Roll of the dice: One Ottawa restaurateur tells the story of her gamble in Vegas

Wolf Down Team
Wolf Down Team

Why would a restaurant in Ottawa open a second location in Vegas? That is a very good question. There are so many reasons why this seems like a bad idea: new country, new corporation, new currency, new suppliers … and of course, you need the right operator. It’s a gamble, but we had a few aces up our sleeves to tilt the odds in our favour. I’ll tell you the story and maybe, just maybe, it will all make sense.

Wolf Down started in Ottawa because that’s where I live. This location has been profitable since Day 1. Easy game. Even COVID couldn’t stop us. So naturally, it was time to start thinking about location No. 2. But where? One of our investors gave me a simple piece of advice: “Go where you want to be.”

Well, if you know me, that’s an easy call. Besides being a restaurant owner, I’m also a poker player. My husband and I spend a lot of time playing in Vegas. So, when people ask why not somewhere closer to home, for us, Vegas is like a second home. Plus, three of our investors are German poker pros who also wanted to enjoy Wolf Down when in town for high-stakes tournaments and the World Series of Poker.

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Joelle

Our network in Vegas also gave us a strategic advantage. We are connected to the biggest names in poker, famous DJs, influencers … In business, it’s all about who you know, and Vegas is where we have the most clout.

Plus, there’s no good döner in Vegas (trust me, I looked), so we could be the first to capture this market. There’s no real competition in our category, which admittedly is a bit of a double-edged sword since it also means few people even know what döner is, so there’s a lot of educating to do.

Most brands go to Vegas once they’ve made it. But you know that saying, “Fake it before you make it”? Well, that was pretty much my strategy. Why not reverse engineer this shit? When people hear we have a location in Vegas, they immediately assume we’re a big deal. Instant cred.

Finally, with locations on the East Coast in Canada and the West Coast in the U.S., we could attack our North American expansion from both sides. It would be more work now, but we’d be poised for rapid growth going forward. So you see, this plan that may seem irrational at first, was in fact very much calculated.

Years ago, I met Lisa, a real estate agent, owner of Sin City Cupcakes, and ex-Miss Nevada. I told her it would be fun to open a Wolf Down in Vegas. I wasn’t really serious, but not not serious either. She loved the idea and introduced me to her partner Cathey in commercial real estate. Can’t hurt to look, right? The first spot she showed me was in Chinatown, of all places. It’s similar to our Ottawa space, narrow with high ceilings, and felt familiar. It’s close to the Strip, in a popular plaza next to hot spots like Golden Tiki, Partage (French), Mas Por Favor (Mexican) and Shokku (Japanese). It was a quirky melting pot. I loved it. I asked my local friends, who confirmed this was a sick location.

Wolf Down storefront

I was excited, but I’d never try this without a strong local operator. That would just be dumb. Cathey introduced me to friends of hers who are well connected in the local food scene. I met with them and they shared their background and how they’d recently stepped out on their own to open this really cool spot I’d heard about. Their experience was impressive. I told them all about Wolf Down and asked if they might know an operator. “Yeah, us.”

I didn’t see that coming. They loved our concept, and it turns out they’d been looking to team up with another cool brand. One of them was an ops guy, the other a food guy. It was perfect. I couldn’t believe my luck. All the cards had just fallen into place. I thought I’d stacked the deck. But it was a house of cards. And it all came crashing down: COVID pandemic, late-night robbery, partner goes MIA, supply-chain issues … suddenly Vegas was not so fun.

I was just about to sign the lease when COVID hit. Given all the uncertainty, we paused and waited to see how things played out. Due to lockdowns and travel restrictions, Vegas was temporarily transformed into a ghost town. It was eerie to say the least. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel. With infection rates dropping and vaccines promised, optimism was renewed. I could sense the pent-up demand. I knew Vegas would bounce back hard.

We figured if we timed it right, we could start building now, and as soon as COVID ends, we’d hit the ground running. We were so naive. I mean, I was partly right. Thanks to COVID, rents were low and we locked in a sub-market lease. So there’s that. And Vegas did rebound hard. Initially. 

I was there when things started to open back up for the first time. I’ve never seen Vegas so busy. Casinos posted record-breaking months. It was crazy. But it didn’t last. It’s been a rollercoaster with restrictions and masks coming off and back on, again and again. But we were committed now.

We got off to a good start. I had great communication with my partners and we had a solid plan. They even surprised me by getting us featured in Eater! I just opened the newsletter one day, saw our name, and was like ‘WTF’? I never thought I’d see my name on Eater, so that was pretty sick.

We found our GC and began construction. This is mid-COVID, though, when getting supplies and equipment was nearly impossible. Fridges were sold out, nice tables and chairs were hard to find, and our vertical grills got stuck at customs for five weeks! It was slow and painful, but finally we had everything … until we got robbed.

I get a call late one night: all the equipment is gone. They had to have had a flatbed truck and our lockbox code. This narrows down the pool of suspects. After a little investigating, we found out it was the equipment delivery guy. He had the code since our partner gave it to him and didn’t change it after (seriously, guys?) and, of course, he had access to the flatbed. The supplier apologized, saying the guy was a recovering meth addict, and agreed to file a claim through their insurance. To file a claim, you need a police report, and the cops wanted the building’s security camera footage. Landlords apparently don’t like sharing this in case it shows “other funny business”. Long story short, we were never able to file the claim. We had to find and buy everything twice – costing us a ton of time and money.

