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Is Dotty’s a tavern? Amid battle, big casinos say no


Justin M. Bowen

Cindy Clark plays a slot machine at Dotty’s near Eastern and Serene in Henderson on Thursday, March 24, 2011.


Cindy Clark plays a slot machine at Dotty's near Eastern and Serene in Henderson on Thursday, March 24, 2011. Launch slideshow »

To call Dotty’s a bar probably would offend the quiet, mostly female crowd that has gathered this particular evening for video poker and electronic keno.

The Dotty’s on Serene Avenue is the newest storefront in a gambling chain with a grandmotherly name that has spread rapidly despite the Great Recession. It is taking over failed taverns and wicking away customers from big, neighborhood casinos.

Cassandra DeBord, who plays video poker near a potted sunflower on a dainty side table, can tell you why.

“This is a controlled environment,” the 34-year-old insurance agent said. “You don’t get the drama that you have in a bar, with men trying to pick you up. And you feel more at home here than in a big casino. I would never go anywhere else.”

But Dotty’s, with its homey, country-kitchen look, hushed surroundings and mostly nondrinking crowd, has powerful enemies.

A rare business success story as Las Vegas is plagued by bankruptcies, foreclosures and layoffs, Dotty’s has caught the attention and ire of Nevada casino giants that say the chain has earned its profits by violating state law.

More than 20 years ago, in response to a proliferation of slot machines in neighborhoods, regulators restricted the businesses that could offer up to 15 slot machines to bars, convenience stores, groceries, drugstore and liquor stores. Critics of Dotty’s say they aren’t bars under state law but miniature casinos. Since 1981, so-called “restricted” slots locations such as bars and minimarts have been defined as establishments where slot machine gambling is “incidental” to the primary business.

Dotty’s fails that standard because it lacks a bar where drinks are served to customers sitting on bar stools, doesn’t serve prepared food and generates most of its revenue from its primary attraction, gambling. That’s what Scott Nielson, Station Casinos’ executive vice president, said at a Gaming Control Board workshop last week to discuss the restricted slots rules. Big casinos represented by the Nevada Resort Association urged the workshop to press state and local licensing authorities to force Dotty’s — and a growing number of Dotty’s look-alikes — to resemble traditional bars, with tabletop gambling machines, bar stools and kitchens.

“There is nothing else going on in there” but gambling, Nielson said. “You have liquor (for sale) but none of the characteristics of a tavern.”

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Dotty's near Eastern and Serene in Henderson is shown Thursday, March 24, 2011.

Because any changes to Nevada or county regulations would affect all bars, what started as a narrow attack has morphed into a David vs. Goliath battle that could encompass the entire tavern industry — little-reported, mostly privately held enterprises that employ tens of thousands of people in more than 500 locations statewide.

Some traditional taverns agree with the casinos that Dotty’s doesn’t meet the state’s definition of what it means to be a slot bar. But they have instead criticized the Resort Association’s proposal as a boldfaced attempt to curb competition now that times are tough.

Many Nevada taverns, struggling in the recession, couldn’t afford to adopt the casinos’ proposed requirements, including a 50-seat restaurant and full-service bars, owners say.

The casinos’ proposals could force the closure of hundreds of taverns, Bill Curran, a former regulator representing the Nevada Tavern Owners Association, told the workshop.

After having approved such locations for years, forcing bars to fit some preconceived notion of what a tavern should look like smacks of overregulation and protectionism, Curran said.

“Big guys (stepping on) little guys — that’s the issue.”

To casino giants, the foe is a 2,500-square-foot establishment mostly occupied by 15 widescreen slot machines, widely spaced to avoid, if need be, the possibility of attracting unwanted attention or interaction.

At Dotty’s, you won’t find any cocktail servers wearing short skirts or low-cut tops, or loud dance music commonly played in some of the town’s high-energy casinos. Nor will you see other casino hallmarks such as flashy, themed slots, blinking jackpot displays or big signs advertising buffet discounts, nightclub events or gambling offers.

You will hear Fleetwood Mac-like music that is soothing enough to discourage bumping and grinding. Instead of TVs blaring sports or the news, walls are lined with curio shelves filled with knickknacks found across America: cow-shaped cookie jars, big-eyed turtles wearing straw hats, smiling frogs sitting on benches, skinny bunny rabbits wearing shorts and stuffed dolls with gingham dresses and buttons for eyes. Further deterring hard drinking are wallpaper borders featuring kitchen crockery and pictures of children and flowers.

