Las Vegas is a city that eats, sleeps and breathes hospitality. Historically, most of the people who work in our hotels, casinos, bars and restaurants aren’t just doing it as some part-time gig while they go on auditions, rewrite a screenplay or attend college (unless they’re going to UNLV for a degree in hospitality management or some related field). They know they can make a great living doing exactly what they’re doing until the day they retire. So they take their work seriously, providing the city generation after generation of dedicated and talented restaurant employees. That is, until recently. Mark Steele wants to do something about it through his Restaurant Hospitality Institute (RHI).
Steele is a fourth-generation hospitality industry pro. His great-grandfather was a master brewer at Guinness, and his father was a butler for the Kennedys who later took care of the Rat Pack at Caesars Palace. His parents ran a local restaurant called The Aristocrat, where Steele worked as a busboy in his youth. After graduating from Bishop Gorman High School, Steele studied engineering and economics at USC and UNLV before deciding to return to the family business. “I just one day kind of said, ‘I like to eat and drink,’” he says, laughing, “so I might as well move forward with this.’”
Steele’s first major job in the biz was opening Bellagio’s Osteria del Circo in 1998 for New York’s famed Maccioni family, working as a captain and sommelier. When his bosses offered him a management position at their short-lived Summerlin restaurant Tre, Steele jumped at the opportunity. That was followed by stints opening restaurants for former nightlife titans Pure Management Group and Light Group, followed by positions at Society Café, Cabo Wabo Cantina, Sugar Factory and Mercadito, among others. He’s currently working as a maître d’ at local landmark Golden Steer.
As Steele’s career progressed, he began to have trouble staffing his restaurants. Unfortunately, the trend was happening at the same time that the popularity of food TV had led to higher expectations among customers.
“During all of these openings,” Steele says, “I started seeing a big gap in the talent that should be in Las Vegas, especially about four or five years ago. What happened to all these great people I was able to interview and hire 10 years ago? It seemed like the gap [between talent and expectations] was getting further and further.”
Frustrating his efforts was the fact that there was no source to which he could turn for highly trained servers. In addition to UNLV’s hospitality programs, there are plenty of schools that teach dealing, bartending and culinary skills, and even help their graduates find jobs. Not so for the people who serve as the faces of our top restaurants. Steele believes Restaurant Hospitality Institute can provide the training to fill that gap and place its graduates into suitable positions.
RHI’s current curriculum, which costs $600 and is certified by Nevada’s Board of Post-Secondary Education, consists of five full-day classes held in an office space on Harmon Avenue and Paradise Road. The topics they tackle are as diverse as food and beverage, sanitation, restaurant etiquette, revenue-generating techniques (a.k.a. upselling), reading the mood of customers and interacting with them, and physical skills such as handling glassware and bottles. During morning sessions, students hit the books. After lunch, they’re allowed to imbibe a little as they get to know wine and spirits firsthand. But the overwhelming theme that runs through everything can be summed up in one word: hospitality.
Steele is also dedicated to using his extensive connections within the industry to help graduates find new jobs. RHI offers résumé reviews and interview coaching to recent graduates. “I need to make sure that if you’re training for a job, the jobs are out there,” he says. “I’m not going to train you and then, all of a sudden, I can’t find you anything.”
It seems to be working. Steele cites one graduate who had been working at a 24-hour restaurant in a Strip casino before taking the course and just wanted to up his game. “Ever since he took the course, he’s won every sales contest that he’s done,” Steele says. “So he has almost $3,500 in his pocket, just for doing his job and using the techniques.” Another student, who was employed at an off-Strip Japanese steakhouse when she enrolled in the course, recently completed her training at Nobu.
The future seems bright, and there’s already talk of a second level of RHI training. But for now, Steele says he’s accomplishing exactly what he wants for his students: “They have more fun at work. They’re making more money at work. And they just feel more comfortable with their job.”