A view from the city: Las Vegas

Hamish Smith speaks to Nectaly Mendoza, founder of Herbs & Rye.

Tell us about the drinking tradition of Las Vegas.

The tradition in Las Vegas is based upon the night itself – friendships, camaraderie and the moment. Think of an occasion – bachelor parties, celebrations, weddings, divorce, mergers, acquisitions – Las Vegas will celebrate it. And celebrate it well.

Las Vegas drinking tradition is most drinking traditions combined. We simply embrace your local tradition and make it better. Bigger. More lights. We are a city that the world’s eyes are on, so the best way I can say this is that we embrace all who visit with open arms.

That said, the craft cocktail scene in Las Vegas only emerged lately, and Herbs & Rye was a big part of bringing that to be.

How developed is the cocktail bar scene?

Establishing the scene seven years ago was difficult to say the least. We faced challenges on multiple parts.

In the year right after the biggest economic devastation since the Great Depression, we decided to open a bar. Not just a bar but a full-service bar with great food. The economy has been disrupted nationally, but Las Vegas was particularly hurt.

Drinking culture consisted mainly of casinos and bottle service. Shots, vodka/Redbulls and mixed drinks dominated the town, and the multibillion-dollar hotel industry on the Strip made sure that was the culture. And that culture is here to stay.

Tell us about Herbs & Rye.

We were never trying to change that side of Vegas. By creating Herbs & Rye, we were simply adding a new element and a certain depth to the drinking scene through the development of good, classic, craft cocktails.

In a market where corporate chains, celebrity chefs and familiar brands are king, and nothing is more important than your location on the Strip, we opened an independent, single-owner restaurant and bar – three miles west of the Strip. No one knew our chef. No one knew me. Our marketing budget was our servers passing out flyers in front of the restaurant before we opened for service. Logistically, we were competing with giants. Conceptually we were introducing something new. And we were doing it away from the hearts of downtown and the Strip. So our obstacles were huge. We simply had a concept for great drinks, great food, all centered on genuine and thoughtful hospitality – we believed in each other and wanted to have great drinks in the city we loved.

This was my first business venture on my own. I was competing against multibillion-dollar casinos. Their reach was massive and I was clearly boxing against the gods. So in the beginning, Las Vegas was about gaming, familiarity, guest relations, and shows – food and drink was an after-thought. In the past decade Las Vegas has taken a turn and focused solely on the bottom line – mostly forgetting the days of old. In Herbs & Rye, we saw an opportunity to hold on to old Vegas and the old ways of friends and family, all while reintroducing craft cocktails back into the mix. So not only did we have a great product with a cool vibe, we focused on hospitality and service, and that has made all the difference. The people at Herbs & Rye are fantastic. We are all family. So when you come through the door as a guest, you become part of our family.

We understand that we are not perfect – we are human, just like everybody who walks through our doors. It’s not fake, it’s grounded, so people feel that genuine warmth when we say they are part of our family. Las Vegas as a whole was not ready for cocktails, in my opinion, but in a city like this, I guess who was?

What were the hurdles?

One huge hurdle was that the people who would say they would love a great cocktail bar in Las Vegas were the same people who would come here and order vodka-Redbulls and go to the clubs because “that’s what you do in Vegas”. We never really focused on the geeky mixology stuff – we focused on being an amazing host to all who walked in.

I used to tell people “I got behind bars to stay from behind bars.” I grew up in the north-side of Vegas – a dodgy area – and my family went through countless challenges. But still, the example was always set of what it meant for us to fight the odds and persevere. That lesson early in life showed me the way for this dream. I had to make this work. I had no other choice but to succeed.