. If we make the doughnuts and prepare guest orders correctly, then customers leave happy. It’s not really a difficult assignment. You do get thrown curve balls. I might get a call at 2 a.m. when someone doesn’t show up and we need to get the store going, but it’s all part of being actively involved in running a small business.

Question: Dunkin’ Donuts re-entered the market in 2007, just as the recession began. How has business been?

Answer: Our sales reflect what Las Vegas went through. We were excited in 2007 when we opened our first store up to wonderful sales. In 2008, we opened three stores that quickly struggled, and we started to second-guess ourselves. We spoke a lot with the brand (headquarters) about that. The brand said we had a perfect storm with the economy. Las Vegas has led the nation in foreclosures and unemployment. Our decision back then was that it was not the time to grow, that we should batten down the hatches and weather the storm, because eventually, things will get better. We’re just very careful to be in our stores a lot. Dunkin’ provides a lot of sophisticated analytical tools and a good inventory system. They’ve worked with us to bring more advertising to the market, which we’re happy to see.

Question: How have your sales been over the last couple of years?

Answer: We didn’t start to see year-over-year increases until June 2009. Now, we’re positive month after month. It gives us cause to be optimistic, though I worry our recovery might have a false start. I am, at least in my little business, seeing consistent growth. I hope my business reflects what’s going on in the rest of the community.

Question: What’s your favorite Dunkin’ Donuts product?

Answer: The Boston Kreme doughnut. It’s pure decadence, like a slice of Boston cream pie. But I have to go run a couple of miles after I eat one.

Question: What do you like best about your job?

Answer: The freedom. It sounds contradictory, because I’m there every day. But if I want to go in at 5 a.m., I do. If I want to leave at 9 a.m., I do. If something requires me to be there much longer, that’s fine, but I’m setting my own agenda and hours.

Question: What’s the hardest thing about your work?

Answer: Predicting the future. We would like to develop more stores, so we have to identify sites that will work. It all starts with what we think a store will do in weekly revenue. There’s no magic way to come to that. You can do analysis and pull comps (comparable sales), but until you flip over that “open” sign and people start coming in, you don’t know how a site will do. Also, commodity prices are going crazy. Coffee has been hit particularly hard. We don’t see when coffee prices will go down or level off.

Question: What are your future plans?

Answer: I’ll do this as long as there’s an opportunity to build more stores. Right now, I’m just engaged in running this business. I think there’s room for a couple more stores. It’s just about finding the right site and the right landlord at the right time.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at
jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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