I was referred to an artist to do a mural, which we were counting on to liven up the space. But he never showed up. So we found another guy. He also bailed. Seriously, what is going on here?

This is when things really started to get weird. My partner, the ops guy, stopped answering my messages. He just ghosted us. The other guy tried to help, but he was left in the dark also. To make matters worse, due to travel restrictions at the time, I couldn’t even go to the U.S. myself. I felt so helpless.

Eventually, the chef guy tells me that since the ops guy is gone, he teamed up with another local brand and suggests we all join forces. Since they are well established, they have a strong ops team with lots of resources. Sounds like a great solution. Finally I’m able to get to Vegas, so I meet the owner and we agree to work together. I was so relieved to have found a new operator and spent the next few weeks in Vegas debriefing them on Wolf Down. But the day I had to head back home, he calls me. He just reviewed our partnership agreement (not until now?) and actually, he doesn’t think this makes sense for them. I just wasted all my time in Vegas building this relationship for nothing. Back to square one. Again.

I was pretty stressed out. This wasn’t what I signed up for. But it doesn’t matter – it’s my responsibility. My partners were supposed to handle the build-out, licensing, staffing, suppliers, day-to-day operations, etc. They had the experience opening a new business in Nevada and all the local food connections. Since the guy just unexpectedly went MIA, I had no clue what licences we already had or still needed, what accounts had been set up, or what the hell was going on. I was left to pick up the pieces.

My first priority was finding a GM who, hopefully, could help. No easy task given the staffing shortages. After dozens of interviews, I found Kevin. He didn’t have experience as a GM, nor with opening a new location, but he had a lot of heart and I just believed in him. He was my best bet. Together, we tackled things one by one. It was painful, but we made progress.

Finally, we were almost there. All that was left was our Health Department inspection to give us the green light. Generally, this is quick. But this is COVID times and we couldn’t schedule our damn inspection. More weeks down the drain. There are so many more things that went wrong, but you get the point.

We were supposed to open in February 2021. We actually opened in late August 2021 – more than six months behind schedule. I was mentally drained from the experience and we’d burned through all our free rent and cash reserves. But we did it! We were open.

In Ottawa, we were slammed from Day 1. Vegas is a different beast. Without my partner’s local network and media connections, we struggled to get the word out. Most of our friends weren’t in Vegas due to COVID. Many local influencers came out, but it didn’t seem to help much. I also have to admit I underestimated the competition in Vegas – there are so many great spots, it’s really hard to break through all the noise.

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It’s been over half a year now and it’s been rough. While the reviews are awesome, the numbers are awful. We have the best fans who share the sweetest messages and social media posts. One day at True Food, a waitress who overheard me mention Wolf Down stopped just to tell us how much she loved it. It’s the little things like this that make me smile. But then I get the financial statements and that smile is wiped right off my face.

We tried everything we could to get the word out: influencers, flyers, samples, contests, radio spots … we even added döner fries just for the Vegas market (I’ve learned Americans must have their fries). Then we tried to get a beer licence – since it’s Vegas after all. I’ve never seen a more complicated application in my life. It took weeks to gather everything. When we finally met with the city clerk, we painstakingly went through each page until, at the very last section, she asks for my social security number. I explain that I’m Canadian and don’t have a social security number, which is why Kevin filled this out – this is what we’d had to do to get our business licence. She looks at me flatly: “You can’t get a beer licence. All owners must be American or have a visa.” WTF?

My friend Mathias who owns Berlin’s döner in L.A. came down to help us out. I also asked some of the most respected restaurateurs in Vegas for advice. I met James Trees (the rock star behind Al Solito Posto & Esther’s Kitchen), who brought his whole team to Wolf Down to support. And Colin Fukunaga (the legendary FukuBurger guy), who shared the love with a post about us. Mercy, Mo, Sunny and so many others have shown such incredible kindness. They all pretty much said the same thing: the product is amazing, we just need to get people in … and that’s the problem – the volume just isn’t there.

P.S. This is why I love Vegas and this crazy industry. The best damn people. I came in new and naive, and they welcomed me with open arms. Thank you, guys.

I’m not gonna sugar-coat it. We are bleeding money. I refuse to let this tank our Ottawa location, so I personally loaned additional funds. We burned through that. So my husband loaned more. We burned through that. We made one last wire, but we can’t keep chasing our losses. Gambling 101.

This experience has taken a heavy toll on me. It’s hard not to beat myself up. I try to remind myself that, like poker, business is a game of incomplete information: what matters is that you made the right decision based on the information you had at the time. But still, it’s hard not to think of what could have been if it weren’t for COVID. If our partners hadn’t screwed us. If I’d picked a different location. Wrong place at the wrong time? Was it bad luck or do I just suck?

Ultimately, it’s on me. I believed in this so much, I bet all I had on it. But, like in Texas hold ’em, you gotta know when to fold ’em. We gave it our best shot, but it wasn’t enough, and I’ve had to make the tough call to shut down. To my amazing team and all of our incredible fans in Vegas, I am so sorry. It’s both humbling and humiliating. The worst part is letting all of you down. I’ve learned. I’ve grown. And I’ve cried a lot.

Maybe one day, armed with what I know now, I’ll try again in Vegas. But for now, I wanted to make sure I gave you a heads-up that our last day will be April 14 – in case you wanted to wolf down one last döner before then.

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