More than good burgers are lost when small businesses close

In the endless battle for the unofficial title of Best Hamburger in Las Vegas, Kilroy’s was a perennial top contender.

Shortly after it opened in 1991, the bar and grill at 1021 S. Buffalo Drive gained a deserved reputation for good food and friendly service. With its funky caricatures on the wall, it established its own identity above the haze of smoke-choked video poker caves that once seemed to inhabit every strip mall and street corner in the valley.

For my money it was the burgers. Oh, the burgers. Be still my cholesterol-clogged heart.

Hefty, hot and drip-down-your-elbow juicy, they were a genuine gastronomic good time. Eventually, the burger enthusiasm attracted the attention of the Food Network, which heralded Kilroy’s as the home of the “best burger in Las Vegas.”

It was a high compliment and surely was the envy of the competition. But don’t try to find one of those heavenly hamburgers at the Kilroy’s at 1021 S. Buffalo Drive these days.

Kilroy’s was here. Why did it close?

Paul Lampi has his theories. With Jack Forbes, Lampi co-owns the remaining Kilroy’s at 4340 S. Grand Canyon Drive and Ozzie’s bar at 5020 Spring Mountain Road. Lampi’s perspective is tempered by 33 years in the bar and restaurant business, and he acknowledges we’re having this conversation while Las Vegas founders in the worst recession most can remember.

But it’s more than that, Lampi says. If the government is truly interested in increasing employment, it can do more to help small bar and restaurant owners.

Back to those burgers. Lampi says Kilroy’s bought $30,000 a month in groceries for its small restaurant, which employed 30. At its best, it grossed $1.5 million in food business in addition to its bar and slot profits.

The slumping economy changed everything. When the state instituted a $1-per-hour increase in the minimum wage, his bottom line was slashed by approximately $48,000 a year. That took the meat of the net profit out of the food side of his businesses and in 2007 made a very difficult decision to close the restaurants inevitable.

First the kitchen door, then the front door.

When Kilroy’s on Buffalo closed last year, the last 20 employees were let go. He believes other bar and restaurant owners were faced with the same hard call.

“Kilroy’s closed last year when they instituted the minimum wage increase of $1 an hour,” Lampi says. Overall, “we laid off 40 employees. I basically haven’t sent in this year $170,000 in sales taxes because of the closure.”

He figures the Kilroy’s closure also had an impact on food and drink suppliers, delivery drivers and more.

“It has a huge ripple effect through the entire economy,” Lampi says. “It rippled up and down, and none of the employees made minimum wage. They all made more than that.”

Like other local bar and restaurant owners reacting to the ever-tightening economy, Lampi favors the tip offset system in place in other states. Businesses with traditional tip-earning positions are allowed to pay less than minimum wage to waiters, waitresses, bartenders, cocktail servers and the like.

He swears he’s not against the minimum wage, but he knows what a poorly timed increase did to his business.

And don’t get him started with the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act, which compels bar and restaurant owners to either shut down their kitchens or spend thousands to enclose the smoke-approved bar area from the food service. By Lampi’s count, those design changes cost Kilroy’s $40,000.

Then he watched as other bar-restaurants ignored the law and greeted chain-smoking slot customers who were turned off by being encased in glass.

While burger aficionados weep, Las Vegas will survive without Kilroy’s on Buffalo.

Save your biggest tears for the 40 people who once worked there.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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