September 23, 2008

Entrepreneur Aims to Offer Good Smokes, Good Brews and Good Times

By Arnold M. Knightly



Michael Frey is an entrepreneurial chameleon.

Frey is opening his first restaurant later this month, T&T (Tacos & Tequila) in the Luxor, after 11 years carving a niche in the lucrative cigar retail and bar business.

Frey owns retailer FreyBoy Tobacco, and the Casa Fuente cigar store and bar in the Forum Shops at Caesars. He also co- developed Montecristo Rum, which was named the best rum of 2002 by Wine & Spirits magazine.

Recognizing his lack of experience in the restaurant business, Frey called some friends to help him get T&T off the ground.

Craig Gilbert, former vice president of food and beverage at the Rio, is the restaurant's operating partner while architect and partner Adam Tihany conceptualized the 8,200-square-foot space on the Luxor's atrium level overlooking the hotel lobby. T&T replaces the La Salsa restaurant and two small shops.

Brother Gary Frey is also part of the new venture, overseeing construction.

The new restaurant is part of a larger renovation of the Egyptian- themed hotel-casino that has also seen two exhibits, "Bodies ... The Exhibition" and "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," move from the Tropicana to the Luxor.

Although Frey is busy opening one restaurant, he recently began building a new bar at The Mirage, called Rhumbar, which is scheduled to open around New Year's Eve.

Question: How did your first restaurant venture come to be at the Luxor?

Answer: I had lunch with (Luxor President) Felix Rappaport, and pitched the idea of a taco and tequila bar. He said, "It's a great idea. We can call it T&T." So Felix actually came up with the name. He said "If you get the space, I know you can do it but I would suggest you go out and get a big-name chef." At the time I didn't think I needed a big-name chef because it was more concept driven than chef-driven.

Question: Who did you get as the chef?

Answer: I hooked up with a guy named Richard Sandoval who's one of the top Latin-cuisine chefs in the world. He has probably 20 restaurants now stretching from San Francisco to Dubai. He has Isla (Mexican Kitchen) at Treasure Island, which is fine Mexican dining. I shared my vision of what I wanted to do. He liked the idea and agreed to be my consulting chef. That I had Tihany as a partner made us a pretty formidable team. I just kept going until MGM couldn't say no to Felix, and realized we were the right guys for the space.

Question: You seem to partner with a lot of good people. What do you bring to the partnerships?

Answer: I'm an idea man. Craig (Gilbert) is an operating man, and Gary (Frey) is the builder.

My goal is to create entertainment concepts for mass market and for the older demographic. I want to specialize in doing very accessible projects. I am giving them a really cool design at a really great price. Lunch will cost between $16 and $18 and dinner will run you about $26 to $30, which even in these economic times is very affordable.

Question: Are you concerned about opening a restaurant or owning a retail business during the economic slowdown?

Answer: I'm excited. We're in a hotel that has 4,400 rooms. And we're connected on both sides to 8,000 more rooms (between Mandalay Bay and Excalibur). They're putting attractions 20 feet from me. There's a lot of people in this town. There are people who want to come to Las Vegas, enjoy themselves and they'll pay for a good beer, good margarita, good tacos in a fun atmosphere. ... Anyone who likes a cold beer and tacos is my customer.

Question: Is this a joint venture with MGM Mirage, owners of the Luxor?

Answer: No. I went to them. There were a lot of people going for that space because it is a unique space. I just finished doing Casa Fuente, my cigar bar, in the Forum Shops (at Caesars).

It was doing great and I was looking for the next thing. I happened to be in a place in Los Angeles called El Carmen on Third Street. It's sort of a cool dive tequila bar. I said, "Damn, everyone likes Mexican food and tacos." I believe that a taco and tequila bar would be the next thing.

Question: How did you end up working in television on shows such as "Dallas" and "The Waltons"?

Answer: When I got out of school (at the University of Southern California studying film and history), I wanted to be a TV director. So I started working so I could get into the union. You needed 200 days to get into the Directors Guild. It was brutal work. A lot of 18-hour days fetching TV stars their breakfasts. I said, "enough is enough" and I got into production.

Question: What brought you back to Las Vegas from Hollywood?

Answer: I got tired of the movie business. I was in it for eight years. I lost my job due to a writers strike and an actors strike. Then I went to work as a production executive for a guy and we didn't get along so he fired me. I said, "That's it. I'm going to work for myself." I wanted to control my own destiny.

Question: How did you choose the cigar business?

Answer: At the time I was a cigar smoker. I thought if a cigar business would do well in any city it would be Las Vegas. That was at the height of the boom in the mid-'90s. So I started coming back here and got into the cigar business.

Question: Was it a bitter experience in Hollywood?

Answer: No, I had great days. I sat in a room for three hours with Al Pacino and Alan Parker, the director and Richard Bryce, a great writer, working on a remake of a French film. It was so intense sitting in a room with Michael Corleone. ... But those days were few. The rest was BS and a lot of ass kissing.


Age: 49

Occupation: Owner of T&T at Luxor, Casa Fuente at Forum Shops, Cigar Box retail store, ticket agency Great Seats West

Quotable: "My goal is to create entertainment concepts for mass market and for the older demographic. I want to specialize in doing very accessible projects."


Name: Michael Frey.

Position: Owner of T&T at Luxor, Casa Fuente at Forum Shops, Cigar Box retail store, ticket agency Great Seats West.

Family: Wife, Catherine Bloom.

Education: University of Southern California, bachelor of science in history.

Work history: Caesars Palace, lifeguard; production assistant, story editor, associate producer and vice president of development on various television shows including "Dallas,""Knots Landing" and "The Waltons"; Bob Woolf Associates, vice president of client relations; Entrepreneur.

Hobbies: 5 p.m. daily tequila shot; collecting photography; retail and hospitality projects.

Favorite book: "Shalimar the Clown," by Salman Rushdie.

Hometown: Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

T&T (Tacos & Tequila) is at 3900 Las Vegas Blvd. Southand can be reached at 262-5225.

Contact reporter Arnold M. Knightly at [email protected] or 702-477-3893.

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