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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Hit me - with a snack

7 February 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- It's one thing for a cocktail waitress to serve drinks to the guy at the quarter slots. But a cheeseburger and fries?

Starting in March, El Cortez gamblers will be able to eat as they play slot machines and table games.

Common sense says feeding hungry gamblers could keep them playing longer by preventing a trip to the buffet. But it signals a change in strategy for an industry where keeping customers happy - and their wallets loose - depended on serving gamblers free alcohol, even on an empty stomach.

"I think it's logical. Some people don't drink," said David Schwartz, director of UNLV's Gaming Studies Research Center. "I've always wondered why casinos didn't offer this before."

For today's casino bosses, the wider availability of casinos - both local and nationwide - means being more creative and accommodating not just to VIPs but to average Joes and Janes.

"It's a convenience," El Cortez Director and Partner Kenny Epstein said. "We know they play other places but we want them to come back."

El Cortez bosses stumbled upon the concept while surfing the Internet. The Web site for a tribal casino near San Diego caught their eye with a blurb about serving food on the casino floor. ("If Lady Luck is with you when hunger strikes, why not invite her to dinner?")

El Cortez folks made a pilgrimage to Barona casino, and what they saw astonished them.

"They were serving up Maine lobster at the roulette table," Epstein said. "It was wild."

The food service makes sense for El Cortez, a downtown property that draws a lot of smaller players with coupons and other offers rather than concentrating on high rollers, Schwartz said.

Some Las Vegas poker rooms serve food and a few high roller rooms have nearby buffets - a throwback to the more personalized service that thrived decades ago in Las Vegas' smaller, owner-operated casinos. And El Cortez, owned by 86-year-old casino legend Jackie Gaughan and three minority shareholders, is a remnant of an era before corporations.

It will be the second property in town to serve food on the main casino floor, but the first to publicize food service for slot players.

Since November, Palace Station has been serving food in a table game pit featuring games such as mini-baccarat and pai gow poker. Pie-shaped tables squeezed between players at Pit 8 are laden with such treats as Vietnamese rice noodle soup, the Korean rice specialty bibimbap and Chinese chicken congee, or soup.

It was a nod to the Asian practice of eating late night snacks and to gaming-tableside food service in Macau, the Chinese gambling outpost.

"This is what our customers want and are used to," said Rich Slack, vice president of Asian marketing at Station Casinos. "Food crosses generations."

At El Cortez, small, square food trays on rollers will be covered in linen and topped with china plates and stainless steel cutlery. The one-page menu features items such as pastrami on rye, chicken fingers, baby back ribs and quesadillas for less than what they would cost in the casino's cafe.

El Cortez has hired about a half dozen servers, who will give customers magnetized numbers to stick on their slot machine or set atop their table to keep track of their orders. To top it off, bosses are readying a dispatch service that will allow gamblers to push a slot machine "change light" button - a device normally used for awarding jackpots - to, say, check up on their order of chef's salad.

"The whole thing is going to be fun," said John Civitello, a former MGM Grand executive who is now the El Cortez food and beverage director. "If they can have a sandwich in one hand and play with the other, that's great."