LAS VEGAS — Nestor Gutierrez is a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But not the way you might think.
The 53-year-old buffet cook spent 16 years at Texas Station. Then came March 2020. COVID-19 collapsed Nevada tourism, and the resort closed.
Gutierrez lost his job. Station Casinos paid him until May, but he has yet to return to work. His unemployment payment supports a household that includes his wife, two children and 92-year-old father.
He waits for a callback, but Texas Station has not announced plans to open. It’s not the closure that concerns Gutierrez and frontline hospitality workers like him. It’s the reality of being jobless in a world where their skills translate nowhere else.
“I’ve been applying all over the place, but no one answers,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve only been working in the kitchen.”
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The idea of starting a new job like construction at his age is hard for Gutierrez to imagine. So he spends his time hoping for a future where the pandemic is over and he can return to the job he knows how to do.
The pandemic has left thousands of Las Vegas workers like Gutierrez asking the same question: What now?
Las Vegas buffets are missing
In a place that transforms to feed the tastes of the latest vacationing generation, some things never change.
On a recent Friday night, people packed Caesars Palace. Masks covered faces. Plexiglass separated gamblers. Cards came flying out of dealer hands.
At the nearby Cosmopolitan, well-dressed night owls leaned on bars. New arrivals wheeled luggage to rooms. Slot players tapped the flashing buttons of favorite machines.
Sounds like a Friday night in Vegas. But something is missing.
Where are the buffets?
Before COVID-19, Las Vegas had about 40 buffets
Before COVID-19, buffets were a Las Vegas staple.
They began as greasy spoons where gamblers piled mountains of food on plates themselves. Resorts like Caesars Palace and Wynn evolved buffets into pricier experiences built on top-shelf menus. Gone was the grease and in came the glitz.
Buffets have long been the hospitality industry’s “loss leaders” — the part of the casino that costs more than it brings in but drives people to other parts of the resort. Visitors like options. Las Vegas prided itself as an adult fantasyland with options for everyone.
COVID-19 changed all that. Social distancing and health guidelines made buffets obsolete almost overnight.
Circus Circus closed its buffet in March 2020 and later revealed it would remodel part of the buffet space for a food court. It’s unknown when the buffet will return.
Wynn Las Vegas tried having staff take orders at its all-you-can-eat buffet instead of letting guests serve themselves. But the resort closed it in September after customers made it clear they preferred the old way.
The last buffet to go on The Strip was the Cosmopolitan’s Wicked Spoon. It temporarily closed in January.
Before COVID-19, Las Vegas had about 40 buffets. Today, there is one.
The last Las Vegas buffet
It’s about 4 p.m. on a recent Tuesday. Outside the South Point Hotel’s Garden Buffet, hungry patrons wait. It’s dinnertime at the last buffet on Las Vegas Boulevard.
“A lot of people say buffets are old-school Vegas. It’s the thing Vegas became known for, and everybody had them. They became a mainstay,” said South Point General Manager Ryan Growney. “The problem with buffets is they are very expensive to operate. For that reason, you’ve seen a lot of people move away from them.
The decision to keep it open was a based on a simple philosophy: What the people want, the people get.
“Customers like it. It’s a people driver. It’s a great thing to take care of your slot and pit customers,” Growney said. “If somebody comes in and you can send them an offer or send them lunch or dinner, there’s great value in that.”
Patrons walk away from the service counter with cake and pie slices. Some wait for a play of Mongolian beef and stir-fried vegetables. Others stand in line for a slab of pink-in-the-middle prime rib.
Will buffets one day return to the Las Vegas scene?
Growney can’t speak for any resort but the South Point, but he has his theories.
“I don’t know how many will come back. Some will choose to go the other way. Some will leave the standard buffet experience in place. Ours will stay in place,” he said. “Last man standing.”
Meanwhile, this buffet-less reality has made life a challenge for people like Cristina Lopez.
‘Really hard to find another job’
Every day, Lopez waits for good news. A callback to her buffet cook job at Texas Station, where she spent a decade before her layoff. An interview. Something.
It’s been almost a year. The good news hasn’t come.
In a February earnings call, Station Casinos CEO Frank Fertitta III said Texas Station will remain closed until tourism rebounds.
So Lopez collects unemployment. Her husband goes to work as a cook at The Strat, but his hours are all over the place. They lean on credit cards. The debt weighs on the family.
On the job front, she’s had no luck.
“It’s a lot of people like me looking for the same jobs,” Lopez said. “There are not a lot of positions.”
As for finding a new career far from the buffet, Lopez doesn’t know where to begin.
“It’s really hard to find another job,” she said. “My whole experience is in the buffet.”