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Alan Snel

New roster of brand restaurants makes Strip debut

13 January 2015

LAS VEGAS -- Caesars Palace President Gary Selesner had business in India recently, so he could have flown through any major city to make the connection. But he picked New York for a singular reason: It allowed him to visit his favorite pizzeria, DiFara Pizza, in Brooklyn.

“I almost missed my flight,” Selesner said.

The hotel-casino president, a self-professed foodie, won’t have to visit Brooklyn anymore to chew DiFara’s famous cheesy pizza slices with charred edges and bubbles in the crust. DiFara opened late last month in Caesars' newly renovated Forum Food Court, which has also featured the Strip debut of two other restaurant brands — Smashburger and Phillips Seafood.

An impressive variety of brand restaurants have debuted recently on the Strip, including Smashburger and New York City-based Shake Shack, which opened the chain's first location west of the Mississippi River on Oct. 29 at New York-New York Hotel & Casino.

Newcomers include high-end comfort food brands such as Denver-based Tom’s Urban, created by Smashburger founder Tom Ryan, which opened Dec. 23 next to the new Shake Shack, and locally based Off the Strip, which debuted at The Linq on Christmas Eve.

Tom’s Urban is near the park under construction that will lead to the 20,000-seat arena MGM Resorts International and The Anschutz Entertainment Group are building behind New York-New York.

Off the Strip is at The Linq Hotel & Casino, home of the High Roller observation wheel in the center of the Strip.

The new-restaurant wave will also include burger fan favorite White Castle, which is set to open in the Casino Royale and Hotel this month.

A Casino Royale front desk worker said he fields 50 calls a day from people asking when White Castle will open. Added Erica Sanchez, manager of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop in Casino Royale: "A lot of people have been asking for it and people have even called the store here."


The influx of new brands is part of the Strip’s evolving profile, which features several new festival sites, two arenas under construction, pedestrian-friendly plazas and a strategy of offering more culinary options for more diverse visitors, including the coveted millennial demographic.

"The Las Vegas Strip is a place where most brands want some level of involvement. It’s also known as a late-night place. It gets busier after 10 p.m.," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based market research and consulting company.

Having a restaurant brand on the Strip is a great marketing and promotional move, said Al Ries, an Atlanta marketing and brand consultant. "Even if a restaurant loses money on the Strip, exposure to the millions of people visiting Las Vegas every year is worth a lot to an individual chain," Ries said.

"Look at Times Square in Manhattan. Some of the billboards in Times Square sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because of the millions of tourists who visit New York every year,” Ries said. "A visitor to Las Vegas will see a Smashburger restaurant and think, 'Wow, they must be doing extremely well to open a unit on the Strip.'"

Off the Strip, known for high-end comfort food, is hitting the Strip after its flagship opened in the valley’s Southern Highlands neighborhood in 2007.

Tom Goldsbury, an Off the Strip partner, said the High Roller is helping to attract people up and down the Strip to The Linq and his restaurant.

Goldsbury is partnering with N9NE Group partner Andy Belmonti and Jim and Diane Cameron, early Five Guys franchise owners in the valley.

“Everything is evolving and I couldn’t find a better niche that fits my food,” Goldsbury said.

Smashburger, based in Denver, and DiFara Pizza, which debuted in Brooklyn in 1964, are quick-service concepts. They’re joined at the Forum Food Court by the first West Coast location for Baltimore-based restaurant chain Phillips Seafood.

Selesner recently surveyed the 28,000-square-foot food court and said, "The food is for the masses and that's where the brands came into play. We wanted the best of the different categories … It's exciting to be in Las Vegas to be with all these brands."

The expanded food court, which features 30 percent more seating and took a small bite out of the neighboring casino space, is at the convergence of the Colosseum events center, the Forum Shops at Caesars, a new nightclub called Omnia and the self-parking garage's entrance.

Foot traffic includes several million visitors, which was a factor behind Smashburger opening on the Strip. The Caesars Smashburger is the chain's eighth valley restaurant and one of 310 in the United States and five other nations.

"You can’t beat that," Smashburger Chief Marketing Officer Josh Kern said of the pedestrian count. He noted the average Smashburger check is about $9.50, but the Caesars bill is probably $12 to $13.

Albert Scalleat, who owns the DiFara Pizza with Jeff LaPour at Forum Food Court, agreed with Kern. "I don’t think you can get a better location in Las Vegas. You have people coming here in waves," said Scalleat, who also owns Dom DeMarco’s Pizzeria & Bar in Summerlin. Dominick DeMarco owns the famed DiFara Pizza in Brooklyn’s Midwood section.

Ryan opened his new 18,000-square-foot restaurant, Tom’s Urban, next to Shake Shack just six days after Smashburger debuted on the Strip.

"We think Las Vegas is one of the critical places to be. We've been very selective about getting into the Strip," Ryan said. "All of our concepts are for the next generation of consumers."


Shake Shack is a growing burger stand concept with 63 worldwide locations from Chicago to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The chain, owned by Union Square Hospitality Group, started in New York City’s Madison Square Park in 2004. That’s why Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti loves his Strip location — it’s right next to a park, too.

"It felt so right for us," Garutti said. "It's a community gathering place."

The Madison Square Park site was a mere 400 square feet, a small fraction of the space at the Strip Shake Shack, which has 9,000 square feet, triple the size of the average Shake Shack, said Brian Murphy, Shake Shack area manager.

Both Shake Shack and Tom's Urban are serving local craft beers, such as Tenaya Creek. Shake Shack is also using baked goods from Henderson bakery Gimme Some Sugar as part of its All Shook Up custard dessert. Five percent of sales of that item go to the First Friday Foundation in Las Vegas to help local artists.

"We're not just a New York brand parachuting our concept into the Las Vegas market," said Garutti, noting the local partnerships.

Tom's Urban and Shake Shack are part of a strategy to create an urbane and fun feel, said Cynthia Kiser Murphey, New York-New York president and chief operating officer.

"We were looking for unique, one-of-a-kind experiences that people could not get any place else that fit into a fun, high-energy environment," Kiser Murphey said.
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