For restaurateur, a little luck, pride and passion — and a lot of work — are a winning recipe

Rob Menefee bought his first restaurant at age 21 and, despite some early struggles, has no regrets.

Robert Menefee is vice president of operations at District Tavern Group, which owns and operates restaurants Whist Stove & Spirits, Due & Proper and Balboa Pizza Co. In his 13 years in Las Vegas, Menefee was part of a number of high-profile and successful restaurants on and off the Strip, and in 2012 he received a Hospitality Hero award from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

You became a business owner at a fairly young age. Tell us about that and how it shaped who you are today.

It started as the hallmark college story of bartending by night and going to school by day, but I decided to flip the script a little and bought a bar and restaurant. It seemed like a brilliant idea at the age of 21, right? I mean, what could go wrong?

Well a lot could, of course, but we decided to live the dream and I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it. The entire process of business ownership at such a young age instilled that same ownership mentality that I’ve carried with me every day since.

The fear of failure is a great motivator, and I still get nervous butterflies to this day on projects. Twenty years later, I’m not having to sleep in booths or mop the floors at the end of the night, but that time was special and warms my heart to think about. A little luck, sprinkled with pride and passion and a lot of hard work, has been the recipe for success.

What do you consider your greatest professional achievement?

I’ve been part of some spectacular teams that have rendered some amazing financial results. I always call them “white buffalo” financials because they’re only supposed to happen once in a lifetime. With the right teams, though, you should expect to see those results.

While involved with the Tavistock Restaurant Group, one of our Las Vegas restaurants earned a Forbes Four Star Rating. AquaKnox was the only restaurant in Las Vegas that wasn’t celebrity chef-driven or casino-owned to garner that prestigious rating. It was a testament to the hard work of everyone involved and truly a David vs. Goliath achievement.

How has the Las Vegas dining experience evolved in the past 10 years?

We’re still rooted in the same desire for a great dining experience; it doesn’t matter if it’s fine dining or fast casual. We have seen significant change in the world of instant gratification in the past 10 years, though. I see it with myself, and I see it with guests. We’re a growing culture of impatience and, in food and beverage, we want perfection at an ever-quicker pace.

Do you have a favorite restaurant under the District Tavern Group umbrella?

That’s like asking me who my favorite child is. All of our concepts are independent from one another and all attract a completely different demographic.

Whist Stove & Spirits boasts a really diverse menu highlighted by chef Shelly Urbina. She promotes about as close to a scratch kitchen as you can find. Our culinary staff stays busy making everything from our hamburger buns, pastas, slider rolls, flatbreads, pastries, desserts, soups and sauces in house.

Due & Proper really is a hidden gem. All of our venues are open 24/7 but I think I would be Cliff or Norm from “Cheers” if Due & Proper were closer to my house. I’m a really fat guy trapped in a slightly fat guy’s body, but you get the grilled peach and duck prosciutto flatbread in front of me, or the vertical carpaccio with any of our burgers or braised short rib, and I’m in heaven. The venue itself has charisma and you wouldn’t expect the elevated food and beverage options that Due delivers.

Finally, Balboa Pizza Co. has been around for more than 13 years. That’s amazing in the bar and restaurant world. I recently found out that Balboa was the first date destination of friends of mine many moons ago. I can only imagine after all these years of being such an institution in the area, how many happy marriages and happy children came from first dates at Balboa.

Describe your management style.

I’ve had to adjust my style situationally during my career. In general, a good manager gives clear direction and stays pretty hands-off, but is ready and available to jump in to offer guidance, expertise and help when needed.

Your industry can be grueling. How do you balance work and family time?

I’m lucky because they both get along well. I met my wife working in the hospitality industry, so she is amazingly understanding when duty calls. Conversely, I take great joy in trying to be a great husband and father, and my work understands and appreciates that as well.

What is the best business advice you’ve received?

Be brilliant at the basics.

If you could change one thing about Southern Nevada, what would it be?

Las Vegas is a strong community. Realize the power that we possess in coming together to benefit the greater good. Charities around the valley can always use support and a helping hand. So can our own families and coworkers. Donate time, money or just listen and offer a warm embrace.

What’s your favorite place to have fun in Las Vegas?

It used to be hiking at Red Rock Canyon until my last trip ended with a helicopter rescue and a foot that looked to be put on backward. My idea of fun now involves family, friends and food. It doesn’t matter if we’re out to eat at some of our favorites around town or cooking at home, spending time with the ones you love just warms the soul.