When Yonkers Raceway fell on hard times, the Rooney family came up with the idea to add a casino, as it had been doing in Pittsburgh and other places. In the beginning, the family didn’t focus too much on food and beverage, knowing that most of the people coming to the Empire City Casino were there just for the gaming. But over time, the enterprise realized it had to step it up a bit, growing from a food court to dinners becoming an actual part of the experience people came for. This year the casino hooked up with famed chef Alain Ducasse, whose Ducasse Studios is now consulting on the casino’s new restaurant, Pinch, the first restaurant to come out of Ducasse’s new restaurant business. Tim Rooney comments on the history of his family’s venture.
How did this all come about?
It actually goes all the way back to my great-grandfather, who was a professional horse player – a very successful horse player! That’s how he supported himself and the Pittsburgh Steelers, when he bought them in 1933. We had involvement in the managing of a track or two in Ohio, in the Philadelphia area, including the Pontage Town Club, which the family still owns and which we purchased the year before we purchased Yonkers. And that’s how we got into the harness business. But, as you know, the racing business has been in decline for some time and we needed another way to make money. Enter the casino. That kept us busy for a while. But then we began to think about how we could expand.
How did the restaurant idea with Ducasse Studios evolve?
When we opened the Empire City Casino in 2006, we were mostly getting “locals,” you know, people who come in the morning and go home for lunch or come in the afternoon and go home for dinner. So we didn't want to build out the restaurants to a full extent at that point. Then we started thinking about adding amenities to make people stay longer and the restaurant idea just blossomed. We thought, why not engage a respected chef to create a four-star restaurant that would bring new customers to the casino. Ducasse Studios has over 50 restaurants worldwide, and Alain is one of the most highly decorated chefs as measured by Michelin stars awarded. So he obviously brings a whole skill set that we couldn't even imagine being able to bring here.
But how were you able to meld your family’s business background with gourmet dining?
We wanted to change our image from a racetrack you went to in Yonkers to a place with four-star dining – a place that attracted Westchester, Fairfield County. We knew we were competing with Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun and we thought if we added a great dining experience to our casino experience, we might open ourselves up to a whole new population.
But obviously the majority of profit you create is the ability to keep people at tables and keep them gambling.
Is the object to have people to take a certain amount of time to eat? Are you looking to get them off the floor to eat, and then to still be coming back?
Yes. We wanted to create beautiful unique spaces that would provide a level of service that would make it an attraction to all kinds of customers so that you pull customers in who weren't necessarily coming just to the casino but try to create new customers on the casino floor by bringing them into the restaurants. We thought a nice meal would add to the amenities.
What kind of restaurant did you start out with?
The Irish pub was an easy choice. We created a beautiful, traditional-looking Irish pub with a sports bar. And the facade we wanted was loosely based upon my great-grandfather's bar in Pittsburgh, since it carried his name.
What kind of restaurant are you working with Ducasse Studios on?
We wanted to give Manhattanites a real reason to come to the suburbs. You know they don’t always want to! So we worked with the firm of Roman and Williams, interior designers of the Ace and Standard hotels in New York City, and Richard H. Lewis Architect project architects for Balthazar and Minetta Tavern in New York. The interior design is nostalgic and was inspired by 1950s classic vintage diners and the 1955 Bisiluro Damolnar Le Mans racecar. The “diner-like” convivial 245-seat, premium casual restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily.
We have a floating, glass-enclosed keg room suspended over the open kitchen overlooking the raw bar and pastry counter, a 15-foot powder coat red tap wall with 100 beer faucets at the main bar and six booths equipped with one-of-a-kind custom designed and fabricated self-pour tableside tap dispensing systems which allow guests to serve themselves.
How are customers liking it?
So far we’re doing great! One of our favorite parts is our dessert menu, which is put together by executive pastry chef Tamber Weiersheuser, formerly of Alain Ducasse’s Mix in Las Vegas at The hotel at Mandalay Bay, and it features contemporary interpretations of American classics. The menu will evolve throughout the seasons but will continuously include signatures like S’mores, Raspberry Sundae, Apple Tart Tatin served with crème fraîche, and Warm Chocolate Cake topped with pistachio ice cream.
In addition, overseen by a certified cicerone, Pinch boasts a significant beer program with 100 New York beers on tap, 25 large format beers including limited releases (available seasonally and in small batches) including beers exclusively brewed for Pinch. Other beer offerings include “pour your own” beer taps fixed to a handful of tables and a “growler shop” near the entrance which allows guests to take home a daily selection of eight featured beers on tap. We also have a selective, dynamic 80-bottle wine list curated by the beverage director of DS that is comprised mostly of American wines from New York and California (75%), as well as France. How could anyone not love it?
So you're not in the harness business anymore.
Not true. Current legislation requires us to keep harness racing to keep our casino business going. So we're not anticipating any changes there. We've got it; it's a big piece of property, over 97 acres. So we don't need the 12 acres in the middle of it with the racetrack on it for anything else at this point. It's not preventing us from doing anything on the property that we wanted to do. It’s adding to everything we do! You have to carve out an edge to keep the customer coming back. If you provide people with good customer experiences and good customer service, the types of amenities they like – in this case, of course, food and beverage — then it's a winning recipe.