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A conversation with innovation: A lively talk with three up-and-coming Vegas food phenoms
Story by Brock Radke
Jet Tila is the chef at Wazuzu, the buzzworthy pan-Asian restaurant at Encore Las Vegas. He is from L.A.
Kari Haskell is the baker behind northwest Las Vegas' Retro Bakery, known all over the valley for creative cupcakes with a little attitude and a lot of buttercream. She is from Oregon.
Ricardo Guerrero is the creator of Slidin' Thru, a mini-burger slinging lunch truck local foodies are chasing from Henderson to Summerlin. He is a Vegas native.
They're young, hip, passionate about their food - and savvy beyond their years when it comes to building their businesses and images. They sat down with me recently over dim sum, sushi and megachip cookies for a casual conversation about what they do, where they're going - and why we're following.
How to stand out - and stand tall
Brock: Cupcakes, the truck and the sliders, and the cuisine here at Wazuzu, pan-Asian, are all pretty hot trends in food right now. How do you distinguish yourselves?
Kari: I'm trying to do it by diversifying our menu. It's cupcakes, all day, every day, but we have, for example, the megachip cookie, a Saturday special. I've been baking that cookie since I was 15. That's what I've always done - bake. Cake came because that's what I could build my business on, and custom cakes because that's what my husband is very good at.
Jet: So what makes the slider truck different?
Ricardo: The food we serve. The Ya-Ya burger is Greek, named after my grandmother. It's homemade tzatziki sauce, a little feta cheese and red wine vinaigrette. It's something unique. You're not going to find it anywhere else. The Captain's Order is balsamic reduction, feta cheese, sautéed onions and bacon. There's a Caprese with fresh mozzarella and basil. And who doesn't like a slider? You get three different ones in one tray.
Kari: You don't feel fat eating it. Just like a cupcake!
Jet: Wazuzu is a different animal, being on the Strip. I'm not good at a lot of things but I think I'm good at understanding what people want. I went right to New York right when I got my job, ate everywhere, ate everywhere in L.A., and thought, what's missing? To me, pan-Asian here was like Tao, basically a Chinese joint with a pad Thai and sushi.
Brock: They have food there?
Jet: Exactly. In Vegas, who else is pan-Asian? At that time, Social House, and now they're back. And that's a sushi joint with a pad Thai. They'll weave in one other Asian dish and call it pan-Asian. But it makes great sense business-wise, because you're going to get higher perceived value from sushi than Chinese food.
Kari: So did you choose Encore or did Encore choose you?
Jet: Encore chose me.
Kari: That's amazing.
Jet: I was working 30 hours a week cooking for billionaires in L.A., moonlighting. I had the best life. And then they were like, "Mr. Wynn would like to open a restaurant."
Kari: Oh my god! I can't even imagine that.
Ricardo: That's a crazy phone call.
Jet: I was like, How did you find me? I live off the radar. I'm not Ming Tsai. There's maybe four or five dudes that can knock this kind of restaurant out, competently give you great dim sum and great sushi and great Thai. So I cooked the tasting, I left it all here, thought, I'm never gonna get this job. And then: "Do you want the job?"
"Are you serious? Do you know me?" So I figure this was the next step for me. I'm 35 now. The 30s are the best ever.
Kari: You feel confident, like, I can do this.
Jet: You've amassed enough skill at what you do.
Jet: You're mature enough to plan what you want to do with it.
Jet: We hope. You've shed most of your vices.
Kari: Well, no ...
Ricardo: She works at a cupcake shop!
Kari: I do eat a lot of sugar. I have a total love-hate with what I do.
Jet: Don't we all?
Kari: Sometimes I think maybe I should come up with a cupcake that people will feel better about eating. You at least have some healthy stuff on the menu here.
Jet: But I'm further in my 30s. I have to eat better. How old are you?
Jet: What's it like at your age, building this business?
Ricardo: Sometimes it's a little overwhelming, and it's only been four months. I had big dreams but I had no idea it would take on what it has in such a short amount of time. I'm just trying to buckle down and get super focused. I don't want it to blow by me and think, if only I had done things a little different. I'm trying to calculate every move right. I want this to turn into my legacy. I don't want to ever have to fill out another application ever again! (laughs) It's all so new to me. I didn't work for like a year before this, I was just going to school. I would have friends over and cook a big dinner and bring leftovers home to my mom and she would say, "You should start a catering company or something." But then it was like, check out this cool trend that's going on in L.A. with all these lunch trucks. This is probably realistic for us. We started looking into trucks and then it just happened. Three months later, I'm setting my grand opening. We went for it.
Jet: How many days are you in service?
