It’s easy to talk about Tao Las Vegas in superlatives. Highest-grossing restaurant. Best nightclub. Most celebrity appearances. But every “latest, coolest and hottest” spot starts with the same formula: concept, space and partnership. In this case the idea was already tested. Tao Uptown in New York City was turning 5 years old in 2005, when restaurateurs Rich Wolf and Marc Packer and then-general manager Lou Abin joined up with marketing whiz kids Jason Strauss and Noah Tepperberg to migrate the brand to Las Vegas and add a nightclub component. The buzz spread from coast to coast, a fervor created partly by a WireImage archive worthy of an A-list Hollywood awards show. Tao Asian Bistro & Nightclub (and later Beach) was the place to be.
In advance of their 10th anniversary party on September 19, Wolf, Packer, Abin, Strauss and Tepperberg gathered in Tao Las Vegas’ lounge to reflect on their overnight success, a lifetime in the making.
How often do you guys actually get in a room together?
Wolf: All five of us, six times a year.
Abin: It takes an opening.
Tepperberg: Or a cover story.
Wolf: But we talk every week.
Who came up with the idea for the original Tao Restaurant (now Tao Uptown) in New York that opened in 2000?
Wolf: Marc found a restaurant space, and he had the keys with him and he brought me over. We walked over and he said, “What do you think?” I said, “What do you mean, what do I think?” And he said, “Want to do a restaurant here?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “What kind of restaurant?” I had lived in Japan for about a year, and I said, “I’d love to do an Asian restaurant.” And that’s literally how it happened.
Wolf: Yep, that simple. We ended up not doing that space. We ended up getting a much better space.
When did you know it was the right time to bring this concept—plus this nightclub—to Las Vegas?
Wolf: Marc had been coming to Vegas for 30 years. I had been coming for 20 years. We watched the town grow from practically nothing to what it is today. We knew this niche had not been filled yet—a big party restaurant, connected to a nightclub, same brand, same building. Come at the beginning of the night and not leave for the whole evening. We were the first people to do it.
Did you ever imagine you’d move to Las Vegas?
Abin: No. I remember when I told clients I was going to Las Vegas, they said, “Are you out of your mind? You’re the general manager of the highest-grossing restaurant in the country right now. Why would you want to take a chance?” I always thought the concept was tailor-made for Las Vegas. I basically moved to Vegas, had a baby, got married and opened Tao all in one year. Which I would not recommend anyone do in their lifetime.
Strauss: I was supposed to come out here for three months and help with construction and staff, and then come home [to New York]. But as the business became so explosive, I stayed to manage it with Lou.
Putting a restaurant and a nightclub together at that time was really unheard of. Did you have any fears that it wouldn’t work?
Strauss: There were a lot of challenges. There were restaurant crowds that don’t want to see nightclub energy. Nightclub crowds didn’t want the stagnant elements of a restaurant. We weren’t scared, but we knew the devil was in the details and the execution. We were really the first to combine the two and make them successful.
Abin: The opportunity to be able to capture the guests for six hours in one evening was a huge opportunity.
Packer: Vegas was different in 2005. It was not the Vegas it is today. To come to the second floor of the Venetian, take 42,000 feet and make it into a happening place in this town is a big testament to this group.
Strauss: Everyone said the location would never work. The parking would never work and that it was a convention hotel, where we could never create a fine dining and nightclub experience.
Tepperberg: To this day, Tao is the only restaurant, nightclub, dayclub and lounge.
Strauss: There were fears that, because we were in a convention hotel, that we wouldn’t get the New York glamour or sexiness of the brand. There hadn’t really been a successful, scene-driven restaurant or nightclub at the Venetian yet. So there were a lot of skeptics once we put our feet on the ground. But our initial thought was that it would always do well in Vegas because of its thematic DNA.
It was really the vision of the Venetian and namely, Rob Goldstein, to bring this iconic New York brand to Vegas at that time.
Packer: Well, he saw the vision and we knew what to do with the 42,000 square feet. You know, it was never a hesitation that a restaurant, nightclub, lounge and banquet facility—and then leading it to a pool—was something that would be delivered. And the banquet business does great, the nightclub business does great, the pool area was one of the first [dayclubs] in Vegas and it’s still packed.
