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Dining

Catching up with food court mogul and ‘vetrepreneur’ Frank Bonanno

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Frank Bonanno (second from left) at the 2010 opening of Johnny Rockets hamburger restaurant at the Flamingo hotel and casino.

He’s no celebrity chef, but everybody eats at Frank Bonanno’s Las Vegas restaurants. He likes to say, “The only celebrity in our kitchens is the food.”

Bonanno’s company, Fifth Avenue Restaurant Group, operates an astounding 52 locations in Las Vegas, many of them situated in the company’s six food courts at MGM Grand, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, Flamingo, Palace Station and Bally’s. Bonanno also runs two restaurants breaking out of the fast-casual mold, Trattorio Reggiano at Venetian and Bonanno’s Pizzeria at Harmon Corner.

His restaurants may not be as well-known or buzzed about as the fine dining palaces in Strip casinos, but as Las Vegas' dining scene has changed through the years, Bonanno’s business has only thrived.

“Really, the first food court was at MGM Grand, and it came at the same time they were bringing in high-end restaurants from famous chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse,” Bonanno says, relaxing in a booth in one of his newest arrivals, Johnny Rockets at Excalibur. “The food court did well alongside the restaurants, and then Las Vegas got into a growth period where celebrity chef restaurants became hot. Everybody became a celebrity chef.

“Then we saw the downturn of 2007 and 2008 and the popularity of high-end restaurants started to wane. That’s when we decided if we elevated food courts to another level, we could make it a destination instead of just a quick place to get food. Now Las Vegas has evolved into a place where if guests come to town for two or three days, they’ll eat at a high-end restaurant one day and have the rest of their meals at places like our food courts.”

Bonanno has been a full-time Las Vegan for 11 years and has maintained a part-time home here for twice as long. When the city was in full growth mode in the early ‘90s, he began to establish his business and since then, he’s sold off his interests outside Vegas. “You couldn’t find a better environment to do business,” he says.

Bonanno served in the U.S. Army from 1966 to 1970 and credits his military service with paving the way for his business success. In 2012, the National Veteran-Owned Business Association named him Vetrepreneur of the Year. (In the previous year, his restaurants generated $60 million in revenue.)

His commitment to the military continues. May 17 is Armed Forces Day, and servicemen and women with military ID can receive 50 percent off at Bonanno’s local Johnny Rockets restaurants at Venetian, Fashion Show mall, Meadows Mall, Excalibur, Palace Station, Bally’s, Mandalay Bay and Flamingo. (The restaurants offer a permanent 25 percent discount to military personnel.)

Bonanno’s business—which includes franchises of nationally recognized brands Häagen-Dazs and Nathan’s Famous—is always changing and expanding. His company recently renovated the food courts at Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand, he’s redeveloping a restaurant at Venetian as San Gennaro Burger, and he’s set to install two Italian eateries at the upcoming Downtown Summerlin mall.

No matter the project, Bonanno is focused on constantly elevating the casual dining experience.

“We’ve been fortunate to be able to create our own brands and combine them with the national brands for a nice diversity at our different venues,” he says. “We introduced a Mexican restaurant called Tacos and Ritas, where everything is made fresh, and at San Gennaro Burger, we’re going to be grinding our own burgers from a blend of prime rib and chuck roast, and doing fresh cut fries, too. We definitely try to distinguish ourselves from what people think of fast-food operators, and give our guests options with a high level of service and quality.”

Tags: Business, Dining
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Brock Radke is Las Vegas Weekly's food editor and author of the Strip-focused column The Incidental Tourist. He has written ...

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