Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken started their Border Grill brand in Los Angeles nearly three decades ago. They became “Too Hot Tamales” in 1995 and both recently starred on Top Chef Masters—and they’re, without a doubt, two of the most popular and memorable chefs on the Las Vegas Strip.
After opening their Border Grill location at Mandalay Bay in 1999, Feniger and Milliken have made a name for themselves in Las Vegas with their signature weekend brunch and genuinely delicious food. The chefs sat down with VEGAS INC to discuss the business side of Border Grill and what’s next on the horizon for this impressive culinary dream team.
Tell us, what’s the fundamental difference about Border Grill Las Vegas and Los Angeles?
SF: When we first came here many people said staffing would be challenging. We’ve had the opposite experience. It’s way easier for us to hire here than in LA. There are more talented restaurant people in Vegas. We love being in Vegas. We’ve been dying to find another Border Grill location here.
MSM: Also a lot of people said: ‘Oh, you’ll never draw anybody local. You’ll only get tourists.’ That’s changed, especially during the past couple of years. We’ve got people coming in for weekend brunch—which is really popular with the locals—and tequila dinners. It took us a while to get up to speed. Having an outdoor area differentiates us from other restaurants.
Do you alter your marketing for locals?
MSM: Not really. Everybody, to us, is a repeat customer. I feel like we’ve really had a slam-dunk when Las Vegas customers say: ‘We come to Border Grill before we go to our hotel.’ They’ve had some sort of transformative experience here. We have to do that with every table.
How often are you two in the kitchen these days?
SF: A lot in terms of tasting, quality control and talking about recipes. One of the great things about this business is that we’re constantly learning.
If you had one meal left, what would you eat?
SF: It would definitely have artichokes and avocados and extra virgin olive oil. I’d probably have a marinated rib-eye with mustard. I would either have delicious red wine or vodka. Oh, and a hot fudge sundae.
MSM: I would go for a Japanese banquet. I’m obsessed with Japanese food.
Has Top Chef Masters impacted business?
MSM: It’s not like we’d never been on TV before. We had Cooking with Too Hot Tamales. We did more than 400 shows. Every time you’re on television, it adds a layer to your guests’ experience. I can’t tell you how many people just come up to me and hug me. (laughing) It’s a little weird.
SF: People feel like they know you from TV. They feel like they have a connection, and that’s a good thing.
Would you ever consider bringing the Border Grill trucks from Los Angeles to Las Vegas?
MSM: We haven’t figured out yet how to translate into the Vegas market. We’d want it to be busy every day. There aren’t many chefs of our caliber who’ve done a truck. I think, eventually, we will do it here.
SF: If we felt we could figure out the catering market here, we’d do it in a second.
Have you thought about doing any product lines?
MSM: For ten years with Whole Foods we did a grab-n-go line—burritos, tamales, salsas and salads.
SF: Of course. We think there’s a great opportunity for products in our business. But, as always, you’ve got to find the right partner.
What are the challenges of being female chefs?
SF: It has never been an issue for either one of us. We feel like we’re part of the boys club because we’ve been around them for so long.
Do you consider yourselves businesswomen?
MSM: You have to be in this industry.
SF: It’s such a great industry because it has so many different parts to it. There’s communicating with customers and being a teacher. We have 400 employees and we manage them. That’s why I think 30-plus years later, we still love what we do.