Photo Credit: Bill Milne, Honey Salt, Mastriani's, Naomi Mauro and Sparrow + Wolf

These are surely tough times, with daily reports of dire hardship, grief and pain, but it’s not all bad news. Time and time again the Las Vegas community has rallied to help each other during a crisis, and the response to reach out during the current COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has been no different. There have been countless heroes and previous unsung champions coming to the forefront helping to keep us safe, healthy and fed, including delivery drivers, grocery store workers, first responders and healthcare workers. In addition, numerous organizations and businesses have made donations and set up accounts to benefit those being affected financially by the economic disruptions.

The food and beverage industry also has its share of heroes, including chefs and restaurateurs who have supported the well-being of their staff and donated food and prepared meals to the community and their staff, or stayed open during the shutdown to meet the needs of the entire Las Vegas community.

We checked in with a select group of leaders of the Las Vegas food & beverage industry—Brian Howard: Chef/Owner of Sparrow + Wolf; Giovanni Mauro: Chef/Owner of Pizzeria Monzú; Elizabeth Blau: Owner of Honey Salt/Founder CEO of Blau + Associates; and Pete Mastrioni: Chef/Owner of Mastrioni’s—and asked what they have been doing to help their staff and the community, what motivated them to do so, advice they have for other restaurateurs and what they see as the future for the industry.

Helping Out Staff and Those in Need

Elizabeth Blau: As a business owner and philanthropist I wear several hats. First and foremost, is to protect our business, because that is not only my family, but the lives and families of all the people that work for us. We started in the early days by drafting a letter to Governor Sisolak to make sure voices were heard of small, local, independent businesses who don’t have lobbyists; that we, because of the shutdown, were going to have to lay off a tremendous number of employees and are going to need help. The second thing was to start a Facebook Community page, so I started the Save the Local Las Vegas Restaurant Community page, now with close to 2,000 members, to quickly share information.

Brian Howard: Our focus has always maintained the same during this whole process and it’s been to keep our team and guests safe while spreading as much positivity and happiness during these tough times. We have run a few initiatives that focus on putting money into our staff’s pockets, and all of the proceeds from our gift card sales have gone to them. Our inventory has been divided up to ensure they keep food in the fridge while offering them access to our supply chain as well. We have a group chat that focuses on sharing positivity, quotes of the day, fun challenges, what we’re cooking and more. It’s important we keep everyone’s spirits high and we all have each other’s back as mental health is number one for us. Our #sparrowandwolfchallenge cocktail campaign has been a great success and has reached countries all over the world; every cocktail that’s made equals a meal for a first responder and we are moving into our second week of feeding first responders. Most importantly, we want to do our part by keeping everyone safe and providing them an outlet to create and share happiness.

Giovanni Mauro: I'm grateful that I immediately recognized even before the official shutdown that this was going to be a problem, so we shut down our full service restaurant Monzu, right away.  Our Old School Pizzeria location was predisposed for this situation in that it was primarily a take-out/delivery concept, so we were able to keep operating fairly normally, implementing major health precautions of course. Monzu has three times the employees and kitchen staff, so to keep everyone safe we closed and went to baking bread only, because that takes one person at a time and isolates each employee. I think reassurance is the thing I’ve focused most on for my employees.  In the sense that, “look guys there is a really horrible situation where there is a complete shutdown of the food system.  The restaurant is here.  It is your safety net.  What does everyone need?” We are fortunate to have access to things like bulk supplies, a freezer full of sustainable food. So we check on everyone to make sure they have basic necessities. 

Pete Mastrioni: Regarding COVID-19, we have reached out to our employees by updating them on regulations and making sure we stay within the health guidelines to better serve our community. Employees have been offered shifts to service the restaurant by operating using curbside and delivery options. Employees are reminded to wash/sanitize their hands and take payment over the phone. For our community, we offer them safe and delicious food at
their fingertips. 

Staying Open or Closing 

Pete Mastrioni: Our motivation for staying open is to continue to serve our customers and assist our community concerning the elderly and those in need. 

Giovanni Mauro: I kept on seeing picture after picture on social media of “no bread products” and empty bread shelves. To me bread is a fundamental need.  When things are good we forget about it, we even demonize it because it's a complex carbohydrate, but the truth is that bread is an essential part of life.  The phrase comes to mind, “You got 99 problems and...” My thing is bread shouldn’t be one of them.   On a personal level, offering our customers something as simple as bread, something wholesome and delicious, there is no greater feeling for me. 

