A few years ago, a casino executive who had relocated to Mississippi was on a panel at a gambling convention and revealed the secret to his new propertys success. It had nothing to do with double-diamond slot machines, busty cocktail waitresses, internal cost controls, or the intricacies of the game of craps.
Just keep serving fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and greens and youll do fine, he said.
Such simple fare might have worked at one time in the Pleistocene Era of the casino backwaters. After all, the first casino in Tunica County, Splash, sold hot dogs and charged $10 admission for months before it got around to grilling steaks. The second one, Ballys, featured a McDonalds. The third, the President Casino, partnered up with Dales, a homey meat-and-three restaurant in Southaven.
Southern cooking still has an honored place on most casino buffets, but nobody can get by on the cheap any more. Just because casinos give away a lot of food doesnt mean they dont take it seriously.
Tunicas history has been an ongoing game of follow-the-leader. First it was a race to get in the water. Then came the Robinsonville land rush. Then the big hotels and live entertainment. The latest craze is pulling out all the stops to upgrade buffets and restaurants.
At the 10 casinos in Tunica County, the minimum package now is a buffet for low-rollers, a steak house for high-rollers, and a third offering somewhere in between. A la carte entrees for $25 are not uncommon, and buffets are creeping toward $15 and could go higher, according to some insiders.
Not that everybodys paying, of course. Casinos comp as many as 75 percent of their restaurant customers. Food is a marketing tool and a come-on as well as a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week job. The competition is as important as the boasting over who has the biggest-name entertainment or the loosest slots.
The Tunica market is driven by food and the value people perceive in that, says Don Sally, food and beverage director for Sams Town, which just completed a renovation that totaled $22 million.
Sallys career stops include culinary school in Santa Barbara, California, a degree in hotel administration from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the Hyatt resort on the Big Island of Hawaii, the Luxor casino in Las Vegas, and the Silver Star Casino in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Boyd Gaming, the parent company of Sams Town, relinquished its management contract at the Choctaw Indian-owned Silver Star last year for $72 million. Meanwhile, Sams Town was losing market share in Tunica because its low-brow Western theme had become stale in the face of increased competition. So Boyd brought in Sally and went for a makeover.
Weve put together a new team here with a chef we hired from a Hyatt five-diamond resort, says Sally. Its sort of a revolving door. Our chef went to Gold Strike, and theirs went to Fitzgeralds.
The new layout features a revamped steak house with a 125-label wine list and a vastly enlarged $5 million buffet. At so-called action Brazilian-style cooking stations, 22 skewers spin sausages and slabs of meat over a charcoal fire. Most of the food at other stations is also prepared to order instead of being scooped out of heating pans (although Corkys barbecue and ribs has moved upstairs and is now served buffet style). The pies and cakes are presented bakery-style instead of in little precut portions. The ice cream is hand-scooped Haagen- Dazs rather than soft-serve.
On the first week of the new buffet, on a Monday, we did 4,500 covers [customers] in one day and we hope to get to the 8,000-mark at maximum capacity, says Sally.
The dinner buffet costs $13.95, but the average tab at Sams Town is still only about $8. Sams Town does about $18 million a year in food and drinks and still budgets a loss on it, as do its competitors.
Sally makes no bones about the fact that Jack Binions Horseshoe Casino, with its own recently revamped buffet and steakhouse, was, in his opinion, the Tunica standard for food.
People have seen what these other places have and we realize we are going to have to stay on this every year, Sally says.
About half of Sams Towns food customers are comped. At neighboring Hollywood Casino, food and beverage vice president Marc Silverberg says 73 percent of meals are comped at the casinos buffet and restaurants. The average check ranges from $7.75 at the buffet to $43 at the steakhouse. (In casino accounting, comped meals are charged off as marketing, but the numbers are based on the prices in the menu.) A telling indicator: The seafood buffet, just $9 when Hollywood opened, is now $16 -- and features sushi. The buffet has more cooking stations where the food is prepared in plain view of the customer to accentuate freshness. In short, higher quality at a higher price.
Were a necessary evil, says Silverberg, who formerly worked for Harrahs in Atlantic City and Memphis before moving to the Hollywood as executive chef in 1994. You have to try to get the customers one way or another. What we have to do is try to control the loss.
Hollywood did about $15 million in food and beverage business last year, losing about $1.50 on average on each customer.
Luring customers is one challenge. Holding on to help is another. Hollywood has 301 food and beverage employees, which is about one-fourth of its total number of employees and 30 percent of its payroll.
Its a chess match where we have to constantly train and teach, says Silverberg. Our steakhouse manager, for example, started as a server at the buffet. That is the only way you survive here.
As someone familiar with Atlantic City and Las Vegas, Silverberg sees Tunica as still in its infancy in some areas. With gambling operations far more alike than different, what distinguishes one casino from another is its food, hotel, and entertainment. Those so-called support operations, whether steaks and whiskey or showgirls and magicians, are heavily subsidized by the slots and table games. But that could change a bit.
In support operations here, all of us take it in the shorts, says Silverberg. In Vegas its different. Fifty-five percent of all revenue is made in support operations. I paid 25 bucks for a buffet out there a few weeks ago. I believe well be there one day."
The Tunica Food Chain: 1991-2001
Pre-Casino: The Blue and White and The Hollywood Cafe rule.
1993: Splash serves hot dogs.
1994: Southern Belle opens first steakhouse; casino closes.
1995: Harrahs popularizes cooking stations concept.
1996: Horseshoe sets gold standard for buffets.
1998: Circus Circus upgrades to Gold Strike.
2000: Haagen-Dazs replaces soft-serve at Sams Town.
[This article previously appeared in the January issue of Memphis Magazine.]