LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — It's been one year since the lights went out for most Las Vegas businesses. Not many could've seen COVID-19 coming and how much it would impact all of us.
But perhaps no one has been hit harder economically than bars and restaurants.
13 Action News caught up with Cody Tomboli, the owner of two Vegas valley bars -- Bar Code Burger Bar and the Bank at Gambit in Henderson -- to get a sense of what the job's been like over the past 12 months.
'LONGEST YEAR OF MY LIFE'
First of all, owning a bar or restaurant is not easy. For most owners of small establishments, owning and operating involves long hours, a stressful work environment and slim profit margins.
So when the world shut down and these establishments were hit with restriction after restriction, business quickly changed from thriving to surviving.
"I actually just got chills thinking about it. It was scary," said Tomboli.
"We were just waiting on the phone to ring for takeout orders and whatnot," he recalled. "It was just me and a cook every day during the three months."
"It turned into the shortest and longest year of my life."
Let's take you all the way back to the beginning. On March 17, 2020, Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered all nonessential businesses to shut down the following day, with bars and restaurants at the top of the list.
That shutdown was only supposed to last 30 days. But bars and restaurants wouldn't be allowed to re-open until early May.
"We opened our doors the first day, called everybody back to work, got all the staff back and I just told them, I said, 'Guys, I’ve been in here for the last few months holding it down making sure y’all had something to come back to. I need y’all to hold me down,'" said Tomboli.
They all rallied around it and were like, 'Yeah, absolutely. We’re going to make this work,'" he said of his team.
At that point, restaurants had new restrictions and bar areas were off-limits, which will deliver a big blow to profits in any city bar, let alone in Las Vegas.
"We were able to do liquor to-go for a little bit, which was pretty cool, something different. But, we were just trying to get any sort of support during those days. I think we were cut down by like 90%," said Tomboli.
With fears over contracting the coronavirus at a bar or restaurant hitting an all-time high, most meals were being ordered as either delivery or to-go.
And those meals were worth a lot less to bars and restaurants because of the cost to deliver them, thanks to third-party delivery services like Grubhub, Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Postmates.
"Most of the orders during that time were on the apps," said Tomboli. "Those apps take a 30% surcharge."
"Those [orders] are almost just cash flow. You don’t really make any money off those," he explained. "I was just trying to encourage people to call me directly, save the fees, and I would do those deliveries personally myself."
"These apps have been considered a necessary evil for the industry for quite a few years," said Kristen Corral, a cofounder of plant-based Mexican eatery Tacotarian, as well as Loco Las Vegas, a local franchise of the restaurant delivery service Loco Co-Op.
"We’ve always not liked them," Corral continued, "but then your customers want delivery, and for a restaurant to facilitate their own deliveries is costly and difficult to do."
NEW WAY TO DELIVER
Loco Las Vegas is essentially a local delivery service with a significantly smaller surcharge on each order.
Corral said she had no choice but to start this company after only Unincorporated Clark County passed a 15% cap on third-party delivery services.
And that cap could expire with the current emergency order in a matter of months, meaning these delivery apps can operate anywhere in the valley unlicensed and uncapped.
"When the pandemic hit, I saw all these other cities were putting caps in place," she said. "They were putting 15% caps in place because, what people don’t understand is, these apps are charging around 30%-37% per order."
"In the restaurant industry, that’s not really sustainable. But during the pandemic, when we were doing almost 100% to-go and delivery for a short period of time, it was absolutely unsustainable," explained Corral.
"They [the delivery apps] are held to a different standard because they are billion-dollar tech corporations and that’s just not something our industry needs to deal with," she said. "We have enough problems."
"These apps are such a headache, beyond the 33%. The customer service is nonexistent, the drivers don’t show up, or when they do, they eat the food sometimes on the way home. They’re not trained properly. They’re not paid well," said Corral.
Now, she's vowing to improve on those services with better pay and more training.
"From what I understand, sometimes on Uber or DoorDash, they can make as low as $4 to $7 an hour, which isn’t a living wage. So, you can’t expect people to really care about their job or want to show up to work when they’re making $4 an hour, potentially," she said.
"All these things we think we can handle," she said of her business. "By giving these drivers better training, paying them better so they feel more motivated."
"They [drivers] will be required to have a food delivery card through the Restaurant Hospitality Institute, which is similar to a health and alcohol awareness card," she said.
"We’ve got some delivery training," she added. "We'll have a local customer service that can handle customer issues, restaurant issues. All of these things that we’re not able to get with these larger tech corporations, we’ll be able to facilitate here locally with Loco."
Plus, she says people should want to support local companies after the year they've been through.
"Customer should order local when it is available because they’re helping local restaurants and they’re going to pay less than when you order off Uber, DoorDash," said Corral.
HIDDEN COSTS BEHIND EVERY ORDER
"They are charging a Clark County fee right now to make up some of their losses from the cap," said Corral of the big delivery apps.
"Restaurants are forced to mark up their prices on those apps currently because they can’t afford the 30%. They’re paying additional taxes, surcharges, fees, all of the additional fees so that sometimes you pay $50 for a $12 meal," she said.
"On Loco, that won’t happen."
CAPACITY LIMITS: YET ANOTHER BLOW
In September, Patrons could start sitting at bars again, but with dividers in between seats.
By November, cases began to spike again and new restrictions were put on restaurants, limiting capacity to 25% and requiring reservations ahead of time.
Tomboli says it was yet another body blow restriction that hit hard.
"It was also inconvenient for people because they didn’t want to think that, 'Oh, I gotta have a reservation to go there? If I show up, they’re not just going to let us in?" said Tomboli.
Only recently have those restaurant restrictions been lifted.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE: READY FOR THE 'ROARING 2Os'
Last month, Gov. Sisolak announced restaurant and bar capacity could rise from 25%-35%. And then, just a few days ago on March 15, capacity rose again to 50%.
The timing couldn't have been any better.
St. Patrick's Day and now March Madness is drawing out crowds of tourists and locals, alike.
Tomboli says he's already seeing a steady increase in customers. It's why he has so much for the future, starting this summer.
"Just this week with March Madness, Saint Patty‘s Day, VGK, everyone coming out," said Tomboli.
"It’s looking like it’s going to be there. People have some money to play and they’re ready to spend it," he continued. "You can see it from the traffic coming from California and Arizona every week."
"It’s looking like it’s going to be a really solid summer," said Tomboli
"I think it’s going to be one of the craziest ones yet, honestly. The way it’s looking right now, over the past couple weeks, it’s looking like it’s going to be booming."
"The roaring 20's," he said. "I think it’s going to be a real thing,"