Even 99-cent cocktails cost more

Times Staff Writer

There are signs throughout the neon city that the Vegas economy has lost some of its shimmer. Casinos have laid off hundreds of workers. Hotels are slashing room rates. Foreclosure signs mar suburban streets.

And now, the 99-cent shrimp cocktail has broken the dollar mark.

The price of the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino’s signature dish recently rose to $1.99, the victim of the escalating price of bay shrimp. The increase was the first in 17 years, and was viewed locally as an ominous indicator. People railed against the change on Internet message boards.


“Gas at $4 a gallon is one thing, but this is just too damn much,” one posting says.

Though Las Vegas brags about its high-end suites and shops, midlevel casinos dominate gambling off the Strip. They bait mainly locals and penny-pinchers with $6.95 steaks and $9.99 prime rib. Financially, that’s getting tougher.

Station Casinos Inc., which runs 17 off-Strip casinos and taverns, has trimmed other expenses to cope with 18% to 30% jumps in rice, flour, corn and vegetable-oil-based products such as salad dressing.

Boyd Gaming Corp. yanked specials at some of its nine Vegas properties, including the $10.95 Texas T-bone at Gold Coast Casino. Managers refused to bump up the price: “It would have no longer been a special,” said company spokesman Rob Stillwell.

In that context, it’s surprising that the 102-year-old Golden Gate shelved the shrimp cocktails’ 99-cent price tag. The dish was the casino’s brainchild in 1959, and it serves a ton of cold-water shrimp each week in tulip sundae glasses, slathered in secret-recipe cocktail sauce. It has outlasted most of the city’s 99-cent breakfasts, the cut-rate buffets and the Rat Pack-era casinos that touted them.

“It’s this Vegas-style dinosaur that has lived on in the new Vegas,” says Anthony Curtis, president of the Las Vegas Advisor website, which lists the cocktail as the city’s top value.


Golden Gate co-owner Mark Brandenburg’s stepfather, Italo Ghelfi, swiped the idea from his former home of San Francisco. He initially sold Fisherman’s Wharf-style shrimp for 50 cents at the Golden Gate, where Brandenburg’s mother was a cocktail waitress.

In 1990, Brandenburg got into the business in downtown’s Glitter Gulch, a string of old-school casinos. He combed the books and discovered that the casino lost about $300,000 a year on shrimp cocktail. Customers would buy dozens, take home the leftovers and serve them at parties.

In 1999, he raised the price to 99 cents.

The special -- to the casino’s relief -- was still name-dropped in numerous publications. “A buck doesn’t buy what it used to, but it still buys a fine glass of shrimp in a town where everything else changes,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote in 2006, crowning the cocktail the best in town.

If anything, the recent price hike was a more wrenching decision. Brandenburg had put it off for years. “There was this mystique surrounding our shrimp cocktail,” he says. “I didn’t know if bumping up the price to triple digits would lessen that mystique.”

The casino serves a cold-water shrimp harvested near Oregon, Washington, Alaska and the upper East Coast. Brandenburg considers it whiter and meatier than other varieties.

Since 2007, its price has jumped by as much as 20%, partly because keeping boats’ gas tanks full has gotten more expensive, says Joseph Sabbagh, a seafood industry consultant at Sax Maritime Associates in Calabasas.

Though Golden Gate has “mega-resort leverage” in negotiating shrimp prices, Brandenburg says, the recent cost surge “was the last straw.” At the same time, the hotel was spending big on remodeling its 106 rooms.

He bade goodbye to the 99-cent special, and ordered bigger shrimp to soothe patrons. Staffers in name tags and aprons doled out extra sauce. (Players’ club members pay the old price, and applications for membership have shot up 40%.)

On a recent afternoon, customers crowded the cafeteria-style shrimp bar. Signs warned patrons not to smoke in line and reminded them that they were buying the “Best Tail in Town.”

Priscilla Montelongo and her husband, Fred, were digging into shrimp doused in Tabasco sauce with lemon and crackers. For years, they’ve chatted over four shrimp cocktails and beer nearly every week. Montelongo, 64, shrugged at her costlier cocktail and stabbed another forkful of shrimp.

“I guess with everything else going up, this would, too,” she says. “What’s a dollar now? It’s like an extra dollar -- compared to a $4 loaf of bread -- is pretty good.”