SOME FADS, such as kiwis, filter downward, from luxury to mass market. Others filter upward, as with fast food. Yes, fast food is becoming a luxury item, a status symbol.
In Atlantic City a baccarat player can take a burger break, but instead of an everyday Big Mac, he can scarf down a $5.25 Heavyweight hamburger at Sly's, named after none other than Sly Stallone.
"Feast Fast" is the motto of the two-month-old Food Court at the Sands Hotel. Ten fast-food stands, with two more on the verge of opening, deal out hot dogs, hamburgers, deli sandwiches, cheese steaks, popcorn, pretzels, fried seafood, pizza, chocolate chip cookies and sundaes fast enough to get you back to the blackjack table without the casino feeling the pinch.
But this is food for high rollers, or at least customers who want to feel like high rollers for a day. It is big-name, brand-name, celebrity fast food. "We wanted to find brand name food operations," said William Weidner, president of Greate Bay Casino Corp., which runs the Sands Hotels. It was his idea, the Food Court, and he chose the brands, looking for the names with the highest recognition and the highest status in the New York-Philadelphia markets.
Seafood? Bookbinder's, of course, for the Philadelphians.
Deli? Carnegie, the New York pinnacle.
Philadelphia cheese steak sandwiches? Pat's King of Steaks, the perennial prize-winner in that city's steak sandwich contests.
Hot dogs? Nathan's, of course. Cookies? David's. Pizza? Atlantic City's own Boston pizza.
After that the choices became more difficult. Hamburgers, in particular, were a problem because no one name stood out as a symbol of quality. So Weidner decided to invent a brand name for burgers, one that "said large portions, macho." And Sylvester Stallone already had a working relationship with the hotel, as well as being a Philadelphian.
A big name, that of actor Jack Klugman, already existed in popcorns, so he and his multiflavored product were signed up. Then Philadelphia soft pretzels were branded with the name of comedian David Brenner, who is conveniently also a Philadelphian and was already involved with the hotel. Also he was made the spokesman for the Food Court, which officially opened June 29 and grossed $1.5 million the first month.
A few hot possibilities never materialized; though the promotional literature listed Ming's Bau House and Confiserie Suisse Chocolatier, they haven't appeared. And Mary Elizabeth desserts, Bobby Rubino's ribs and chicken have been added, with a peanut shop to come.
How did the Sands persuade the overwhelmingly busy Carnegie deli people to split their time between Manhattan and Atlantic City? It didn't. The Carnegie just joined in the venture with another New York deli man, Leon Sverdlen, and his son Norman, with the Sverdlens running the New Jersey operation. Norman had worked in the Carnegie for a year after his college graduation, and Leon had been in the New York deli business for 45 years, since he was 12, so as Carnegie partner Leo Steiner put it, "They know our way of doing things."
The Sverdlens, serving 3,000 people a day and about to launch a quick-service sandwich adjunct to their sit-down deli (the only full-service operation in the Food Court), don't pickle their own corned beef and smoke their own pastrami as the Carnegie does in New York, but they "get the same mustard," said Steiner, and most of the suppliers are the same. The meats are the same as those the Carnegie in New York gets when it runs out of its own home-cured supply; they are steamed fresh on a constantly rotating basis and sliced to order.
"I don't think there's anyplace in the world that makes a sandwich like the Carnegie -- the size, the way it's presented," said Leon Sverdlen, showing a five-plus-inch-thick Be Creative sandwich to prove his point. That sandwich (at $10.95) contains almost a pound of meat; the Broadway Danny, a corned beef and pastrami combination at $8.95, weighs at least 12 ounces (and made the jaw of one teen-ager who tried to get his mouth around it crack). The salad bowls look like buffet bowls rather than individual portions. And the french toast is somewhere around an inch thick. More than half the customers walk out with doggie bags, a hallmark of the Carnegie.