Abin: I was the first one on the ground in Vegas, and I would walk around with poster boards, showing pictures and renderings of the venue. Talking to all the sales departments of hotels and telling them what we were going to do. They thought I was out of my mind. People have never eaten after 10 p.m. in Las Vegas because they want to go and gamble. And people do banquets in hotels, not in venues. The sex appeal, the good food and the celebrity cachet… no one else was doing that at the time.
Lou, having worked on the ground at Tao restaurant in New York, how did that give you a perspective as a partner coming into Vegas?
Abin: When a New Yorker comes to Las Vegas, you want to do it the New York way. And you quickly get corrected. You can turn away 75 percent of your door in New York and be extremely successful. Here, you have to be a little more sensitive, taking more people, being more available, more hospitable. In New York, we would have people wait an hour and 20 minutes and it was no big deal because the scene was so hot and so great that no one would mind. But here people will leave after 20 minutes. We had to change our game plan. We had never experienced doing 1,500 covers in a night, plus a 3,000-person cocktail party upstairs, while you also have a 200-person sit-down dinner in the Opium Room and a 75-person cocktail party on the side.
What has been the biggest factor in your success? Obviously, nightlife and restaurants have a limited run, and you’ve broken the odds on that.
Tepperberg: We opened in Vegas at the right time. When Tao arrived in fall 2005, Vegas was coming into its own as an entertainment destination for adults, and we were right there when the whole trend was starting to explode. Timing was a big part of it and we built something unique and dynamic for the market. There’s never before been this type of venue, where you can spend a whole evening or weekend and never get bored, because there is so much to see and do.
Abin: Jason and I are here full-time. People want to see the same faces every time they come in. Vegas has a history of [creating] knockoffs, and they’re rarely as good as the originals. This is one of the exceptions.
Strauss: A nearly 8,000-room hotel [combined with the Palazzo] also helps.
Is there anything that has been challenging internally or that you butt heads on?
Abin: The biggest challenge for us was when we opened up I didn’t know a lot about the nightclub business, and Jason didn’t know a lot about the restaurant business. We were both very reputable in our respected areas, and we both wanted things done a certain way. We both have very strong egos. And, yeah, we [butted heads] every once in a while, but nothing has ever really been detrimental. We were all smart to realize we have a good thing going.
Strauss: Lou said it well. We both have different expertise, and sometimes those experiences conflict with each other. We tried to find middle ground to make sure the nightclub experience was preserved and the restaurant experience was preserved without them cannibalizing each other. In that constant battle to preserve both ends came the success of Tao.
Tepperberg: Marc, Rich and I are based in New York. We all make regular trips out to Vegas. The biggest challenge is the time difference. When it’s 7 p.m. in New York, I’m ready to wind down my day in the office and get ready for my night at the venues, and it’s only 4 p.m. in Vegas. I’ve had to adjust my office hours. Jason and I worked in the same office. I didn’t have to do my daily downloads with him. We were constantly together and knew what the other was doing and saying. Now that we’ve separated, we need time to talk and download.
How do you keep a restaurant/nightclub that has been open for 10 years relevant? The booking standards have changed, as well as the mixology, the food, the market.
Tepperberg: When we started out on the project, we all agreed that the goal was to make Tao an iconic place, and to make it an institution. Once you have established yourself as a hospitality institution, relevancy is not as important because everyone wants to go to your place and feel like they have to be there. So while we strive to do things to stay on the cutting edge of music, culture and cuisine, we also know that we’ve developed an iconic brand, and we’ve made Tao Vegas an institution. Therefore, it’s just a given that when people come to Vegas, they have to come to Tao.
Wolf: We are in the hospitality industry and we take hospitality very seriously, and we always talk about the guest experience. It is all about the guests, and if we deliver every day the curtain goes up, we can assure ourselves repeat business. Our 10-year track record speaks directly to that.
What aspects of Tao do you think people recognize as a brand?
Strauss: So many design, service and experiential details have been put into the DNA of the brand throughout 15 years. We have formulated something that resonates with people in a very special way. We constantly evolve it as the times have changed.
