ATLANTIC CITY — The darkness of the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort loomed over the Hard Rock Cafe as the restaurant celebrated its 20th anniversary early last week.
Inside, people danced, ate and enjoyed the evening surrounded by rock ’n’ roll memorabilia such as a Spin Doctors guitar and Mick Jagger’s studded vest. Outside, only a few people walked past on this desolate stretch of Boardwalk in the struggling South Inlet section.
That this money-losing restaurant is open at all — a month after the casino that housed it closed — came down to the decision of the president and CEO of Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment, a former Atlantic City cook who rose through the resort’s casino-industry ranks.
“I received an analysis from our finance team in our Orlando corporate office, and they made a recommendation to close this cafe because of the closure of the Taj Mahal,” said Jim Allen, a 1978 Mainland Regional High School graduate who owns a home in Linwood. “When someone is in my position, you have the ability to say that this is not about profit. This is about trying to help people in a challenged economic area. I made the decision personally.”
By staying open, the property is losing “millions of dollars,” but Allen declined to say exactly how much. The restaurant has about 100 employees.
Over the past two years, three casinos at this end of the Boardwalk have closed, leaving little reason for Boardwalk patrons to travel past Resorts Casino Hotel.
“If you look at the philanthropic efforts of the Hard Rock, they are legendary. Now we are asking for some help,” Allen said. “We would like to generate some foot traffic up here. We are kind of on our own little island here. Our goal is to stay open.”
Allen would not go into specifics about how long the property could survive without the Taj Mahal being open. Hard Rock Entertainment, owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, features 172 Hard Rock cafes, 24 hotels and 11 casinos.
“We are so glad that they remained open despite the Taj being closed,” said Mayor Don Guardian. “This gives us hope. We think that the Taj will come back.”
Allen is no stranger to the resort. He climbed into the management ranks at Bally’s after starting as a cook in 1979. After working at Bally’s, he was a purchasing manager with Hilton Hotels. He later joined President-elect Donald Trump’s gaming empire, holding a variety of vice president positions during a nine-year stay. Allen was hired by the Seminoles in 2001.
Hard Rock Cafe is not the only restaurant to try to make it in a shuttered casino previously owned by Trump. For the past two years, Rain Forest Cafe has continued its operation after the closing of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in September 2014. Calls to Rain Forest Cafe were not returned.
Losing an anchor casino also means the instant loss of thousands of casino patrons who could be potential restaurant customers,” said Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University.
A business in that situation would “need to realign your marketing strategy to reach new customers at a distance and bring about awareness of its proximate location,” he said.
Branded properties can benefit from name recognition, existing followers and corporate loyalty programs, Pandit said.
The Hard Rock, though, is in an even tougher position than the Rain Forest Cafe, which is still in a somewhat central location on the Boardwalk, he said.
Allen said Hard Rock officials did speak to representatives of Taj Mahal owner Carl Icahn, and their rent was reduced at the property.
The Taj Mahal closed Oct. 10 after management accused striking Unite Here Local 54 members of preventing a “path to profitability.” The closing left more than 2,800 unemployed.