The only significant difference between Sverdlen's operation and the New York Carnegie, he insisted, is the service. "People complain the help aren't nasty enough," in Atlantic City, he quipped. "It's hard to get the grumpy old ladies . . . but other than that, even our cakes come from New York."
What also come from New York are factory-made gefilte fish, frozen blintzes and frozen potato pancakes (at $7.50 and $6.75, respectively). "We just don't have time to do it," said Sverdlen to explain why those are not made in-house, though the turkeys and roast beef are cooked on the premises.
The customers, though, are clearly a different breed from New Yorkers. They order things Sverdlen "never thought would sell," things such as rib steaks and spareribs, to the tune of close to a thousand rib steaks a week and at least 50 portions of spareribs a day, while on one typical day only two portions of pickled herring were sold.
"It is not as good as Carnegie New York," claimed Steiner, "but pretty good, let me tell you . . . You can put on quite a few pounds by eating there."
And you can make quite a few bucks by being a partner there. Open only two months, the Atlantic City branch already sells 3,500 pounds of pastrami and 7,000 pounds of corned beef a week. "Atlantic City is doing super, super, super," Steiner crowed, adding, "We are looking at a couple more locations . . . We may eventually get to Washington."
Philadelphians know there are two Bookbinder's restaurants, and they are connected only by name. The Old Original Bookbinder's, down by the waterfront, was started by two Bookbinder brothers, but in 1935 one son left to start his own place on 15th Street. The Original eventually was willed to a charity, which sold it to the present owner and four other partners. Thus the 15th Street Bookbinder's, actually the less famous of the two, is the one still in the family, owned by two brothers who have now formed a partnership with Sy Sussman, who came from the Woolworth's chain to run their Atlantic City Food Court seafood bar.
One of the brothers, Sam Bookbinder, says they visit Atlantic City a couple of times a week to oversee quality control. Is Atlantic City's Bookbinder's like Philadelphia's? "It's not similar at all, no, no, no," declared Bookbinder. This is a mall, he emphasized; "It's like a McDonald's." The menu consists of raw oysters and clams (80 cents apiece), cold shrimp ($2 each), soups, steamed clams and mussels and fried seafood platters. The recipes for the soups are from the Philadelphia restaurant, and one day (not the day we tasted it) Bookbinder reported, "I just tasted the snapper soup a few minutes ago, and I defy someone to tell the difference." His biggest sellers in Atlantic City are the soups -- especially New England clam chowder as opposed to the Manhattan, which sells better in Philadelphia -- and fish and chips, at $3.95 the cheapest of the platters and one that he doesn't even offer in Philadelphia. His biggest surprise? Atlantic City customers considered cherrystone clams too large, so he switched to selling smaller clams.
"Business here is doing very, very well," reported Bookbinder, and indeed his Food Court stand was one of the busiest. So far his main problems are that "you're dealing with a landlord whose primary worry is the gaming tables," he said, and "everything else is second to gaming." Thus his liquor license application had yet to be filed.
For customers, one problem with all the Food Court stands is the prices. Bookbinder figured that the prices of this cafeteria operation were a little higher than those in his Philadelphia restaurant, but, "Don't forget, we have to serve everything on disposable plates and plastic forks." Food Court proprietors pay not only a flat rental but also 10 percent of their gross to the Sands.
While people do complain to and about the Sands Food Court for its high prices, the meals are free for about one-third of the patrons, compliments of the Sands. Gamblers the Sands brings to Atlantic City are generally given coupons -- "comps" -- for the elegant and expensive Mes Amis restaurant or the Brighton Steakhouse in the hotel; half of the meals there are "comped". Casinos around the world issue free meals, or entire free trips for particularly high rollers. But Atlantic City has created a new gambling situation.
Whereas in Las Vegas gamblers stay for an average of two to three days and thus can afford to spend two hours eating breakfast or three hours at dinner, the average Atlantic City casino player comes for seven to eight hours. And plays for as low as a nickel a pull on the slot machines. "We also wanted to have enough feeding capacity to be able to reward the lower level player and the slot player," said William Weidner, who added, "We are using the Food Court as a way to reward the player that no place else in town can recognize. That's the why of the Food Court."
