Owner of Gaetano’s Ristorante: I kept thinking, ‘what would my father do?’
There’s a Las Vegas restaurant that wants to offer a bit of hope to other eateries reeling after the global pandemic shut down their dining rooms or shut them down completely. Four weeks after reopening opening their dining room, Gaetano’s Ristorante, a family-owned, Italian restaurant, is busier than ever.
Coming out of the health crisis — and the inevitable economic crisis tied to it — stronger isn’t easy. As owner Nick Palmeri put it: You’ve got to have “that fire in your belly.” But it’s doable.
Las Vegas was one of the first U.S. cities to begin reopening after COVID-19 halted travel and tourism around the world. The governor of Nevada announced on May 7 that restaurants in his state could open their dining rooms the following Saturday.
“So we had 48 hours notice,” Palmeri said.
Palmeri announced on Gaetano’s website and social media pages that the restaurant would instead open the following Monday. “It’s like opening a new operation under new guidelines. I needed to train my employees and make sure we had this dialed in before we over extended ourselves.”
The wait was worth it. The restaurant has been busy with longtime regulars, new customers looking to support locally owned businesses, and even a few tourists looking for fine dining off the Strip.
A family legacy
Gaetano’s Ristorante is named after Nick Palmeri’s father, who dreamed about opening his own restaurant since he was a boy. Gaetano was born in 1949 in Sicily. He later worked as a Maître ‘D and bartender on cruise ships, which took him around the world. He met a girl from Los Angeles on a cruise, and the two fell in love and settled in Los Angeles a couple years later.
In 1981, Gaetano opened his own restaurant in Calabasas, California. In 2002, he opened his second restaurant in Henderson, Nevada, a town that borders Las Vegas.
Nick Palmeri and his two brothers grew up working alongside their dad at the restaurants. Palmeri remembers asking his dad for an allowance for picking up dog poop. “He said, if you want money for something like that, why don’t you come work at the restaurant?”
So at 10 years old, he began his career in the food industry. He peeled carrots, cleaned toilets, hosted — whatever his dad needed him to do.
“I’m 36 years old, and I’ve been doing this now for 26 years,” Palmeri says. “It’s one of those things where a lot of people think it’s a glamorous business. But it’s honestly one of the hardest industries.”
Gaetano passed away last August, and Palmeri has worked hard since to carry on his dad’s — and his family’s — legacy.
“He was the face of the restaurant,” Palmeri said of his dad, Gaetano. “Because of him we have a very loyal customer base. And we have loyal employees because we treat them well, and pay them more than a fair wage. So when COVID hit, I thought, all I care is if we break even and keep these employees on.”
“I knew things were going to hit the fan March 11,” Palmeri said.
He went to a comedy show and a concert in Los Angeles, and the city went under a shelter-in-place order the next day. When he went to board his flight home, he learned that six flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas had been consolidated into one because so many people had canceled their travel plans.
“I said, alright, this thing is more serious than we realize it is in Nevada,” Palmeri said. “So I got my whole staff together on March 15…I was tearing up in front of them. And I said ‘whatever happens, happens, but I’m going to do whatever I can to keep you guys employed. I’ll work myself to death if I have to.’ And then it became survival mode.”
The next two days, he and his chef created a take-out menu. “We’re a fine dining restaurant. We’re not set up for take out, so it’s a whole new dynamic for us.”
They closed the dining room after dinner March 17, and began curbside service March 18. He was able to keep 85 percent of his employees employed.
“The first 10 days were crazy because the supply chain went dry,” he said. “In Vegas almost all of our goods come from California or elsewhere. So I was driving to warehouses all over to try to pickup goods.”
He and his team were pleasantly surprised at the demand for take-out. “We gave each person a 15-minute window for their take-out, and we had days where we literally had two to three hours straight where every window was filled up.”
With some pressure from Palmeri and other restaurateurs, the mayor of Henderson, agreed to allow curbside sales of alcohol. That meant Gaetano’s could sell the signature cocktails that they’re known for.
“She allowed it — thank God,” Palmeri said. “That boosted my curbside sales significantly. I sold almost 180 cocktails in one weekend.”
It was big things, and little things, that fell just right along the way that carried Gaetano’s through.
It’s about people
When Palmeri got word that restaurants could reopen, he took a deep breath. “We want to do this right.”
Wynn, one of the top hotel-casino’s in Las Vegas, sent out a press release with the safety protocols it would follow as it reopened. Palmeri read it over carefully and followed suit.
“I said, ‘hey, this is going to be the model of the hospitality industry. This is what we’re following.”
He and his team moved six tables out of his dining room to provide the necessary 6 feet between tables. They set up stations with hand sanitizers and made one-time-use menus. The entire team wear’s masks, each chair and table is cleaned with 100 percent alcohol before new customers are seated.
“We put in a lot of new things before we reopened,” Palmeri said. “But the reopening has gone very well. We’re busier than we’ve ever been.”
To keep Gaetano’s afloat, and his team employed, Palmeri worked ten weeks without a day off. He slept two to three hours a night, partly due to stress and partly due to navigating the ever-changing logistics of getting supplies amid a pandemic.
But Palmeri says that’s what his dad, Gaetano, taught him to do.
“Throughout the whole thing, I kept thinking, ‘what would my father do?’”
His father taught him to think about people first. So Palmeri did all he could to keep his employees on, and support as many supplies as possible. Because, as Palmeri put it, each food supplier has a team of people trying to support their families.
“My whole mindset was I want to help as many people as possible. And if we do survive this and we did support people along the way, we’ll be out better than ever.”
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Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.