Like countless others in the food and beverage industry, Jonathan Fine has seen plenty of turmoil since the pandemic hit.
The Las Vegas bar owner was forced to close his taverns last year, faced eviction threats from landlords, tossed out hundreds of kegs of beer, and reopened multiple locations with the help of a federal relief program.
Today, Southern Nevada’s economy is still climbing back the pandemic’s devastation, and Fine is opening more places for people to eat and drink.
The 44-year-old founder of Fine Entertainment, whose holdings include Pkwy Tavern, ameriCAN, Rockhouse, and PBR Rock Bar, opened the fifth Pkwy Tavern location this month near the M Resort and plans to open the sixth in the Spring Valley area in late September.
The latter is in the former home of Ricardo’s, a decades-old Mexican restaurant that closed after the pandemic hit.
Fine comes from a family of prominent local businesspeople. His dad, real estate developer Mark Fine, helped launch the Summerlin and Green Valley master-planned communities, and his brother, Jeffrey Fine, owns a portfolio of food-and-beverage spots, including the area’s Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf locations.
Moreover, his uncle Brian Greenspun owns the Las Vegas Sun, and his father-in-law, Kenny Epstein, owns downtown’s El Cortez hotel-casino.
Fine sat down with the Review-Journal in early August and talked about his business, the pandemic, and how Las Vegas has bounced back from crises, including the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival, which he and his wife escaped from after a gunman opened fire on the audience.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Can you talk about the impacts of COVID on your business?
If I’m putting someone into a place to work, and they’re going to interface with people, are they safe? That was my biggest fear. The mask mandate was lifted before this new wave of COVID, but we didn’t let our employees take their masks off. I don’t know who’s right, I don’t want to get political, but it’s pretty easy for my employees to wear a mask during their shift, much like a nurse or a doctor. I think it makes the customer feel safer.
Did you get Paycheck Protection Program loans?
We did; it was a lifeline. There were some locations that the landlords worked with us, some locations the landlords did not work with us. I wouldn’t have been able to open about half of our locations without the PPP.
If we close down for three days, that’s one thing. We close down for a month, and all your dairy, all your vegetables and fruits, they all go bad. You close down for two months, all your meats, even if we can freeze them, which we don’t do, all those get bad. In my company, we had about $3.5 million in current payables the day we shut down. We’re still paying it off.
We sat down with the entire staff of every single bar and said, “We think the government’s going to shut everything down. If I’m wrong, we’ll be open in 48 hours. If I’m right, you guys are the first people to get in line for unemployment, and anyone who needs food or has families, take what you can take.” We did almost like a market where we just gave away the fruits and the vegetables to the staff. I would say very little food got wasted. A lot of beer got wasted; a LOT of beer got wasted.
Can you estimate how much you had to toss or pour down the drain?
I would say probably in the range of 500 kegs of beer. Some of my liquor vendors said, “Pay us.” Some of them gave us discounts. No one waived everything. Everyone gave us payment plans.
Did you face eviction at any of your locations?
I would say 70 percent of my landlords threatened to evict us.
What was your response to that?
I didn’t know if we were going to lose our house, or if we were going to come out of this stronger than we started. I have a 2-year-old who’s now grown up throughout the pandemic. I woke up every morning early. I made her breakfast; we swam, we played, we did picnics where we could see horses. I tried to not lose any hair, I tried to not stress as much as possible. I knew economically we could reopen at least two of the places, maybe three or four. And then when the PPP came out, it was the lifeline, allowing us to open everything.
You have locations on the Strip and outside the Strip. How has the food and beverage industry recovered on the Strip versus the residential areas of the valley?
On the Strip, when we reopened, no one was around. It was a ghost town. Then there were months in 2021, starting around March Madness, that the revenues were considerably higher than pre-pandemic. We were filling hotel rooms, but not everything was open. As things have reopened, we see that tourism is back, but it’s not where it was, so our numbers have come back down below pre-pandemic numbers.
Off the Strip, we have not hit the pre-pandemic numbers yet. We’re doing well, but local places are not hitting the numbers they were pre-pandemic.
Why do you think that is?
We are a brand that takes pub back to its history, a public meeting place, a gathering place. We want people to socialize, play games, meet each other. Pre-pandemic, we had parties where you’d sit with a stranger and talk to them. It was a very social, interactive place. We haven’t been able to do any of that.
Those big group events, those big parties, they haven’t come back?
There’s no reason for them to come back. People can’t do the bowling, they can’t do the darts.
The games where you’re touching stuff and people are sharing small items, those have not come back to your bars yet?
Correct. When the mask mandate came back, we went back to all those restrictions. That’s how we’re treating it; I’m not sure that that’s the actual law.
How many employees did you have before the pandemic and how many do you have now? I guess maybe now it’s a little higher because you’re opening a couple locations.
I think we’re back up into the 580-ish range. We were just under 700 pre-pandemic. And we’re having trouble getting people back, we’re having trouble staffing the kitchens, finding people in front-of-house.
We are very fortunate to come out of this. I’m very happy, amazed, shocked that 18 months ago I was in the place we were in, and to be able to open a place is a testament to how resilient Las Vegas is, how resilient the people who live here are, and how dedicated they are to the city. When you look at Oct. 1, we bounced back. Every problem this city has had — the Great Recession, we bounced back. I was at Oct. 1, I was a victim of the recession.
You were at the concert?
When it started happening, there were six shots and a pause for 30 seconds. My wife said, “I want to leave right now, I don’t feel comfortable.” We grabbed her two friends, and as we started running out, the shooting went crazy. It was chaos. We got to the concert a little late; I parked in the dirt lot, and I found a spot that was close. I knew exactly where we were. We got out of there. There was a woman running with her baby, a 1-year-old baby, and her husband, so we ended up piling everybody in the car. It was pretty scary.
Having arcade-style games at bars doesn’t always go well.
As recounted by Las Vegas bar owner Jonathan Fine:
— We put air-hockey tables in, and people would drink a lot, they would hit the things too hard, they’d break them, they’d fly places. It was very loud.
— I also like the hockey game, the old-school one that’s like foosball. Those got trashed. Every one of them got broken.
— Skee-Ball was in (our Flamingo Road location). People kept stealing the balls. We put the Pop-A-Shot (basketball game) in. We had to have the metal one because people would climb in. Everything you wanted to do when you were 10 years that, when you’re 25 years old and having a couple drinks and can do, they were doing it.