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Gaming Guru

Richard N. Velotta

Chefs: Dining to be Bigger Draw

15 September 2005

LAS VEGAS -- Fine dining, the new profit center in the casino environment, is only going to get bigger in the years ahead as celebrity chefs develop more restaurants and new stars emerge, an industry expert says.

Kevin Steussi, vice president of food and beverage at Wynn Las Vegas, said like athletes that are admired by loyal followers, the top chefs of Las Vegas will become even more visible and sought out by guests.

Steussi was a panelist in a session on the growing role of food and beverage on a casino's bottom line at the four-day Global Gaming Expo, which wraps up today at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

"I think celebrity chefs are much like today's star athletes," Steussi said in an interview following his panel appearance. "For awhile, people only knew the names of maybe the top 10 players in professional basketball or in football, but now they may know 20 or 30 names. That's the way it will be with celebrity chefs.

Everybody knows some of the really big names, but soon they'll be familiar with even more as these chefs begin writing cookbooks are get their own television shows."

Panelists said the food and beverage departments that were loss leaders for the casino side 15 years ago now have become attractions in their own right. Today, many visitors to casino resorts from Atlantic City to California enjoy the restaurant offerings and never set foot in the casinos. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Las Vegas, where the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority says the average visitor spent $238.78 per trip for food and drink on each visit in 2004, a 13.9 percent increase over 2003.

John Curtas, host and food critic for Nevada Public Radio's "Food for Thought" show and the panel moderator, said it is bizarre that Las Vegas has become one of the premiere restaurant cities in the nation, especially since Southern Nevada is devoid of an agriculture industry.

Steussi said the steady competition among resorts has resulted in each resort raising the bar in food and beverage with the Mirage, the MGM Grand, Bellagio, the Venetian and, earlier this year, Wynn Las Vegas developing restaurants that have become attractions.

Panelist Victor Tiffany, vice president of food and beverage for the Borgata, said Atlantic City is experiencing the same phenomenon, but is about eight years behind Las Vegas in development. And panelist Michael Platt, vice president of food and beverage for the Pechanga Hotel & Casino in Southern California said that the competition from Las Vegas has forced his company to take a different strategy -- to improve its food offerings by developing its own stable of lesser-known up-and-coming chefs.

"We look at Las Vegas for what trends are emerging and learn from what you do here," Platt said.

Steussi said the key to providing a memorable experience for diners is to stress quality and hire the best front-line people to serve guests -- a Wynn trademark.

"It's all about getting the right people with the right attitude," Steussi said.

"People want to escape, interact and indulge when they go to a resort," added Platt.

Another challenge faced by the food and beverage industry is to provide value to the customer. Curtas said the baby boomer generation is willing to pay top dollar -- more than $50 per entree -- for a top-notch experience.