He expects 20 percent of the Food Court sales to be "comped" eventually (so far it has been 34 percent), and he believes that the Food Court has already added to the revenue of the Sands casino since the slot machine revenue has increased even though this summer has been a "soft market."
Not only does the Food Court provide a low-price comp possibility for the Sands ("mini-comps" are for as little as $5.50, which costs the Sands $4), it processes people faster and lets them get back to the gaming tables. "The casino gambling experience is very much akin to the shopping experience," said Weidner; it is in the interest of the customer and of the entrepreneur for people to be fed quickly so they can get on with their spending.
In fact, he got the idea for the Food Court from a Michigan shopping mall. The hotel's 250-seat coffee shop had been able to feed only a small proportion (maybe 3,000) of the thousands and thousands of people who visited the casino daily, and he saw people leave the line to get a hot dog or candy bar instead of waiting for a meal. The Food Court can feed 12,000 to 14,000 people a day, estimated Weidner. The average waiting and eating time at the Food Court totals 20 to 25 minutes, he continued; at the coffee shop it had stretched up to an hour and a half.
The Sands Food Court had to be more than ordinary fast food, Weidner decided. Customers had to recognize its offerings as something special. And to achieve the quality he sought, he realized, "Crucial is the proprietary interest of the individual owner."
How is that being carried out? Well, Sly Stallone doesn't exactly hang around his hamburger stand, but he did require that the product be all natural, that everything be fresh -- the mushrooms, the green peppers, the onions -- and that the beef be ground fresh daily there. His stand is decorated with photos of Rocky and with a plastic side of beef hanging in wait to be used as a punching bag. For all that you pay $2.25 for a six-ounce burger, an extra dollar if you want cheese on it, and 50 cents for each addition: mushrooms, green peppers, tomatoes, tomato sauce, pickles, even lettuce.
As for the proprietary interest of David Brenner in his soft pretzel stand, he said he had been to Atlantic City and tasted one a few weeks ago and that he'd be back Christmas. Nobody seemed to know why the stand was closed one Monday. Some customers complained about the price (50 cents each) but Weidner said he'd paid even more at the ball park in Philadelphia.
Pat's Steaks is a more complicated issue. Philadelphians are raised on cheese steaks, thus think it perfectly proper for a chipped-steak-and-onion on an Italian roll to be slathered with Cheez Whiz . They also know Pat's, in South Philadelphia, to have long been the most celebrated of cheese steak makers, although the connection is not that simple.
Pat's in South Philly is run by Frank Olivieri, whose father and uncle started the business in 1930. Frank's cousin Herb Olivieri owns the right to franchise the name "Pat's King of Steaks; Of South Philly Fame." And, Bob Carrigan, formerly national marketing director for Sears Authorized Services, is majority shareholder in a string of Pat's (seven new outlets in 1983, 12 in the works now and hopes of further expansion.).
His Atlantic City outlet has been going so well, said Carrigan, "We wish we had five more in; I'd retire." His estimated gross for July was $200,000, and August was higher. He had added "criscut" french fries -- a lacy fried sliced potato with the skin on -- which may, indeed, have beat out Nathan's fresh crinkle-cuts for best Food Court fries -- and a very good cheesecake (also neck and neck with Nathan's as well as Carnegie's in the very intense Food Court cheesecake competition).
"I think people are golden-arched out," said Carrigan about the Food Court's success. This Pat's outlet does double or triple the volume of a typical Pat's outlet. Part of that is due to the advertising blitz for the Food Court, budgeted at an estimated $4 million for the first three months. "There isn't anyone I know of who hasn't seen those spots" on television in New York and Philadelphia, he said. "It was heavy. There were times I saw them back to back" during the Olympics.