Elizabeth Blau: The decision to keep Honey Salt open was three-fold. We had to lay off most of our front-of-house staff but remaining open for takeout allowed us to keep almost 30 people employed. We got together with the entire management team and took a vote and it was unanimous that everyone wanted to keep working. Secondly, our food is comfort food, a menu of family recipes, so in this situation that kind of food is what people want to be eating when quarantined at home. The third thing was, we realized there was a huge crisis in our community for those who were low income or at a high physical risk of leaving their home. With Three Square having to close their kitchen and convert to a grocery model, there was more of a need for the community to have hot prepared meals so we are working with the program Delivering with Dignity, providing meals at cost and delivered directly to those in need.

Brian Howard: We chose the opposite of the spectrum; Sparrow + Wolf closed temporarily the Monday before the governor’s mandate. We saw what was coming and it’s always been our first decision to do our part and try to mitigate putting anyone in danger. We looked at all the opportunities of curbside pick-up, delivery, etc. We even have a retail beer and wine license and still decided that the financial portion was not as important as the safety of our team and guests.  

Words of Wisdom/Advice for Restaurateurs

Giovanni Mauro: Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Don’t get in “do or die” mode, and make 180 degree pivots. Simplicity is the answer. Pick one thing you do well. Focus on that and do that. The less moving parts the better. Lean and mean is what gets us through the hard times. Overtaxing your psyche and your emotions is not the answer. Challenging yourself to be extraordinarily disciplined is. 

Pete Mastrioni: During the shutdown, we would advise to keep your doors open, limit your staff and provide take-out food options. Upon reopening, we are going to continue with some of these options.

Brian Howard: I think it’s a learning curve for all of us, but I know it’s time to adapt. The uncertainty of what’s coming is scary for all of us. I feel if you stay positive and are able to revisit the areas that will make the most impact on your margins while keeping the integrity of your brand and staff morale you can have a fighting chance. 

Elizabeth Blau: I think the most important thing is you don’t deplete your cash supply. In order to reopen and create jobs and be effective you have to keep that nest egg. 

Predictions for the Future

Brian Howard: Well, hard to predict and for how long is the question. This could be a hard reset for the dining world as a whole. You will most definitely see more spatial awareness, less shared dining, more takeout and food designed to be delivered better; and marketplaces added into programs and less expensive protein options to start. 

Elizabeth Blau: I think it’s going to be a tough year to 18 months ahead of us. We’re very resilient and when the community needs support, whether for the arts, or hospitals or museums, the restaurant industry is always the first to get in there to support others, and we are definitely going to need others to help support us after the crisis. It’s been absolutely devastating to anyone in the industry, like for us to close seven restaurants and lay off hundreds of people without any kind of certainty as to when the future is going to look bright. It’s tough for a city like Las Vegas that is built on sports arenas, conventions, concerts, nightclubs, restaurants and 7,000 room hotels and having to get on an airplane to get here, anybody that’s spent a month in quarantine is really going to think hard about wanting to bounce into recovery with a lot of people. I don’t have a crystal ball, but unfortunately the reality is this recovery process is going to be painfully slow.

Pete Mastrioni: Our customers are looking forward to the opportunity to enjoy our food again while being served. We see the food and beverage industry in Southern Nevada picking up once we get past the shutdown. 

Giovanni Mauro: My aunt had a saying: True damage to the crops is seen after the snow melts. We are in the middle of the snow phase. We don’t really know the impact that this crisis will bring economically. However, my prediction is that it is going to be a slow but steadfast climb to normalcy. I do believe the psychological conditioning that we’ve done with social distancing will have an effect. I believe people will be afraid of crowded rooms for a while. A lot of places will throw in the towel and not because they can’t recover financially, but from the sheer exhaustion that this crisis has brought upon them. I do believe that a lot of people will be more thankful to our profession and the immense amount of work it takes to provide not only food, but food at its highest level. I’m hoping that maybe people will have a deeper appreciation for independent restaurants, and food service in general.  My hope is that this brings awareness to the fact that we are a true “service” industry, and that our trade is honorable and valuable.  

Delivering with Dignity delivers hot meals to the doorsteps of our community’s most vulnerable and has more than 100 volunteers. For info on how to donate to Delivering with Dignity visit www.moonridgefoundation.org. For requests for service or volunteer inquiries, email COVID19@uwsn.org or call United Way of Southern Nevada at 702-892-2300.

To join the Save the Local Las Vegas Restaurant Community Facebook page visit
www.facebook.com/groups/569786930296031.