When the Vegas location opened, did it affect the New York location?
Abin: Business increased by 20 percent.
Strauss: We call it a halo effect. It’s the exposure of the brand to new people. It trickles down to the other properties and markets.
Abin: We’re able to push business back and forth. It was challenging, because we have the club here and we don’t have a club in New York. When we raised the bar in Las Vegas, we had to raise New York back up to that level as well.
What do you hope your Las Vegas legacy will be when someone looks back on Tao 50 years from now? Do you want it to be known as the highest-grossing restaurant? Do you want it to be known as a place where everyone had the best time ever?
Packer: I think it would be that everybody had a great time. They came here, they ate, they partied, they went to the beach and they had a full experience.
Abin: It was always a great party.
Wolf: Beyond that, our mission statement has always been to be a part of the Las Vegas community. Not just a come-and-go, here-today-gone-tomorrow kind of restaurant group. We are engaged in the community, in all types of charity events. We are very proud of the family that we’ve created. So many people who have been here for 10 years come up to us at staff parties and say, “Thank you for everything. I started as a busboy and I now have a home, a wife and three kids, and I owe it to you guys.” That, if anything, is what we want to be remembered for.
Abin: It was always a great place to work.
What is your most memorable night of the last 10 years?
Packer: I would say it was Jermaine Dupri’s birthday.
Tepperberg: [Laughing] Marc’s most memorable night was Jermaine Dupri’s 30th birthday. All his favorite performers sang: Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Usher. What was yours, Rich?
Wolf: Can we come back to me?
Packer: Jay Z’s Hangar tour. That was unbelievable.
Tepperberg: The grand opening party. I’ll never forget that night. The red-carpet energy was electric and it was person after person, not only coming to support us, but many of them coming to Vegas for the first time and doing red carpets for the first time. It was really the first time any restaurant or nightclub opened with such a statement. We worked our whole lives to open in Vegas.
Wolf: I was hoping to go last. I can think of a couple, but we can’t print them.
Tepperberg: There’s definitely a bunch we can’t print.
Abin: The grand opening night, to see everything come together and everybody working so hard. Being able to pull off what we hoped to pull off. That was pretty much it for me.
Wolf: How about when we were on the front page of The New York Times?
Packer: I was just thinking that.
Wolf: We are all from New York, so to be on the front page of the Sunday Times of our hometownpaper—that was big.
Tepperberg: The second I got the alert on my Blackberry, I clicked send and I saw that it was on Page 1. It was pretty cool. I was driving my car. I had to pull over to the side of the road and literally stop and read it.
How many nights a week do you still have to go out?
Tepperberg: Have to? Zero. Do I like to go out? Five or six.
Is that going to change since you recently became a father, Noah?
Tepperberg: As a nightlife veteran, I’m used to the late hours and sporadic sleeping. I’m well adjusted to being a new parent. Other people, it would be very hard for them to get used to this. I work an average of 16 hours per day. That goes for all of us. We all work 10 to 12 hours in an office, and four to six hours in the venues. It’s the more challenging part of our jobs, but it’s why we’re successful.
If you could change one preconceived notion about Tao, what would it be?
Strauss: In Vegas, people think we are a nightclub and don’t realize we’re the highest-grossing restaurant for the last 10 years. I think for both of us, that’s the one thing we try to combat and get the message out—we have an amazing restaurant and an amazing nightclub. We’re always struggling to keep it balanced and tell both stories.
Abin: We want people to understand we put out a tremendous food product and great service relative to the amount of business we do. The business started as a restaurant, and we were able to develop a nightclub that made the brand 10 times more powerful.
People have multiple careers in one lifetime, and certainly you guys each had a life before Tao. What’s life going to look like after Tao?
Abin: I have two boys, and I love what I do. I love working a lot; it’s the way I’m built. But I’d love to be able to spend more time with them in any way possible. People ask what we would do if we just sold everything and sailed off into the sunset, and I just say that I’d probably open up a little café or bar or something.
Strauss: I’m 41 years old and not married, and, frankly, I don’t know what else I’d be doing other than this business. There’s no other route for me. The next 20 years are going to be focused on building the brands that we have, and on diving into the hotel business and going into new markets.