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Six questions for....John Civitello, Food & Beverage Director at El Cortez

10 August 2009

Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- While many casinos have turned restaurants into profit centers, El Cortez has maintained a Las Vegas tradition of serving food at a loss. Food & Beverage Director and MGM Grand veteran John Civitello has negotiated with vendors to reduce food losses at the downtown casino, although his primary concern is keeping gamblers happily fed.

How did you get into this business?

When I was 13 I asked my dad for an allowance and he said, "If you want money, get a job," so I became a restaurant dishwasher. In my early 20s I went to engineering school, but slide rules and drawing tables weren't my cup of tea. This business is a daily challenge, but I love what I do.

How do you motivate people?

I tell them to act as if their family is coming to the restaurant. When you're on duty you can't have a bad day and you can make a customer's bad day better. You've got to smile and make it sincere. You need to know how food is prepared and be fluent in your presentation. You acknowledge customers even if you're busy, and you bring their cocktail right away. You can't overcome poor service with great food.

How has the economy affected business?

The cafe business is up, the steakhouse is down. It takes a lot of coffee shop business to make up the loss when your average check is $9. The steak house average is $33. People are saving that for special occasions. Our slot business is OK.

Are customers more or less discriminating?

Many have been coming here for years and notice every nuance. They will say, "Did you change the breading on the catfish?" or, "Are you bringing back the beef barley soup?"

What's it like working for a smaller operation?

If I need to buy equipment or hire someone, I can deal directly with the owners. At MGM I'd have to go through several layers of management. By the time I got all the approvals, it would be too late or I'd lost interest. We're hands-on here. I get involved with the chefs in menu development and purchasing. If the slot department needs something, I'll jump in and do it. We take over for each other when we can.

What's the biggest change in your industry?

Celebrity chefs. MGM wanted to bring in Tom Colicchio to replace the Brown Derby, a customer favorite. I didn't understand that, but it became successful. It's a different world, but you're still serving customers like Joe Sixpack from Milwaukee. Are the people who go to Mandalay Bay for a $16 hamburger going there for a great burger or because they saw it on the Food Network? I'll put my $6 hamburger against anyone's.

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