Sonny Ahuja and I are well into a happy-hour round of drinks at the Lady Sylvia when he tells me a story about Wine Street, the kiosk he once owned at the Riviera. One day, while selling personalized bottles of wine to tourists, inspiration struck. “I got this great idea of bottling Nevada desert,” he says. “I bottled it, corked it, labeled it, came up with a funny story and sold a lot of sand.” He shrugs, and adds, “That’s the serial entrepreneur in me.”
In one anecdote, you get the essence of 46-year-old Ahuja, who has been doing variations of this theme in Vegas since 1992. After selling Wine Street, he opened a wine market and restaurant in Summerlin called Bleu Gourmet. A catering business grew out of Ahuja’s desire to keep his staff busy, and it proved successful enough to outlast the closing of the restaurant in 2008.
A couple of years ago, the catering business led him to Zappos executive Fred Mossler, who told him of the Downtown Project, whose urban revitalization mission includes mentoring small businesses. Mossler told him that building a community of owner-operated businesses was more important to the project than profits, at least in the short term.
Ahuja liked what he heard. “I told him that my catering company wasn’t keeping me busy enough, and that if he wanted feedback from someone who has rolled his sleeves up and worked as every small-business owner does, I’d be happy to help out in any way I could.”
That’s how Ahuja joined the Small Business Development Team. Along with Don Welch and two fellows from the Venture for America entrepreneurship program, Ahuja is working to ensure that all the new businesses opening under the Downtown Project umbrella have everything they need to be successful, from sound bookkeeping to strong vendor relationships.
“One thing I’ve learned is that when you open a business, you’re so focused on bodies coming through the door that you sometimes forget that your overhead can bury you,” he says. “That’s one of the things I’m tasked with. If you continually pay $20 more than you should for a case of paper products, it adds up.”
Ahuja and his partners helped to launch several Fremont East businesses in 2012, including Coterie and Eat. But he says that’s nothing compared with later this year, when the Downtown Project opens Container Park—a sprawling plaza of boutiques and restaurants built from repurposed shipping containers.
And among them, there will be at least one business run by the serial entrepreneur. Ahuja plans to open a wine bar with 16 wines on tap (“No waste that way; it’s much more green than throwing away bottles”), and a tiny kitchen serving up soups, salads and paninis. He’s also planning to open a doughnut shop on Carson Avenue. Who knows what’s next, with so much more Downtown property to bottle up and cork.
One thing for sure, he says, “I’m in for as long as it takes.”