Kitchen Un-Confidential: Las Vegas Strip

Photo of the Las Vegas sign in red lights in downtown Las Vegas with buildings in the background.

Photo by author

The down and dirty on the Vegas restaurant scene 

Only in Las Vegas do sketchy workers, hard-partying customers, and celebrity chefs come together to create a crazy-ass party every night of the year. 

Work and Life on the Las Vegas Strip 

These days, on the Las Vegas Strip, tourists are either eating cheap at food courts and buffets or enjoying fine dining by world-class chefs. A close family member has managed some prominent restaurants on the Strip. Between difficult workers, unruly customers, and the unique world-famous location, every night is a wild ride.

The Staff

Good help is hard to keep – or even get to show up. On an average night, six front-of-house staff (hosts, servers, bussers, and bartenders) will call in sick every shift. On Super Bowl Sunday 2023, there were 16 callouts – only four were kitchen staff. The problem is the Culinary Union. As one of the strongest and most influential unions in Las Vegas, the Culinary Union has the backs of its members, many of whom seem to abuse Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits. Managers are not allowed to question employees who claim an FMLA absence. In many cases, the “sick” individual had one hell of a great service – tips-wise – the night before and thus don’t feel the need to work that night. When excessive callouts happen, managers are forced to fill in by tending bar, taking orders, serving food, and bussing tables in a suit and tie. 

On the bright side, the back of the house generally runs smoothly, as most of the cooks are Latinos who want to work. My relative never witnessed cooks or servers spitting in the food or doing anything unseemly or disturbing. 

Standards are high, and most all dishes in high-end establishments are made from scratch. At one national chain Italian restaurant on the Strip – not Olive Garden – aside from the pasta and french fries, everything is made from scratch. The Grand Lux – a sister restaurant to Cheesecake Factory – had some preprepared ingredients. At Guy Fieri’s restaurant, a downstairs prep kitchen made everything from scratch.

The Guests

Drunk customers are the worst, and it can get messy. A younger, clean-cut man came into the restaurant wearing an expensive suit. He sat at bar and was coherent enough to order drinks and a meal. Shortly after the food arrived, the guy passed out face-first into his plate of food. When the my relative attempted to tried to wake him – and couldn’t – he called security. By this time, the man’s head was bobbing up and down, while blood was coming out of his nose. Security eventually showed up. When the ambulance arrived, the man in his fancy suit was totally incoherent and coughing up blood. Adios amigo! Was it alcohol poisoning or did he partake in drugs purchased on strip by vendors hawking weed, cocaine, pills, you name it.

On another occasion, a wealthy guest wearing a $10,000 watch shows up with three lovely young women. He offered the bartender $150 to sing a country western song karaoke-style with YouTube for the background music. Offer accepted! It was a hoot for all in attendance.

Physical confrontations are not unusual. My relative has had food thrown at him countless times. On one memorable night, a server accidentally tapped a guest in the head with his tray. The lady flipped out. Although her meal was comped, she demanded the corporate number and expected to be compensated for life. She wanted the server’s phone number and address. When denied this personal information, she kicked the manager in the shin and repeatedly chest bumped him. Her family eventually ushered her out of the restaurant, getting pushed and shoved by her along the way. 

Big trouble began at the high-end Ruth’s Chris Steak House after the rap song Ruth’s Chris Freestyle by Remble hit the charts. Countless customers began showing up, ordering only appetizers and gobbling up the free bread in order to take selfies posing with their lobster mac and cheese with a view of Caesar’s Palace in the background. One night, a group of eight showed up, reeking from the weed they smoked in the elevator ride up to the restaurant. Throughout their meal, an argument ensued. When the $800 check arrived, grandma laid into her niece, demanding more money toward her share of the bill. The niece threw a glass of wine in the older woman’s face, picked up a still-hot plate and threw it at her, and then smacked grandma in the face. By the time security arrived, the group was assembling a variety of credit cards in order to pay the bill and requesting that their food be boxed up. The niece actually demanded that her meal be removed from the bill, since it was not fully consumed, having been thrown at grandma. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department ended up arresting the niece who left kicking and screaming like a child. 

While managing the Grand Lux Cafe in the Palazzo Hotel and Casino, my relative witnessed high-end hookers pick up on men who had escorted their families up to their hotel rooms. The same men who earlier dined with their family in the restaurant were now arm-in-arm with a call girl who was blowing on their dice for good luck at the craps tables and presumably blowing something else later in the evening.

After Vegas reopened following the COVID closedown, the clientele went noticeably downhill. During the July 4th weekend in 2021, it was quite a scene at Harrah’s Oyster Bar & Grill. The restaurant, which is a brief escalator ride from pool, generally attracts the scantily clad. But this weekend, patrons were half naked, wasted on weed, and rolling blunts at the table. When confronted by my relative, they flat-out said that security wouldn’t care and that he should shut the fuck up and mind his own business. 

