How can you resist a place called Terrible's Casino? It's only been open for three months, but I couldn't wait to hit the newest gambling joint in Vegas and find out what terrible things Terrible's has wrought.
I've been there five minutes and I'm already savoring the atmosphere: Convenience Store Moderne.
I'm not kidding. Terrible's— built from the bankrupt ruins of the old Continental Hotel on Paradise Road— is the first Vegas casino modeled after a convenience store. One entire wall of the gift shop has one of those self-serve refrigerators full of six-packs of beer. The sports book has convenient in-and-out parking for those basketball bets you need to place on the way to your kid's soccer game. More specifically, the casino is modeled after the service- station-cum-convenience-store that has become the staple of our gas-guzzling, Slurpy-sloshing lives. In the middle of the slots floor there stands a giant cartoon desperado with a handlebar mustache and a gas pump in his hands. Never before have petrochemical fumes been so glamorous.
There's a story here, of course. Terrible's was built by the Herbst family, of Herbst Oil fame. They're not all that well known outside Nevada but in Vegas they represent business royalty. When they applied for their new gaming license two years ago, members of the Gaming Commission had to fight over who would be allowed to praise them the most. "I guess that was because we always do what we say we're going to do," explained Ed Herbst, laughing, when I marveled at how much the commission loved him.
Las Vegas' newest casino is not much to look at, but then how much do you expect from a joint named Terrible's? Ed is the chairman of E-T-T Gaming, which owns the casino, and the namesake of the original Ed Herbst, his grandfather and the patriarch of the family, who is no longer with us. The first Ed Herbst was a legendary enterpreneur who invented the "service station," as opposed to the mere gas station. He bought his first station in Chicago in 1937 and within a few years had become the P.T. Barnum of gasoline, hiring cute girls to pump gas on roller skates, giving away free bubble gum to every customer, setting up pony rides for the children behind the station, and presenting free orchids to the ladies. Herbst was one of the earliest in the business to understand that a gas station doesn't sell gas— it sells all the other things you buy while you're getting your gas. "And that's still true today," says grandson Ed. "We were always proud of having the lowest gas prices— we advertise it and guarantee it— because people are strange. They'll choose one station over another to save ten cents on a fill-up, then they'll go inside and buy ten dollars worth of candy, cigarettes and beer."
Grandfather Herbst was a ruthless price-slasher, using the slogan "A whale of a buy!" And after he moved west with his family in the forties, he built a chain of stations in Nevada and other western states that caused his competitors to fear, if not hate, him.
By the time Herbst applied for an operating permit in Cheyenne, Wyo., in the late forties, his reputation had preceded him. One of the town board members was in the gas-station business himself, and he said, "That terrible son of a bitch Herbst is going to run us all out of business!"
The Terrible Herbst chain was born.
During the oil crisis of the seventies, Ed's son Jerry was running the company, and he decided to sell all of the Terrible Herbst stations except the ones in Nevada. But by the eighties, Jerry's sons Ed, Tim and Troy were graduating from college and coming into the family business. And since they grew up in Vegas with the sons and daughters of casino owners— they were especially close to the family of the legendary downtown operator Jackie Gaughan— they wanted the family to get into gambling.
"I wanted to put slot machines in the gas stations," said Ed, "but Dad didn't trust it. Dad was always leery of gaming because he was afraid there would be loitering in our stores. But he was converted to gaming once he saw that you can control it— and there was no loitering."
Not only did the Herbsts eventually put video poker in all their gas stations, lube shops and car washes, but they started running video-poker machines for other gas stations, delis, and even laundromats. Just as dairies run milk routes, in Nevada you can get licensed for something called a "gaming route." Whenever you see a few free-standing slot machines in a tavern, or convenience store, or motel lobby, they're more than likely owned by a large company that services them and shares the profit with the local establishment. The Herbsts got into that business in 1985 and grew steadily but slowly until, in 1994, they became one of the biggest gambling operators in the state— without a casino!
"In 1994 we got the contract for Vons supermarkets," says Ed. "At the time it was only 250 machines, but it made the business. Today we manage 6500 machines in businesses. Then we have 260 at restricted locations in the state. We have 750 in the casino itself. So we operate almost 8000 machines. That's the size of three or four pretty good-sized casinos."
Terrible's Casino is not much to look at. "It's Tuscan decor," says Ed, but I search in vain for any sign of Italianate architecture. There are a lot of fake brick columns with Corinthian mini-columns. The carpet is red and black, a la Grandma's house. There are fake roses everywhere. The waitresses wear black stockings and black bustiers that are vaguely Victorian. The red slot-machine chairs look like something you'd find at a sixties bar. One wall features huge photographs of Terrible Herbst gas stations throughout history. And the only entertainment is part of a tiny bar where, on the night I visited, there was an incomprehensible lounge act called Bonnie Graham and Monterrey, featuring a female singer with spiked white hair in a black sequined pants suit.
"Entertainment is not real important to us," says Ed sheepishly. "The Nevada resort law says you can't use the word 'resort' in your name unless you have a certain number of hotel rooms, a swimming pool, 24-hour food service— a lot of different things— and one of them is that you have to have live entertainment six nights a week. So we have it. Exactly six nights a week."
The big draw at Terrible's is the buffet, with offers a $1.99 breakfast during the "graveyard" hours, and a $7.99 dinner that includes a 10-ounce steak and a beer. "You have to just give the food away," says Ed. "If our buffet is 50 cents cheaper than the casinos out on the Boulder Highway, then that will make a difference in how many people come here. A big difference."
Although 120,000 cars a day pass by Terrible's on Paradise Road, most of them are bound for the nearby mega-resorts on the Strip. Terrible's is a hangout for locals— blackjack dealers getting off work, cocktail waitresses who want a low-key respite from the bustle of the Bellagio. Terrible's is just a block or so from the Hard Rock Casino, one of the trendiest places in town, but there's virtually no crossover business. It's a blue-collar common-man's joint, with a 220-seat bingo hall, something you won't find on the Strip at all. And 90 per cent of its business is video poker.
When they opened in December, the Herbsts weren't total neophytes. They had previously opened three much smaller sawdust joints— two casinos in Pahrump, Nev., which is one county to the west, and a casino-with-bowling-alley in suburban Henderson. But the Terrible's on Paradise Road— the first casino many people see when they drive into town from the airport— is their showplace. And after three months it's running at 97 per cent occupancy, thanks to extremely low room rates ($29 weekdays, $59 weekends) and the fact that Las Vegas now has so many large conventions that the Strip hotels can't accommodate them all.
Are the out-of-towners, I wondered, ever puzzled by the gas- station theme.
"Well, we had to make it a little more upscale than our casinos in Pahrump. It's warm Tuscan."
I look at him skeptically. "Well, Terrible's is a theme. Terrible is the best bad guy in the west."
He's referring, of course, to the tall cartoon cowboy with the handlebar mustache.
"We're selling convenience," says Ed. "It's like our gas stations and car washes. I'm all about convenience."
You've heard of the convenience store?
It's the first Convenience Casino.
TERRIBLE'S CASINO Paradise Road at Flamingo, Las Vegas Theme: Mini-Mart Chic
Opened: 2000 (The Continental Hotel and Casino opened in the
same building in 1980.)
Known For: No frills, cheap buffets, great video poker pay tables.
Marketing niche: Locals, tourists who can't find a place on the Strip.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Rapido
Surrounding area: In the heart of Restaurant Row, where locals go to eat at trendy chains like Morton's, PF Chang's and Cozymels.
Overall rating: 70
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down twenty bucks after a pathetic
video-poker session: total to date: -$436