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Brendan Buhler

Vegas tips are slipping

8 May 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The economy, as you know, is off a couple of ticks.

First-quarter room occupancy is down 1 percentage point, Boyd Gaming's Las Vegas revenue is down 5 percent or 6 percent, MGM Mirage's profit is down a whopping 30 percent, and Stacy Taylor's income is down 40 percent.

Taylor might be considered a barometer of the Las Vegas economy, as part of the 10 percent of the Las Vegas labor force that earns tip income. She's a server at Smith & Wollensky, a tony Strip steakhouse that relies on conventiongoers. She's seen her tips, which account for all of her take-home pay, drop precipitously because even though most people are tipping the same percentages, they're not spending as much on food and booze.

Food tabs that were $150 a head are now less than $100 a head.

And that wine? If it's a business dinner, it often goes on a separate tab so the alcohol doesn't show up on an expense report — and some customers don't leave tips on it, she says.

Taylor had counted on putting most of her tips in the bank to tide her and her family's three children over through the lean summer months.

"I have nothing to put away this year," Taylor says. "Picking up a second job might not be a bad idea, but I don't know how I'll manage to do it with three kids out of school for the summer."

So that would be another expense: day care for the kids. Right now, with her working nights and her husband working days, they haven't had to pay for day care. Someone is always home.

Versions of Taylor's story are heard up and down the Strip and around town. At the Mirage, blackjack dealer Al Maurice says management is trying to spread the pain of fewer weekday gamblers by asking dealers to take extra days off — and sometimes forcing the issue. At the current pace, a dealer might make $3,500 less this year than last. So far he's made $600 less. It's not good, but he doesn't think it compares with the drop the casino is seeing. So he understands.

Farther up the boulevard at the Stratosphere, valet Mark Cohen is seeing fewer cars during the week — he blames gas prices — and says tips are down a bit, to boot. He points out that there are more Europeans in town, what with the strength of the euro against the dollar.

And Europeans don't tip?

"Well, you know," Cohen says, "I don't want to say anything, you know, bad."

Make it down to Fremont Street and you might find Jompon Chotikamars tending bar at Fitzgerald's. For him it hasn't been bad, just a little bit slower during the week. "Tipping about the same," he says, "but I'd say less people."

If you head off-Strip for Bilbo's Bar & Grill on Blue Diamond Road, manager and bartender Eric Johnson will tell you the locals are tipping the same percentages but business has dropped 10 percent. But stop by Zodie's on Tropicana Road and Tommy Wise says the traffic is about the same and, while the regulars are being good, strangers are tipping about 30 percent less.

"My girlfriend is a waitress and she says business is off 30 percent there, too. She says it's the worst it's ever been and she's been here 12 years."

Want to grab lunch or dinner? Anthony Frederick hopes you do. He's a server at both Tony Roma's and Applebee's. He figures lunch has gotten slower at Tony Roma's; dinners are down at Applebee's. A restaurant he used to work for, the Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon on Decatur Boulevard, closed just after he left. He quit that job so he could move closer to work and save on gas. He says everything seems down about 30 percent.

Anxiety about the economy is contagious, he says.

"When I watch the news and get scared, I think everyone else is watching the news and getting scared and then they stay home," he says. "That's what I think."

Julianna Nagy, who works at Kiss's Salon & Spa on Tropicana Avenue, and Liz Guinan, who works at Gianna Christine Salon, Spa & Wellness in the District at Green Valley Ranch, say business is down 30 percent. Their analysis: Customers are putting off haircuts an extra couple of weeks and women are coloring their hair at home.

"The decent people, the average people, the people who make a good living and do right, they're still coming," Nagy says. "The housing (problem), that is what is really hurting us. The people who were buying big houses with lots of money, they don't come."

Her twin sister, Magdolna Babics, who owns Kiss's with her, says a lot fewer people are buying luxury facials and waxings. So far, she says, the slacking off has not hurt her, "but I'm a pretty good person with the saving."

Rudy Romero owns and serves at the Cuba Cafe on Tropicana Avenue (where you really want to order the ropa vieja or the shrimp in garlic sauce, or maybe just an entire meal of the strawberries flambee over ice cream). "It's getting a little bad these days," he says, "with the depression going on."

And then there are the exceptions, the people who have it as good as ever or maybe even better.

Barbara Deck's pet grooming business, the Barking Lot, also on Tropicana Avenue, just hired a new groomer and is going to hire another soon. Business is that good.

Pet owners, she says, budget for their animals' care and grooming and keep their appointments.

"Pet owners are just different people," Deck says. "That's why I'm in this business."