In his first year as the vice president of food and beverage for Boyd Gaming, Mark LaVoie is part of the restaurant overhaul taking place at The Orleans.
It is a much easier transition than what he faced as a college football player for Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
LaVoie was a defensive back on a team that eventually broke a Division III-record 50-game losing streak in 1980.
He describes the whole experience, including the many lopsided losses that preceded a 3-0 breakthrough victory on a last-second field goal, as a “dubious distinction.”
LaVoie has joined a much more successful team this time – led by Bob Boughner, Boyd’s soon-to-be-retired executive vice president and chief development officer – that is in the process of opening five new restaurants at The Orleans, located just west of the Strip on Tropicana Ave.
Alder & Birch, described as a classically modern streakhouse, and Ondori Asian Kitchen, a combination of Chinese and Japanese choices, both opened in February.
Three other new food options, all part of The Orleans’ $30-million renovation that included upgrading 1,800 hotel rooms, are coming before the end of the year. One of the restaurants will replace the café and resemble “something you’d see in New Orleans today,” LaVoie said.
The rest of the details are yet to be released.
Samantha Roper, manager of corporate communications for Boyd, promised “some very interesting concepts that we have not seen at The Orleans before.”
She added with a laugh, “That’s about as far as they’ll let me go before they start snapping a rubber band on the back on my neck.”
LaVoie, who came aboard last September, was attracted to the job by the company’s commitment to these projects, which will also feature upcoming restaurant changes at Sam’s Town and Gold Coast in 2016.
He referred to it as “unleashing our inner foodies.”
This emphasis by casinos to provide a wider variety of food options – not just the basic buffet, café and steakhouse – is a recent trend in the industry.
“Gaming is the heart of the business,” LaVoie said. “But the non-gaming amenities are becoming increasingly important. If you’re going to continue to attract new guests and take care of your current guests, you’ve got to give them new product. You’ve got to give them new venues.”
LaVoie, 55, worked for the Cheesecake Factory in Marina Del Rey, Calif., back when the company had only five locations (it now has more than 150 nationwide).
He estimates he’s helped open between “50 and 100” restaurants over the years, mostly on the West Coast.
“From one town to the next” is how he describes his early years in the restaurant business, which was similar to his childhood. His father was in the Navy and LaVoie was born in Hawaii before moving every three years or so.
One of his most memorable openings came at a bar in Oregon, where the owner was short on funds and had to start serving without a cash register to add up totals.
“We were just taking cash,” LaVoie recalled. “We were making up prices. Someone would come up to the bar and order the same round and you’d say it was $42. They’d say, ‘Hey, it was $39 last time.’
“The place was so packed. We’d just laugh at them. ‘Yeah, well, I was in a good mood then. It’s $42 now.’
“If they didn’t want it, someone behind them would buy it. We just totally winged it for him.”
There’s no winging it with the additions of Ondori and Alder & Birch at The Orleans. They are right next to each other with convenient back-to-back happy-hour specials (2-4 p.m. at Ondori, 4-6 p.m. at Alder & Birch).
They call it “Tomodomo Hour” at Ondori with numerous $5 items to eat or drink. Tomodomo is a Japanese word that translates to “art of togetherness,” a way of expressing the mixture of Chinese and Japanese cultures in the same setting.
LaVoie calls it simply “the best of both worlds” with numerous Japanese specialty rolls and Chinese seafood hotpots on the menu.
Ondori also has outlets to recharge cell phones and TVs to watch sporting events.
“I saw people eating sushi and watching the Final Four,” LaVoie said.
Meanwhile, over at Alder & Birch, the “social hour” features Kobe Beef meatballs for $8. A dinner entrée of the Wagyu coulette sirloin then could be finished off by a piece of banana rum cake for dessert.
For LaVoie, it’s anything but a “dubious distinction” to be in charge of these places.
Dave Dye is a former sportswriter for the Detroit News and FoxSportsDetroit.com. He has covered six Stanley Cup Finals, five Final Fours, three NBA Finals, three Rose Bowls and one World Series. Email: [email protected].