Meeting with Zappos Chief Put Chef on Track to Becoming Restaurateur
“Natalie Young was done with casino work.
But last year when she quit her job as executive chef for a major casino, she had no idea where she was going and she didn’t have another chef’s job lined up.
“I was just done with that business,” the 48-year-old said. “I think I might have been on my way to Santa Fe.”
That’s when Las Vegas’ reputation as a major city with a small-town feel kicked in. It’s also when Young became one of the first benefactors of the “downtown experiment” that online retailer Zappos had begun in announcing its headquarters’ move from Henderson to downtown Las Vegas.
When Michael Cornthwaite, operator of the Downtown Cocktail Room, learned Young was considering moving, Cornthwaite asked Young what might keep her in Vegas.
“I hate to see good people leave,” Cornthwaite said.
So he asked: “What about having your own restaurant?”
“Sure,” Young said, laughing the way anyone might at a pie-in-the-sky idea.
Two minutes later, in the dimly lit lounge, Young was walking out when Cornthwaite introduced her to Tony Hsieh.
The somewhat shy CEO of Zappos, a $2 billion online shoe and clothing retailer, lives a block from the Downtown Cocktail Room, where he frequently brings guests for talk and drinks. Hsieh tends to get right to the point, leaving little room for small talk.
“(Hsieh) pulled me over and said, ‘What size restaurant do you want?’” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘Whatever. Who is this guy?’”
Hsieh and partners had recently started the Downtown Project, a multipronged approach to rebuilding that area by investing in several key sectors such as entertainment, education and startup technology companies. He’s also interested in restaurants.
Young was skeptical. She asked Cornthwaite if Hsieh was for real.
“Why are you asking? If Tony said something to you, it’s going to happen,” was Cornthwaite’s reply.
Over the next month, Young said, Cornthwaite spent two hours every day working with her on a business plan. He also helped Young find a spot for the restaurant, at the corner of Seventh and Carson streets: an empty space on the first floor of a motel.
Young only intended to serve breakfast and lunch, so she didn’t need much. The space fit the bill.
Remodeling began. Young wanted it just right.
“Do you know how hard it is to make a place feel and look, and have the right staff and food? It’s a million-in-one-shot to hit all those nails on the head,” she said.
It took eight months to complete, which several business owners said was light-years faster than projects used to take in the city. That’s partly due to what many say is a more streamlined permitting process.
Still, eight months is a long time with no regular income. While Young fretted about every detail of the remodeling, she fell behind on her rent and was about to be evicted.
Cornthwaite and his wife, Jennifer, came to the rescue. They hired her as a consultant to their downtown endeavors so she could earn some money — they also operate The Beat and Emergency Arts— and bought her a month’s worth of food.
“(Jennifer) told me, ‘Sometimes it takes a village,’” Young said, laughing and tearing up.
The fare at Eat, 707 Carson St., is regular food “with a touch of finesse,” as Young says. It’s called Eat because, “It’s just ‘eat.’ Sit down and eat,” she said. “It’s not trendy. I’m very simple. It’s just ‘eat.’”
In its first 34 days of operation, the restaurant served 2,300 customers, about double Young’s projections. It’s not uncommon on weekend mornings to see Carson and Seventh streets near the restaurant lined with customers’ BMWs and Range Rovers. This is an area that 10 years ago was known by Metro vice cops as a hub for street prostitution. Not anymore.
The Downtown Project’s deal with Young is this: It funded the remodel; it helps train her in restaurant management, including keeping the books, and it gets 50 percent of the restaurant’s earnings.
Young said the total cost to remodel the store came to about $500,000. To her, the deal was a godsend.
“Look, nobody’s banging on my door offering me hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a restaurant,” she said. “And my ego is like, ‘Who cares?’ I need help. I don’t know how to do it. They are helping me. And we’re doing it.”
Young earns a small monthly salary, which she said was enough for the basics.
“I don’t have any bells and whistles in my life; I’m paying off my nut,” she said.
As a downtown resident, one of Young’s greatest satisfactions now is seeing moms, dads and children riding to her restaurant on bicycles.
“The whole purpose was to create a restaurant where locals can enjoy one another,” she said. “I just want people to come and eat and talk to each other. It’s happening. I didn’t know what to expect, but this is beyond my wildest dreams.”
“I’m still poor, but I’m very, very rich.”
Originally published on lasvegassun.com
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