As for how those Pat's steaks compare with the original location's in South Philadelphia, Carrigan does admit that the rolls are different, but insists they are otherwise the same. A Philadelphia family, who had run a sandwich shop, tasted them at the Food Court and agreed, "This is good, but not as good as South Philadelphia." The sandwich wasn't hot enough, the rolls weren't good enough, and the sandwich was more expensive, they said.
So how does the Food Court come out on the plate? Here is a rundown of three days of sampling at the Food Court with three teen-agers:
Nathan's: Hundreds of outlets though there may be, Nathan's still makes a good spicy hot dog. And the french fries, a cross between steak fries and crinkle-cuts, are terrific when they are cooked long enough, which was about half the time in our sample. Don't bother adding extras to the hot dogs: mushrooms are canned and tasteless, chili is bland and starchy. And the knishes taste like anti-Semitic propaganda. There is, however, that delicious cheesecake.
Boston Pizza: Better than Boardwalk pizza-by-the-slice or typical shopping mall pizza, but with little cheese and even less tomato. The crust was crunchy, but more like crackers than pizza. And while the add-ons were plentiful, they had little taste. As for the hoagie, its roll was too chewy, but the meats were good if you don't mind the overemphasis on bologna. In all, it was "just a sub."
Sly's hamburgers: The burgers have that nice bite and loose texture that you can't get with machine-formed frozen hamburgers, and they are thick. Stallone did not, however, make sure that they were cooked rare or crusty, or that the meat had a lot of flavor. Add-ons are good -- fresh mushrooms, for instance -- but expensive. And the rolls are oddly puffy and yellow.
Pat's King of Steaks: We found the meat dry and chewy and the rolls just spongy fluff. Comparing them with a steak sandwich from Atlantic City's famous White House sandwich shop a few blocks away, they were a dollar more expensive and several notches less delicious. Again inferior to the White House, Pat's .oagie was decent, with bland ham but otherwise good meats and a nice oil and vinegar dousing.
David Brenner's Pretzels: We liked them better when the stand was closed. What can you do wrong with a ready-made pretzel except leave it cold in the middle when you warm it? David Brenner's did.
Jack's Corn: The cheeseburger flavor was nearly indistinguishable from the nacho or barbecue, and none of them tasted very good anyway.
Carnegie Deli: Washington should have such corned beef and pastrami! But Washington already has better potato pancakes, potato salad and chopped liver. And the matzo ball soup was like polenta floating in broth made of long-simmered bouillon cubes. The salads are gargantuan, the nova is decent and plentiful, the cheesecake is marvelous and the corned beef hash is as good as corned beef hash would hope to be. In all, the prices are high and the food (certainly the portion size) warrants them -- if you choose very carefully.
Bookbinder's: The clams have been excellent, the oysters less so but it's not the best season for them. Fried seafoods, except the fish and chips, were a cut above the average quick-service seafood restaurant, though too greasy. But the soups were thick and gluey, with the snapper soup so dreadful that we tried to imagine what crime might warrant a bowl of it as a punishment. Outlandishly expensive shrimp, large with hardly any taste. Fish and chips just tasted like standard frozen fish portions and frozen french fries.
Mary Elizabeth: What could there be to complain about in a sundae with Ha agen-Dazs ice cream and good dense fudge sauce, except that the whipped cream was airy fluff? Otherwise, the stand was generally out of everything we wanted to try.
David's Cookies: Nobody could resist finishing each meal with a few.
The Food Court still has a way to go, according to Weidner, who said he is about 80 percent satisfied so far. The hallways are about to be finished, and a glass elevator was being installed. He is looking into a Chinese restaurant possibility and a taco stand. But most important, he emphasized, "Summertime in Atlantic City is a very difficult time to create a decent customer experience."
The summation: Universally good cheesecake, a good corned beef sandwich, but it is not this food that draws anybody to Atlantic City. Obviously.