He witnessed tourists riding outdoor rent-a-scooters on the casino floor, people practically having sexual intercourse in restaurant booths, and bums throwing cups of urine at patio diners. He heard tales of thieves watching high rollers win big and then following them out to the parking lot where they were robbed. Street life can get ugly in Las Vegas. 

With weed now legal in Nevada, not only is there major drug use on the Strip, workers are showing up wasted more often than before. Since drug testing is expensive at $75 a test, routine testing doesn’t happen. The exception being if an employee suffers an injury on the job. If your test comes back dirty at that point, things will not go well for you.

The Ecolab Experience 

Fed up with working as a restaurant manager, my relative tried a stint as an exterminator working for Ecolab. Be warned, almost every restaurant kitchen deals with infestation. In one establishment, when he moved an appliance to spray, he was attacked by a swarm of cockroaches. It was like something out of a horror show. After a few more experiences of that sort, he returned to wearing a suit and managing a restaurant. Randomly, bars are the worst when it comes to bugs. Fruit flies love the sweet alcohol, sticky syrups, and fruit juices. Roaches are attracted to the bar area for the same reasons.

Randomly, the cleanest restaurants he serviced were off the Strip: Applebees and In-and-Out Burger. Both had high standards and expectations. Strip restaurants were not as impressive – especially culinary union restaurants, where workers are empowered and job duties are clearly regulated. There is not the same level of camaraderie that occurs in a family-run establishment.

The Nature of the Business 

Most challenges faced by food service workers in Vegas are experienced nationwide. For example, not tipping or poor tipping is universal. In some cases, it is a cultural issue, such as Europeans who are used to rounding up to the next dollar, since in Europe the tip is included in the bill and workers are paid decently. In the United States, servers are taxed at an assumed 15% of the ticket. Thus, when customers fail to to tip at least 15%, the server is losing money. In high-end restaurants, the correct tip for excellent service is in the 20-25% range. 

Like everywhere else, some people attempt to skip out without paying their bill. When this happens, servers are not allowed to chase after them, but they are still blamed by management for not taking care of their “real estate.” The first incident usually results in a discussion, and the second incident gets a server written up. If the bill is in excess of $650, security gets involved. Nothing goes unseen in Vegas; cameras are watching everything, and the technology is so sophisticated that “eyes in the sky” can follow an offender from casino to casino. My relative has watched dine-and-dashers attempt to sneak out emergency exits, and on one occasion an inebriated party ran across the Las Vegas Strip – climbing over fences and dodging cars to make their exit.

Another issue is dining parties that overstay their welcome. The term in the industry is “camping.” To be clear, in a fine dining establishment where the tab exceeds $500, a two-and-a-half-hour meal is expected. In a less fancy joint, management needs that table turned in 90 minutes or less. My relative frequently tells customers in a polite, casual, semi-joking tone, “I can see you are enjoying your experience, but it is time to kick rocks and expand your Vegas experience.” There are exceptions. If the party is spending big money, ordering yet another round of drinks, they will not be hustled out, as the markup on alcohol is huge. Also, if the party is a mixed group with kids and older adults, it is probably a situation where tourists are visiting locals. In that case, more grace is given; you don’t need locals talking trash about getting the bum’s rush at your restaurant. 

One group of Vegas dining guests is untouchable. Caesar’s Entertainment provides their high rollers with Platinum or Seven Stars cards. When these are flashed in a manager’s face, perfect service is essential. If you fail to treat these customers as kings, you will likely lose your job.

My relative’s last manager position was at Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen. One night Guy showed up with his posse to discover that unbeknownst to him the hours had changed, and the restaurant had closed at 9:00pm. Seriously? A restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip in a high foot-traffic area closed that early! He was rightfully pissed. After a few minutes on his phone, Guy told the crew to clock back in, saying “Let’s cook some food!” If you’ve seen the show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Guy Fieri in-person is the same guy you love on the show. To the staff that night he was personable, outgoing, and genuinely interested in feedback about the restaurant with his name on the door. Guy not only shared his tequila, he handed each cook a one-hundred-dollar-bill after picking their brains for information on how to further improve the experience at his namesake restaurant.

You Gotta Love A Party

When asked if he prefers working at restaurants on the Strip over more suburban locations, my relative chose the Strip. He enjoys meeting people from around the country and around the world. Most of the time, he can tell tourists from locals. He enjoys the Vegas “party atmosphere” and the fact that working on the Strip, you are always busy and there is always something going on. That being said, he recently quit his manager job to work as a server at a different, non-union restaurant on the Strip. His reasons were solid. With tips, servers bring in more money than managers most days. Plus, servers don’t have the daily frustration of dealing with all the employee bullshit – particularly a half dozen or more callouts on a single shift. I have a suspicion that my relative will be seduced back into management. He is simply too good at the job. Not everyone is able to get a herd of servers to cooperate as a team, satisfy the demands of sometimes difficult clientele, and make an evening’s dining experience feel like the best party in town.

Photo of Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip with the Linq Hotel and Casino in the background.

Photo by author

(c) Joyce O’Day 2023. All Rights Reserved.

AI was NOT used in the creation of this article.

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