Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 | 2 a.m.
The large white tent is similar to what might be used for an outdoor wedding reception or, perhaps, a graduation party.
Ductwork leading from portable propane-powered units interspersed around its exterior send heat into the tent. Inside, plush carpeting covers a temporary floor, festive lighting is strung throughout, wooden chairs with dark-blue leather seats and backs sit at linen-clothed tables.
The special occasion taking place in this tent isn’t to honor a bride and groom or a graduate; it’s for Friday or Saturday night dinner guests at the Fogo de Chao Brazilan Steakhouse, just west of the intersection of Flamingo and Paradise roads near the Las Vegas Strip.
The tent has been set up in the restaurant’s parking lot since the week before Thanksgiving.
Five days before the holiday, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced that COVID-19-related restaurant capacity restrictions would drop from 50% to 25%. The news left Nevada restaurant owners and operators in an awkward position. Reservations had been made, sometimes weeks in advance, for Thanksgiving and into the holiday season.
The tent, which can accommodate about 50 diners with social distancing in place, was Fogo de Chao’s way to help alleviate the lower capacity limits and still adhere to coronavirus precautions. It’s only being used on specials days, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, and on Friday and Saturday nights.
Some Fogo de Chao customers, feeling safer in the quasi-outdoor environment, have requested tent seating, restaurant managers said.
“People can be a little closer together (in the tent) if they’re in a group,” said Valdenir Machado, the restaurant’s general manager. “We’re just trying to be creative and be smart about our business. It was expensive to do this, but it’s worked out so far.”
During normal times, Fogo de Chao can seat nearly 650 patrons in eight different dining areas. Today, with the 25% limit, the restaurant can seat about 160 diners in those areas, though the tent seating options can raise that number.
Sunday, Sisolak announced that he had no immediate plans to alter the enhanced restrictions for restaurants, bars and casinos put in place last month.
As of Sunday, Nevada health officials reported a 14-day rolling average of 2,105 COVID-19 cases and a test positivity rate of 21.5%. More than 2,500 deaths in the state this year have been attributed to the virus.
The Nevada Restaurant Association trade group has said it expected that as many as 30% of eateries in the state could close by the end of 2020, a year that has been particularly devastating for the industry.
“Restaurants have been forced to evolve in order to survive this pandemic,” said Katherine Jacobi, president and CEO of the association. “Due to the lack of capacity, many operators have shifted a portion of their operations to outdoor dining in order to accommodate dine-in customers. While this has been a helpful tool to expand a restaurant’s ability to use all of its reduced capacity, it is very difficult for most restaurants to break even.”
Jacobi said she applauded creative solutions like the one Fogo de Chao put forward, but noted that such options were “not a long-term solution” for rules that lead to diminished seating.
“COVID regulations have been constantly changing throughout this pandemic,” Jacobi said. “Our restaurants have shown a lot of innovation and ingenuity to quickly adjust their business models.”
The association estimates about 15% of the state’s restaurants closed permanently after the initial round of COVID-19 restrictions in March, which closed dining rooms to the public and allowed only drive-thru, takeout or delivery of meals.
Restaurants, the association said, employed more than 200,000 before the onset of the pandemic. Fogo de Chao’s Las Vegas workforce — the restaurant employs nearly 100 — is back on the job after its temporary closure in the spring.
Serena Gipson, Fogo de Chao’s sales manager for its Las Vegas location, said she realized that not all restaurants in the valley had the resources or available space to erect a large dining tent. Fogo de Chao, a chain with 40 locations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, along with another dozen international locations in countries like Brazil and Mexico, has the financial backing of Rhone Capital, a private equity firm.
The idea for Fogo de Chao’s tent in Las Vegas actually came from the chain’s leadership in Southern California, though a stay-at-home in that state has put an end, for now, to even outdoor dining.
The tent “was just one of the ways that we were able to pivot during all the restrictions,” Gipson said. “When the pandemic started, Fogo launched a to-go and catering platform in 48 hours. We didn’t even have a catering menu before that. That’s the main way that we’ve been able to pivot.”
Today, Fogo de Chao works with third-party delivery outfits like DoorDash, something that Gipson said would have been almost unthinkable before the pandemic.
With visitation numbers down drastically this fall in Las Vegas, the catering, to-go and delivery options are helping to keep Fogo de Chao afloat.
Part of the reason the restaurant had a relatively easy time getting approved for the tent — it needed to be inspected by fire department officials and the Southern Nevada Health District — was because Fogo de Chao doesn’t have an outdoor patio, Gipson said.
Without the tent setup, there wouldn’t have been an outdoor dining option.
“They made it easy for us to get the permit we needed and the approvals we needed,” Machado said. “I haven’t seen anything like what we have at other restaurants in Las Vegas.”
During nonbusiness hours, the tent is locked up. A security service patrols the area.
“If you’re a restaurant on the Strip, you may have the outdoor space to do something like this, so we’re lucky,” Machado said. “It was hard in the beginning after the shutdown, but we’re getting a lot of takeout and delivery orders now, which helps. I believe restaurants will come back, maybe not for a while, but in time.”