Ricardo: Five days a week.
Kari: So lucky. I see your schedule and I'm like, "That son of a bitch!"
Ricardo: Yeah, but I wake up at six in the morning and go to bed at one o'clock.
Kari: Exactly. And your days off are not days off.
Ricardo: There's a lot of planning. But it's all worth it in the end. That's the American dream - build something out of nothing.
Jet: So are you making plans for the next step or just trying to maintain?
Ricardo: I'm trying to take it now and really perfect it so there will be a strong foundation for adding future trucks. We're doing really well but there are things that can be perfected. I feel like we're in our little brother's t-shirt right now, busting at the seams.
Jet: My family came here in the '60s and opened the first little Thai market in the country - it was 800 square feet - and some of the first Thai restaurants in the history of America. So I was the kid bagging groceries and wiping the floor, cutting meat, working at the restaurant. So this is what it's about for me. Do I want to grow? My whole life has been about taking my parents' foundation and finding out how really big people made it. That's why I love your story.
Food culture + wheels
Jet: So you're the first food truck, right?
Ricardo: That's a weird thing. Honestly, we're not the first.
Jet: In Vegas, though? Gourmet, the new breed of trucks, you know?
Ricardo: Right, like hip lunch truck, upscale lunch truck. It's funny because I see people write the first food truck in Vegas, and really ...
Kari: King Taco was here first!
Ricardo: Right! Go to our truck lot and there's like 15 Mexican taco trucks. But I guess we were the first to take it outside that realm of going to construction sites. I actually went on a ride-along with them. They cook some really good food on there but people don't know about it because there's that negative stigma of the lunch truck in Vegas, the roach coach. "Don't eat there, my cousin got sick off that." But I was on that truck and they're making homemade tortillas in there, folding empanadas and putting them in the oven, blending the salsa right there. They're doing all this good stuff, fresh stuff.
Jet: They need a PR agent and a story about them. Put a face on it.
Brock: Jet, are you in tune with lunch truck culture in L.A.?
Brock: Do you think it can catch on here? Vegas is not L.A.
Jet: The thing I know about L.A., I don't know about Vegas. I don't know the culture here.
Kari: There is no culture here.
Jet: I'm glad you said it so I don't have to.
Kari: It's coming. I can feel it.
Jet: In L.A. we have always respected the others, the roach coaches. I know four I can hit in a certain part of town any day. One might be Oaxacan food, and one is straight up Mexico City, tacos and stuff. I know a gang of people I can call up and say, "Let's go hit this truck at one in the morning." So who does that here? I don't know.
Ricardo: It's crazy. They seem to come out of nowhere.
Kari: And they're very loyal.
Ricardo: A lot of people are transplants from other big cities and they know street food. Me growing up in Vegas, I've never eaten off a hot dog stand, you know? Street food is nonexistent in Vegas, partly because you don't have any main places where you walk down the streets and there's a lot of shops. It's pretty separated. You don't even know your neighbors.
Kari: In Centennial Hills you do. It's our own little town out there.
Ricardo: You have really kinda primed that area, because that's one of our best stops.
Jet: I don't think I've been out there.
Kari: You should check it out. They've got great cupcakes!
Jet: It seems like you really have to cherry pick in Vegas to find food.
Kari: I think the mom and pop culture is finally coming back. For a while there it was all franchises, and that's how the strip mall mentality grew. I think people are tired of it. I am.
Word of mouth, viral style
Jet: So it's all about Twitter now. That's how you get the word out. If you're the face of the bakery, they know you on Facebook and then they come and see you ...
Kari: I get that all the time.
Jet: That's the secret to our businesses. People do what we do, but we utilize social media to advertise and do marketing.
Kari: And it's free, and fun. You get to read people's stuff and connect with them.
Ricardo: You can let them in on your whole story. I think that's why we get a lot of families and mothers. I think they take a motherly role a little, because I'm younger and they want to see this guy do well.
Jet: You're working that angle. We all are working something.
Ricardo: It's funny because I just fell into it, just being myself.
Kari: Personality has a lot to do with it. I'm very loud anyway, and Twitter lets me be extra loud.
Ricardo: I guess we are working an angle but we didn't go into it with that intention.
Jet: I'm not saying you're playing a character, but you could.
Kari: A lot of people do, and it pisses me off. Because if you follow someone and then find out it's not them, it's disappointing.
Brock: It's just word of mouth, right?
Ricardo: It's the new word of mouth.
Brock: It's massive volumes of it, at hyper-speed. A neighborhood place, like Kari's and Ric's, it doesn't apply the same way as it does to a Strip restaurant. So what do you do?
