Tom Ryan has worked for some of the most recognizable restaurant brands in the industry—Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s, McDonald’s, Quiznos—and is credited with creating some of their most popular items, stuff like the McGriddle and Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust pizzas. Today, Ryan is managing partner and chief concept officer of Consumer Concept Group. He has created Smashburger, one of the fastest growing burger chains in the country, as well as casual restaurants Live Basil Pizza and Tom’s Urban, the latter of which just opened a Las Vegas Strip location at New York-New York.
You were here to open Tom’s Urban right on the Strip, right at New Year’s Eve. How crazy was that? It was great. It was sort of a baptism by fire, but the truth of the matter is all the walkways were open and the weather was so cool that it was a bit of a muted New Year’s, which was okay for us because we were still shaking the dust off. All good. My wife came to meet me for drinks and a nosh and we watched the fireworks.
You also just opened the first Smashburger on the Strip, in the Forum Food Court at Caesars Palace. Did the growth and popularity of Smashburger in Las Vegas pave the way for Tom’s Urban? Not really. [New York-New York president and COO] Cynthia Kiser Murphey and her team were in Denver looking for a one-of-a-kind, non-formulaic concept for what they are doing at New York-New York, and they saw Tom’s has a different point of view. I’m not even sure if they knew we were Smashburger, too. MGM and New York-New York have been great partners, just fabulous to work with, and they gave us great insight about how to operate in this market.
Tom’s Urban is a familiar experience and yet the menu and the vibe offer quite a few surprises. How do you describe it? It’s hard to articulate what our menu offers because it is so broad. But if you’re in Vegas on the Strip, we want to be the first, next, or last part of your day or night, and it really doesn’t matter which.
This is a restaurant with a really cool vibe for breakfast, lunch, dinner or late-night, where the people are fun and engaging and the food is multi-ethnic and traditional in big and small plate formats. There is something for everyone. We love bars and we love alcohol and so there are three bars here, and some of our custom cocktails were created just for Vegas. It’s a big space, over 18,000 square feet, but it’s broken up into these different spaces like our great indoor-outdoor patio bar. When we found out the arena was going in [at the adjacent MGM Park project], we over-invested in electronics and doubled the number of TVs in here.
I’m already obsessed with the sandwich section of the menu. There are things from all over the country: a lobster roll, a Havana-Cuban carnitas thing, the Almost Chicago Dog, really fun stuff. My favorite, which we did just for Vegas, has a 12-ounce portion of shaved prime rib, kept rare and then grilled, stacked on a roll with havarti cheese. It’s a Philly cheesesteak version of a French dip, but instead of scrambling the meat on the grill, we kept it rare, and it’s just really tender prime rib. We wanted to offer a great prime rib experience but in a casual sandwich that doesn’t require fork and knife. It’s elegant in your mouth but casual in your head.
How much of the menu was custom-made for the Las Vegas restaurant? About a third of these items are only served in Vegas. We wanted to use a bit of the New York-New York theme, so we do a beautiful 16-ounce strip steak and a real New York cheesecake. Everything is big in Vegas, so we do the Big Ass Egg Roll, and a double-patty burger, just big stuff because people are looking for it. But it’s also a melting pot here, so we can do stuff like low country shrimp and grits, and steamed buns, which we don’t have anyplace else.
There are several restaurants with somewhat familiar food and a fun environment right on Las Vegas Boulevard, but you created this concept years ago and it just happens to fit nicely right here, right now. I think what you see on the Strip in Las Vegas is a reflection of a bigger trend taking hold, that we are very quickly adopting a much more European ethic around our food. Food is cool. It’s a bigger part of our life, and having everyday situations where you can have a great food experience with things that are not polarizing is what it’s all about. I think we are on the front end of a big wave. People are looking for something highly differentiated, great food but also looking for a story. Where did it come from? Tell me what makes it special. Every dish on our menu, we took it through the ringer and decided we need to be able to tell a story behind it.