Sometimes you have to physically step away from your desk to better grasp what is most important when you’re back at it. So it makes sense that it would be over an artery-clogging hangover breakfast of eggs, grits and other Southern delicacies during July’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans that Station Casinos’ new corporate director of beverage, Dan D’Agostino, would casually lay his manifesto out on the table: “Essentially, we want to create a craft culture.” In a bunch of off-Strip casinos? Sounds like a Herculean task. “On the Strip, it’s a new face every three days. We’re a locals casino. We’re speaking to the same consumer over and over and over again. We have to be better,” he says. “We have to be more dynamic.”
The former director of nightlife for Light Group and former VP of operations for The ONE Group has spent the last two years jet-setting and hustling as a senior brand ambassador for ultra-luxury tequila brand Casa Noble. He’s experienced it all, bar-wise: the good, the bad and the incredibly inspiring. In D’Agostino’s opinion, “the problem with many of these big organizations is that there isn’t someone at the top who knows what works.” Station’s corporate VP of hospitality James LaFlamme, he says, is the exception. The pair traveled together extensively so that LaFlamme could see what cocktail culture really entails. LaFlamme also saw that D’Agostino was the perfect fit for a highly specialized position he was trying to fill.
Now in place since late March, D’Agostino has been tasked with championing, updating and personalizing the guest experience at bars within the company’s 20 Southern Nevada properties, including Palms Casino Resort, Red Rock Resort and Green Valley Ranch Resort, as well as all Station, Fiesta and Wildfire locations. And D’Agostino seems way more excited than intimidated. “The ability to come in and do something new, set a new bar, set a new standard—that’s good work!” he says. “I just know we can be a lot better, and that’s all I really focus on: providing a better experience for [our] guests.”
In his first act as beverage chieftain, D’Agostino lured Wynn’s property mixologist Damian Cross away from the resorts where he had been overseeing the beverage program for more than two years. Critical to Cross’ role as Station’s new corporate mixologist is establishing the infrastructure and ethos of the beverage department for each property and supporting the bartenders and apprentices the company employs. Cross will also help lead a planned in-house beverage academy to educate those employees. “Wynn has a culture; it’s there, it’s established. It was there before [Cross] and it’s going to be there after him. This is an opportunity for Damian, James and I to create a culture,” D’Agostino says. “It’s the depth and breadth of what we’re doing, from the top to the bottom, that vastly exceeds anything anybody else is doing.”
Fusing their influence, connections and a shared vision, D’Agostino and Cross have cherry-picked an A-team of top talent from all over the Valley. On the management side, there’s Adam O’Donnell, formerly the bar manager at Herbs & Rye, who will oversee Green Valley Ranch as property mixologist. Kinson Lau, a barman also from Herbs & Rye and the Sand Dollar Lounge as well as a Maison Ferrand portfolio rep, will oversee Santa Fe Station as property mixologist. Chris Leavitt departs Downtown’s Carson Kitchen to helm T-Bones Chophouse in Red Rock Resort as lead mixologist. Hired from within—a critical part of D’Agostino’s plans—Nadine Medina steps up as a lead mixologist at Onyx Bar in Red Rock along with co-lead Terry Clark, who slides over from the lead position at Oak & Ivy in Downtown Container Park. More property and venue positions will be named as change sweeps through the company.
“It’s the depth and breadth of what we’re doing, from the top to the bottom, that vastly exceeds anything anybody else is doing.” —Dan D’Agostino
“We have [14,000] employees at Station Casinos, and dozens and dozens and dozens of bars,” D’Agostino points out, playing devil’s advocate against himself. “You can’t just hire someone and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to assimilate you into the culture and you’re going to be successful.’ It doesn’t happen [like that]. It has to be purposefully built that way.”
To that end, he has compiled a pantheon of industry luminaries for a beverage academy that doesn’t play favorites with any brands or supplier house. The yearlong program will provide training in practical technique, in-depth spirits knowledge and history, female empowerment and more, transforming existing apprentices into bartenders, bartenders into mixologists, mixologists into bar leads and so on to create consistent upward mobility within the company.
“When they’re done, they can test into the lead roles,” D’Agostino says. “Kinson and Adam are two of the most talented individuals in this industry anywhere, especially in Las Vegas, but I don’t expect that they’re going to be with us forever. I hope that this launches their careers.” And movement begets movement.
Even as the starting lineup was settling in, the work had already begun. At Palms, which Station Casinos acquired in October 2016, the newly formed beverage team has already introduced itself with the opening of the Lucky Penny Café and Social Table, a pop-up in the former Hooters space created to keep the staff of the shuttered buffet working during that makeover. Those openings are a mere prelude to a complete entertainment and F&B overhaul that also involves the return of Jon Gray to the property as its GM and vice president, and the addition of brothers Cy and Jesse Waits as chief experience officers and senior VPs of Station’s newest division, the Social Experience Group. At Red Rock, the Onyx Bar and T-Bones teams are poised to spring into action, and O’Donnell is transforming the lobby bar in Green Valley Ranch. Outside of the luxury tier, Sonoma Cellar Steakhouse is once again open following a revamp in Sunset Station, and Lau is already at work freshening up the offerings at Santa Fe Station’s Charcoal Room.
“This is a couple-years-long process,” D’Agostino says, signaling for the check and getting ready to meet up for a drink with his former boss from Casa Noble Tequila. After all, he’s still in the relationship business. The fact that all of Station’s properties remain in operation during the upgrades adds a layer of complexity that hasn’t escaped him: “It’s tough, it makes it a lot harder. We’re trying to jump on a train that’s already going 90 miles [per] hour—and has been for 40 years—and change course.” Still, D’Agostino seems confident in his decision to climb aboard and in whom he’s chosen to come along for the ride. “I don’t believe in following trends—I want to set them.”