News

26 April 2011

Late-night crowd at Rio loves having it their way

The marriage of a trendy restaurant brand and Las Vegas is either a hit or a miss.

There is no middle ground.

By all accounts, the Whopper Bar, an enhanced version of the Burger King fast-food chain, has been an unqualified success since opening last month at the Rio inside the hotel-casino's Masquerade Village.

The Whopper Bar concept blends the traditional Burger King menu with an upscale hamburger bar. Customers can choose from among 30 toppings and sauces to add to their traditional Whopper sandwich. The menu also lists several premium Whopper creations.

And, unlike traditional Burger Kings, customers can choose from different brands of bottled beer to have with their meal.

"The beer has turned out to be pretty popular in Las Vegas," said Robert Burns, brand activation and sales manager for Burger King.

Whopper Bars are operating on Seventh Avenue in New York City, the Power & Light District in Kansas City, Mo., South Beach in Miami and at the University Citywalk in Orlando, Fla.

The model finally arrived in Las Vegas on March 22.

In just the few weeks it's been open, the Whopper Bar has become an after-hours stop for the Rio's nightclub crowd as well as fans of the Chippendales show.

On a recent getaway Sunday, Rio hotel guests stopped by the Whopper Bar with suitcases in tow for a quick meal before heading home.

"I know everyone's been happy with the response," Burns said.

But the question begs to be asked; What took so long to get the restaurant here?

"When Burger King first announced the concept, I thought this would be a terrific fit for Las Vegas," said David Mitchell, who owns the franchise that operates 24 Burger King restaurants in Las Vegas.

"We just had to find the perfect match with a casino," Mitchell said.

Caesars Entertainment executive Jeff Solomon was overseeing restaurant operations at the Imperial Palace, Harrah's Las Vegas and Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon when he and Mitchell discussed putting a Whopper Bar inside one of the Strip casinos last year.

When Solomon moved to the Rio as assistant general manager, he found a better site.

An empty food court in the Masquerade Village, across from the Chippendales Theater and near the walkway to and from the Rio's east side parking garage, seemed like the correct location, Solomon said.

The Whopper Bar also doesn't compete with the Rio's All-American Bar & Grill, which is in the casino area and has hamburgers on its menu.

"Las Vegas has seen so many different upscale hamburger places open in the past few years," Solomon said of Mandalay Place's Burger Bar, BLT Burger at The Mirage and Holsteins at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

"The Whopper Bar fits somewhere in between," Solomon said. "That end of the building can be a real high-traffic area, especially when the nightclubs let out. Being 24-7, it's the perfect restaurant fit."

The Whopper Bar has traditional fast-food counter service, but the sandwiches are prepared along a visible assembly line by a "Whopperista," who adds the specialty toppings, such as A1 steak sauce, pepper bacon, guacamole and crispy onions.

The 58-seat restaurant also has several specialty hamburgers, including The Angry Whopper, which includes spicy jalapeños and pepper jack cheese; the California Whopper, with guacamole, bacon and Swiss cheese; and the BK Black & Bleu Steakhouse, with bleu cheese, pepper bacon, and blackened Cajun sauce.

The average check is $8.

A breakfast menu is available from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m.

"We think the restaurant fills a niche for our guests," Solomon said.

The Whopper Bar employs 35 full-time and part-time workers. Mitchell leases the space from the Rio.

Mitchell, who also operates 18 Burger King franchises along California's Central Coast area, said he would like to bring more Whopper Bars to Las Vegas, including locations on the Strip.

"For a certain type of casino, the Whopper Bar provides an alternative dining option," Mitchell said.

Burns said Burger King is not opposed to another location in Las Vegas but is taking its time to evaluate the market options.

"We always knew Las Vegas was the right high-profile place for this brand," Burns said.

By Howard Stutz
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL