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Nico Santucci - Life By His Rules

Nico Santucci - Life By His Rules
by Eddie Rivkin
 
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Over the years, many a man has come to Las Vegas with entrepreneurial dreams: the grand plan of doing things their own way, living their dreams, and becoming impossibly rich and famous. Of those men, 99% have been chewed up, spit out, and sent packing with no money and their tails tucked between their legs, humbled by my great city. It takes enormous drive, an indefatigable spirit, and a shit ton of testicular fortitude to make it here. And if you happen to have a big personality to go with it, let’s say you have “chance.”

I have known Nico Santucci personally for nearly five years and have done business with him on a couple of occasions. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he has everything it takes to succeed here – or wherever he plants his flag. Don’t believe me? I sat down with Nico and talked about what he has done in Vegas and what he has planned for the future. When you’re done reading, I think you will agree. Enjoy!

STRIPLV: Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from and when did you get to Vegas? NICO: I grew up in Chicago with a gangster father who was a real prick, but I wouldn’t change it or anything about my growing up for the world. I had been going back and forth for a few years and finally went “all in” on Vegas – I think in 1999. STRIPLV: What did you do when you first got here?
NICO: I bought the infamous Penthouse in Regency Tower. That was what really got me here full-time. I came out to open a modeling agency called M Models. I bought the agency pretty quickly, and within a couple of years, grew it to five times the revenue. We did casting, shows – everything in town. I don’t like to talk too much about it, because lots of guys open so-called modeling agencies to just try to fuck models. M Models was totally legit, with hundreds of models. The girls were all legit models, not hookers. I never got laid once. Okay, that might not be exactly correct. But the agency was one of the bigger in town, and for the three-plus years I had it, it was very successful.
STRIPLV: So at this point it was 2002. What happened after you sold the agency.
NICO: 2002 was when I started in the nightclub industry, opening Venus and C2K at the Venetian. I started full-time in nightclubs way before the big conglomerates started to take over Vegas. When I got in, it was just us and (I think) Studio 54 at MGM. There were just three of us independent guys: myself, Gino LoPinto and Tony Verdugo. We were the guys who rolled up our sleeves and got after things. Then I was the owner and editor in chief of Dusk Magazine. It was the coolest magazine I think, ever, that has been in Vegas. As part of the magazine, I published a “Street Drug Analysis” section.
STRIPLV: Oh, you have to tell me what that was about!
NICO: It was the PDR (Physicians’ Desk Reference) for street drugs. It was basically a pamphlet, so if you were out in a club or out on the streets, you could look up exactly what you were getting ready to take. At that time there was a plethora of acid and ecstasy on the street. There was a lot of really bad drugs out there, and the guide tried to help the kids who were going take the shit anyway, so they could check if it was good quality or bunk dope.
STRIPLV: When you opened C2K, did you have to negotiate the lease with Sheldon Adelson?
NICO: No, I don’t think so. We negotiated directly with the owner of the space and the landlord might have been the H & H Group – they owned the mall. It wasn’t Sheldon Adelson’s at that point. Thankfully, after seeing how he was to Jay Z with the 40/40 Club and recently, The Act, I am glad I didn’t have to do business directly with him.
STRIPLV: So you operated the club and built it all the way up to a huge success? If I recall correctly, it all came crumbling down when someone OD’d there? Were you there when that happened?  
 

NICO: Yes, it did. There was nothing anybody could do about that. Drugs were rampant in the club scene and, more often than not, the kids had no idea what they were taking or how potent it was. There wasn’t anything we could do to save it. Adelson told H & H that he was going to litigate, and H & H basically said it was going to be VERY expensive and we wouldn’t win. And that was pretty much that.STRIPLV: How did you get into the restaurant business? NICO: After the debacle at C2K, I needed something else to do – a new direction. So I got Café Moda on Desert Inn and Jones. It’s an Ultra Lounge and Asian Fusion restaurant – still going strong after 12+ years, which is pretty unheard of for Vegas. Based on the success of Moda, I wanted to pay homage to the Italian joints I grew up eating at in Chicago. I opened the original Capo’s in what was basically an abandoned beat-up old building. I went in and did what I do. I had no idea if anybody was even going to show up. I opened it with really no fanfare at all. I pretty much just unlocked the doors. STRIPLV: What was the interior of the original like, compared to the current Capo’s?
NICO: Pretty similar. Big oversized, red velvet booths, dark curtains, soft lighting. It was very dark and very, very sexy. For the first three weeks I sat there, alone, in the dining room, thinking: ‘What the fuck have I done?’ NO ONE CAME, absolutely no one. Then slowly it grew. It took about a year until we were full every single night. We absolutely maxed out the 80-seat space we had, and with no room to expand, I bought the old Hooters store on West Sahara in 2006. I had to tear everything out of there! There was so much light and bright shit and pine wood. I gutted the entire inside and replaced it with lots of dark wood, black granite, and dark reds to turn it into the ultra-sexy joint it is today.
STRIPLV: Best move so far?
NICO: For sure! I ran the numbers recently, and I think we have served over 500,000 customers at Capo’s. I’d bet we’ve served at least 1,000,000 meatballs… probably way more than that.
STRIPLV: You were in lots of different industries in a fairly short time here in Vegas. What were you ultimately looking to end up doing?
NICO: I wanted a longer shelf life. I didn’t like that the clubs were only around 12 or 14 months before they became old and stale. The attention span in Vegas was never more than 18 months. I hated the fact that you had to lock the doors that quickly and completely reinvent yourself every year and a half. I wanted to do something that was going to be a legacy – something that had my name on it, and that, for me, is Capo’s.
STRIPLV: With the restaurant going full speed ahead, you decided to jump back into the nightclub game with Black Door, the venue that put you and me together professionally for the first time. Why?
NICO: My landlord at Capo’s had a failing spot in a very challenged area of Las Vegas that he basically offered me for less than a song and a dance to try to turn it around. It had failed with at least 10 operators that I knew about. So I took a look at the spot, saw a little potential, came up with a concept, and boom – the Black Door was born. After a little swinging of the hammer and some extensive design work, we created one of the coolest rock ‘n roll bars in the history of Las Vegas. The Black Door was so hip from Day One, that for the Grand Opening, we had Imagine Dragons. The fact that I had Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction / Red Hot Chili Peppers) as a partner, and was poised to have Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains) and Scott Ian (Anthrax) as partners, brought a lot of star power and cash value to a little dump of a place in the gay bar district of Las Vegas. The Black Door defied gravity. We did things there that no one ever had the balls to try, and we succeeded. We succeeded in an environment where everyone hated me, everyone hated you, and everyone hated us. We made money in a pit of hatred, because we shared and executed the vision from Day One. And listen, if no one hates you, you are irrelevant.
STRIPLV: What’s going on with Parisian Palace (your house and ultimate private party mansion)?
NICO: Now that I am living full-time in Beverly Hills, the Palace in Vegas is doing better business than it ever did. It’s 14,500 square feet, with an indoor/outdoor pool, bowling alley, nightclub, and everything else you could ever want. We have a local operator running it and it’s being booked for everything from weddings to XXX movie shoots and anything else you can imagine. All people need to do is go to BlackDoorGlobal.com to see the Parisian Palace in all its glory. Basically what we did at the Black Door has basically become what is happening at the Parisian Palace.
STRIPLV: Now that your base of operations is in Beverly Hills, what are you doing out there?
NICO: I have been spending most of my time renovating high-end estates, like Chateau Chanel, Lookout Mansion, and a couple others. I am also doing a lot of TV projects right now with Food Network, HDNet, A&E and the Travel Channel.
STRIPLV: Anything cooking in Vegas? You appear to be laying low, but I know that when you aren’t in the light, you are working on big things.
NICO: (laughing) You’re right. I can’t talk about most of them right now, but I can tell you that I am working with Tilman Fertitta on the SHe space in the Crystals Mall at CityCenter. It used to be Beso, Eva Longoria’s place. As for the other stuff, I’d love to bring the Black Door back, in the right space, and bring your CUI: Comics Under the Influence show back.
STRIPLV: You’ve been a car guy for as long as I’ve known you. What’s in the garages these days?
NICO: Pretty much the usual stuff. Still have the Aston Martin, the Phantom, the Mercedes SL 63, and the McLaren GT1. I also have a Mercedes Sprinter van that is our private party bus.
STRIPLV: Any plans to open a restaurant in L.A. or Beverly Hills?
NICO: I’ve got my eyes on a couple locations, but nothing really front burner. It’s really hard here, maybe harder than opening one in Vegas.
STRIPLV: What about a nightclub: Black Door – Beverly Hills?
NICO: Well, here in L.A., there is SBE Entertainment, and they are doing the ego buy thing, taking up every single good location that comes available. When you really don’t have to worry too much about the bottom line, it’s easy to open a bunch of your own joints to go and have a cocktail.
STRIPLV: SBE is Sam Nazarian, the same people opening SLS in Vegas this fall. Do you think bringing the “L.A. cool and hip” will be successful on the Las Vegas Strip?
NICO: Yes, it’s Sam Nazarian and his family, with a bunch of foreign investors – but that’s a story for a different time and not to be told by me. And yes, I think SLS has a chance to be successful. Look at the Cosmopolitan. It proves that Las Vegas has a place for a trendy, swanky, boutique-y vibe. It hit it out of the park. Not on their bottom line for sure, well, maybe not yet, but certainly they are doing things there differently than any other hotel in Vegas. It has a big allure factor. Everyone I know from L.A. stays at the Cosmopolitan when they come to Vegas.
STRIPLV: Given the challenge of location, the Stratosphere to the North, and the gaping chasm of nothing before you get to Encore – does he have a fighting chance to make it?
NICO: Sure he has a fighting chance. It’s not going to be easy, certainly. But a lot of L.A. knows him. I’m sure he is going to (with his team) create the vibe they like. And when all the celebrity sightings in Vegas are at SLS, all the tourists are going to want to go there. I think it’s going to set a standard for hospitality in Vegas. The SLS is going to be nicer than the Cosmopolitan, and make places like Bellagio and Mandalay Bay look really outdated. SLS might be like Aria on steroids. It’s going to definitely raise the cool factor in Vegas.
STRIPLV: Do you think there is any room for an independent operator like you on the Strip for either a restaurant or a nightclub?
NICO: I think there are a couple local operators that may have a chance. Take Hash House A Go Go. They are making some traction with their unique style of food. But really, honestly, it’s going to be very, very difficult for any independent, myself included, to get a real foothold on the Strip. I have had meetings for years about putting Capo’s on the Strip. They want it, and are afraid it can’t stand up to the big TV chefs. On the other hand, they look at my numbers and see I am busier than a bunch of celebrity restaurants in their casinos. So can it be done? Certainly, if you have a bulletproof concept, and even then, it’s going to be a huge undertaking. I get asked all the time to open other locations in Vegas, but that doesn’t do me any real good. I am looking for vertical growth, and the only way that can happen is to be in one of the big joints on the Strip.
STRIPLV: What about the entertainment/nightclub side?
NICO: The reason that is so difficult is because the costs and budgets of these monster corporate-owned and operated clubs are astronomical. I think, to have any chance as an independent operator like myself on the Strip, you would have to have a property be willing to partner in a significant financial and support way. Other than that, these corporations have so much cash to throw at a casino, they can’t say no.
STRIPLV: Okay, last question: Where is Nico Santucci in five years?
NICO: I think Nico in five years… Wow, that’s a tough question that I don’t really have a clean answer for. Right now the TV thing is running white-hot and I hope to really keep that going and growing. My sneaking suspicion is that the TV will really help the growth of my existing brands like Capo’s Foods and the other things under the umbrella of Black Door Global. I hope it will help Capo’s the restaurant to also continue to grow and expand. I really think the brands I have created are timeless. And with TV, they should continue to thrive and grow. I’d like to see myself in or on some sort of a national stage with my businesses.
STRIPLV: Are you married?
NICO: No, (laughing) no way. Right now I am married to my career and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I am focused and driven on staying successful and being more successful every day.

Check out Nico’s various businesses at BlackDoorGlobal.com and be sure to try the best meatballs in Vegas at: Capo’s 5675 W. Sahara Las Vegas NV 89146.
For reservations call: 702-364-2276.

Want to keep up with my shenanigans in Sin City?
Follow me on Twitter and Tumblr at StripLV_Eddie  

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