“It’s relaxing, not like the sensory overload you get in casinos,” Lolo Odierna said.

The 20-something mom has just dropped off her children at her mother’s house down the street and is taking a break with a soda in front of a keno machine. Odierna said she has little use for casinos after discovering Dotty’s and its “family” atmosphere.

“Boisterous or crazy people aren’t tolerated. I feel safe here,” she said.

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A row of snacks is offered to players at Dotty's near Eastern and Serene in Henderson on Thursday, March 24, 2011.

The bartender of this Dotty’s, Dee Carter, stands behind a wide laminate counter and fetches drinks and packaged snacks, such as chips and jerky, for customers. Although there’s no kitchen or food preparation at Dotty’s, Carter looks like she might be standing in her own kitchen. Aside from the liquor bottles lined up behind her and nearby cases of beer and cigarettes, there’s a clock shaped like a rooster and wooden cabinets, above and below.

Carter wears a red polo shirt and khakis, a uniform typical in retail but a departure from much of the rest of Nevada’s gambling industry, where sex sells.

There are no chairs at this bar/counter, only jars filled with jelly beans and chocolates that customers can grab as they please. There are three large containers of creamer packets and other fixings for coffee. Along with water, it’s one of the more popular drinks at Dotty’s. Free matchbooks — Dotty’s allows smoking, although most gamblers this night aren’t lighting up — are offered from a big jar decorated with honeybees.

Carter’s customers range from “21 to 101,” and Dotty’s attracts as many men as women who appreciate its quiet, “neighborhood” feel, she said.

Like bars and casinos with slots, drinks are free for gamblers who spend money. But customers drink moderately, Carter said.

Carter has a bartending license and can mix drinks for customers. Mostly, though, she’s grabbing a beer or a soda from a refrigerator case where nonalcoholic drinks share equal prominence with bottles of booze.

“We developed a niche that wasn’t being served,” said Ally Estey, who runs marketing and store development for Dotty’s and is the daughter of Craig Estey, the publicity-shy owner who developed a similar tavern concept in Oregon before launching Dotty’s in Las Vegas in 1995. “We create a pleasant environment that’s bright and airy” rather than the stereotypical “dark and smoky” tavern that “promotes overconsumption” of alcohol.

Although many bars around town attracted a rowdy male clientele, Dotty’s — its carefully chosen name one its customers could relate to — was crafted to appeal to older women. With alcohol an amenity rather than a focal point, it was far from an instant success. With no advertising, Estey recalls the early days of “waiting for people to come inside.”

There are now 64 Dotty’s locations statewide, making it one of Nevada’s largest tavern chains.

Tavern owners initially dismissed the testosterone-free establishments as laughable.

“I said they’re nuts — they’ll never make it,” tavern owner Randy Miller told the workshop. Miller is among a growing number of bar owners who have launched Dotty’s look-alikes with equally feminine names such as Molly’s and Jackpot Joanie’s.

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Cherie Nepote smokes a cigarette as she plays a slot machine at Dotty's near Eastern and Serene in Henderson on Thursday, March 24, 2011.

Because it allows customers to smoke, Dotty’s has taken business from competitors such as the slot areas of grocery stores that were forced to ban smoking in 2006, said Jeffrey Compton, a local gaming industry consultant who has taught marketing seminars for Dotty’s managers. Grocery customers don’t generally appreciate a bar atmosphere and aren’t hard drinkers, he said.

“You don’t have people telling stories or (cursing) like you might have in a bar,” he said. “And a lot of bars in any town will have a fixed crowd in them, where newcomers may feel like outsiders.”

Mostly, though, the Dotty’s on Serene has attracted ex-casino customers this evening.

Among them is homemaker Cherie Nepote, who gets up from her machine, takes a few steps to the counter and grabs a Pepsi.

Nepote, 39, likes “not having to wait for drinks” like she did at big casinos and chatting with Carter, who is always within earshot in the small space. With many more customers to handle, some workers at big casinos “aren’t personable,” she said.

Nearby, construction worker Cindy Clark, 53, echoes those sentiments.

“It’s convenient. You don’t have to walk through a big casino and deal with parking,” said Clark, who sips Coke from a can.

She shakes her short, brown hair when asked whether she would go to a traditional bar to gamble. She doesn’t drink much and dislikes the social pressure to drink in bars — as well as men who get too friendly with her after a few drinks.

“Here, I can play in peace without having someone moving in on me,” Clark said. “If they turned this into a bar, it would make people not want to come here.”

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