Jet: I came here with the aspirations of running something in between a local spot and the Strip. I love my guests and I depend on them for survival, but I wanted to establish things like Wednesday night dinners. But things are different. We're at a five star property. So I'm also at this place in life where these are my dreams, this is the menu I wrote for the restaurant, and this is the menu I'm going to use at the restaurant. Call it selling out, call it what you will, but the guests are the guests and they're always right. And it's not dudes from L.A. and New York and Chicago always here, it's the dudes from middle America now, in this economy. So let's make them happy. Social media might be one out of every hundred persons that knows me online and is coming through. But I still need to connect with the community, so that's why I started blogging and Twitter here.
Kari: You're in a totally different ballgame.
Jet: But I was a neighborhood dude in L.A., and now I'm here.
Kari: That's why I love Vegas! That's what Vegas can do. You can be yourself but also be huge, locally, in town and then in the world. It's great.
Jet: It's a great platform, as long as you don't lose yourself in it.
The future is now - and bigger
Jet: So what is on the horizon?
Ricardo: I think two trucks would be perfect because we could be on both sides of town at the same time.
Kari: Retro Bakery needs a bigger location. I just can't decide if it's location number two or numero uno, like, destination Retro. I have to hire the staff and make sure they know what the hell they're doing, and make sure they're on team Retro.
Brock: And Jet?
Jet: Diversification. I just launched a Whole Foods line in Boston. All the Thai food on the hot bars in Boston are mine. I've got a line with Schwann's frozen foods launching in Denver.
Brock: How is the Encore Beach Club affecting Wazuzu?
Jet: It completely changed the game. The front doors are open, the beach club and Surrender have been banging, and it's been great for us and for Society Cafe. So we're going to build off that and become the feeder to Surrender and XS (nightclubs). We're going to do some new late night menus, flip into small plates at maybe 11. I'll turn dim sum back on at night and do special sushi available only at night. And I've got a slider here. Sorry. We're going to do a roast duck slider and a barbecue pork slider.
Everyone's a critic
Kari: We get a lot of bloggers, a lot of comments, and honestly, when people write about you, you just kind of cross your fingers. But it's nice when there's some personality, when it's something I would actually read if I wasn't in it.
Brock: There's a difference between somebody who does it because they enjoy it and then, the career Yelper.
Jet: Right. "Let me get my rating as high as possible. I need that elite status."
Kari: I got someone who came in saying, "What's not so sweet here?" You're in the wrong place. I'm the master of buttercream. He gave me like, one star, and it's on Urban Spoon. It pops up every time.
Jet: That stuff lives forever. They don't understand that. We live this every day. One fell swoop with the keyboard and that's it.
Ricardo: Blogging is a little more personal, a no-namer just doing what they love. If you're doing something worthwhile, you're always going to have those people, negative comments.
Brock: Your businesses have an interactive quality that lends itself well to bloggers and all the online stuff, and Kari has been blogging before she got close to opening.
Kari: It started with me saying, there's a building open, I should probably put a shop in there because if I don't, I'm going to watch someone else do it. My sister would always ask me what's going on, so I thought, I'll just blog and she can check it. Then people all over the country started reading it and asking me questions. I was like, people are reading this? This was in 2007. Now it has a really cool chronicle of what happened. I still do it but not as much as I'd like, which disappoints me. I want to use my blog to be real. The customers see that and I think it makes us stand out a lot. I just want to tell people how it is.
Jet: So you'll bend to Yelp?
Kari: I don't bend. I can't give them what they want. They want everything.
Jet: I could care less what Yelpers think. With you, it's totally different. I have the luxury of a captive audience. And I'm always gonna lose, because this is not a model that Yelpers love. You can go to Spring Mountain and get an Asian meal for a quarter of the cost, although it won't be the same.
Kari: Everyone should have to work in a restaurant before they say a word. Butter is expensive. I could use shortening, but I won't. This megachip cookie is a dollar and I should charge more, but ... this is like my heart on a plate.
Jet: That's an amazing cookie.
Kari: That's a serious cookie.
Ricardo: It is. It's all chips.
Jet: That's no joke. It's like elven bread. You could eat that s--- for a week, and just break off a little bit at every meal.
Brock: It will last you all the way to Mordor.
Jet: I'm going to take the rest and wrap it in a leaf and carry it around ... oh yeah, sustenance. What was the name of the elven bread?
Kari: We can Google it. (pulls out phone)
Brock: One piece of bread for four Hobbits.
Jet: Remember? For like a month. (laughs) I am a nerd.
Kari: Lambas? Lembas?
Jet: Lembas Bread! That's right.
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