Priya Malhotra smoothed the creases from the red-and-white-checkered tablecloth in front of her pizzeria and placed a vase of fresh flowers in the center. It was midmorning on an October weekday and Malhotra knew she would likely have a slow workday. That was becoming the norm during her first off-season as a Ventnor business owner. But that didn’t affect her outlook.

After a decade working in the Atlantic City casino industry, doing a job she didn’t like for meager pay, long hours and often through tears, Malhotra, of Galloway Township, said she is happy to have opened her own business, Viggo’s Pizzeria in Ventnor Heights.

Working conditions in the casino industry have led others to follow the same path.

Before opening Viggo’s in July, Malhotra worked as a card dealer at The Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino, formerly the Trump Marina Hotel Casino, for more then a decade.

“Everyone told me, ‘What the hell are you doing? You have three kids. You’re putting all that you have in this place, and if this place doesn’t work, you’re going to be pushed 10 years back again,’” she said. “But I didn’t see that negativity. My inside voice said if you really want to make the change, this is your chance and I took it like that.”

Like countless others, Malhotra has experienced the firsthand effects of the Atlantic City casino industry’s seven-year revenue slump caused by a variety of things, including a downturn in the economy, deregulation and competition from rival casinos in surrounding states, particularly Pennsylvania.

Atlantic City casino employment has gone from about 45,000 workers in 2005 to just less than 35,000 this year, according to the most recent figures compiled by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.

“Five years back it wasn’t that bad,” she said. “But now the check has become half and the bills are more. That’s why (casino workers) look for second and third jobs. That’s why we move from casino to casino. I did that for 10 years and I’m still struggling, but at least I’m working for myself.”

Somers Point resident Linda Rivera worked at the Claridge Casino Hotel and Bally’s Atlantic City from 1981 to 2010, when she was laid off. She echoed the same feeling.

“The casinos used to be a great job,” said Rivera, who recently drained her 401(k) savings to start her own business, Slender Vendor, a line of healthy vending machines she operates in Atlantic and Cape May counties. “We voted the casinos in for the jobs and now look.”

 Pleasantville resident Mawon Barclay followed a similar path as the others, opening Poteau African Village Restaurant in Atlantic City in 2011 after working in the casino industry for seven years. She said she also felt the decline of the industry.

Barclay worked part time as a cashier at Caesars Hotel & Casino and Resorts Casino Hotel from 2004 to 2007, and at Caesars and Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort from 2007 to 2011.

“When I was first in the casino, it was great, but when they did a lot of changes — started laying off employees, brought in the machines to do everything instead of having a lot of cashiers, and with the competition from so many other casinos — it turned bad,” Barclay said. “I told my husband, ‘There are eight African hair braiding salons in Atlantic City, but no African restaurants. Maybe I can do it. My thought was if I do open an African restaurant, I’m going to make a lot of money.”

But that wasn’t the case.

“I opened it up and the first three or four months, I had no customers,” Barclay said. “The first summer was not really good, the second summer it was better and this summer was OK.”

Still, Barclay doesn't regret leaving the casinos and is proud of her restaurant.

“All my customers tell me, ‘Oh my God, your seasoning is so good,’” she said. “All of my customers who come in love this place.”

Malhotra feels the same way.

“I struggle every day,” she said, “but I am surviving on my thought that I’m going to bring good food to people and I’m going to stand firm. This was the one thing I always wanted to do.”

Contact Elisa Lala:

609-272-7260

@ElisaLala on Twitter

Been working with the Press for about 27 years.