The Awful Awful: a horror story in real time By Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports August 2, 2020 at 7:03 pm Recently, the Reno Gazette-Journal posted a short video clip on Facebook that showed a long line of people waiting to get into the restaurant of the Little Nugget in downtown Reno. They all wanted one thing: an Awful Awful burger. The name is said to stem from the fact that it is awfully big – two patties topped with a plethora of vegetables and a secret sauce, the recipe for which is a closely guarded secret – and awfully good. Those waiting wanted one last Awful burger before the restaurant and the casino closed on July 31st. Owner Rich Heaney said the casino’s demise was the result of the pandemic and the cancellation of the summer’s special events. In a typical summer, those events filled the street outside the Nugget’s front door with potential customers. The Awful Awful from the Little Nugget in Reno The Nugget has thrived in downtown Reno for nearly 70 years. In that time, it has had several owners. Heaney bought it in 1989 from Jim Kelly. It was called Jim Kelley’s Nugget at the time. Kelley got it from Dick Graves. Originally, it was called the Reno Nugget, to match the Sparks and Carson Nuggets, also built by Graves. Graves came to Nevada in 1952 after Idaho outlawed his slot machine business. It’s likely he wanted to build a Nugget in every community in Nevada, but he ran out of steam before achieving his goal. That notwithstanding, Graves left two enduring marks on northern Nevada: the Nugget name, and the Awful Awful. With the loss last week of Heaney’s Nugget, the only place you can get an Awful Awful today is in Carson in the Carson Nugget. The ability to get an Awful Awful anywhere else is yet another of the many casualties of the pandemic. Covid-19 has not been kind to many iconic Reno food outlets; Harrah’s Steakhouse and the Santa Fe Basque Restaurant also closed recently. Granted, Harrah’s closing was not a direct result of the pandemic, but it fits the pattern: the downtown Reno core is not the vibrant and exciting tourist center it once was, and that lack of excitement led to the sale and closure of Harrah’s. The Nugget and Santa Fe might have survived if the state had not forced them – and all other non-essential businesses – to close. Both had a long-time, loyal customer base that could have seen them through. However, the heavy restrictions exhausted the owners, their cash reserves, and probably their patience. It is a typical and unfortunate small business story in the time of COVID-19. There have been numerous national stories about the difficulties faced by small businesses, especially restaurants, during the COVID-19 crisis. By some estimates, as many as half of the small businesses in New York and Chicago will fail because of the pandemic. Operating at 15, 25 or 50 percent of capacity while having to pay 100 percent of the rent, utilities, and other fixed expenses is beyond difficult, verging on impossible. Both the Little Nugget and the Santa Fe have suffered from the restrictions. The Little Nugget did not have much space, but when it was packed with customers it was profitable. Under current conditions, however, the Nugget could not entertain as many customers. And there are not as many tourists on the street of Reno to provide a stream of potential walk-in customers. The Santa Fe’s case is different. It operated on a “family-style” basis, with long tables filled with people; it did not offer individual tables or, indeed, individual menu items. Much like the smorgasbord restaurants in and around Amish country in Pennsylvania, everyone sat together at the Santa Fe and ate the same food. Half as many people, separated by six feet or more, does not have the same appeal, nor can it generate the same level of revenue. Rick Heaney was quoted as saying, “The venues [casinos] briefly reopened, only to see bars inside the casino close again. That has made it clear that the Little Nugget cannot survive through the winter months.” Casinos, both large and small, are seasonal enterprises, and every business owner in a seasonal industry understands Rick’s plight. There are generally three seasons: good, bad, and in between. Most years, the Nugget had good springs, mediocre summers, good autumns, and bad winters. Rick lost the good months of April and May, he opened in a so-so June, and by July, his bar was gone. The best he could have hoped for was an exceptional September and October to help him brace for the winter, and he knew that was not going to happen. It was not going to happen because the special events that help bolster the Nugget, and all downtown Reno business, have been canceled. Closing for four months, and then losing the special events, was more than the Nugget could withstand. That is the challenge of owning a small business. The margins are thin, the revenue seasonal, and the excess cash flow minimal. Anything that hits revenue while also driving up debt and expenses can tip the scales. This pandemic is the worst-case scenario, a small business owner’s nightmare, a tale of horror that could have been written by Stephen King.