A New Boardwalk Empire

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Class of ’87 | It might seem like a curious contradiction that in a room less than 100 feet from rows and rows of slot machines there’s a panel titled, “It’s Not About The Slot Machines.” But as the speakers make their presentations for this East Coast Gaming Congress panel—held at the brand new Revel Atlantic City—it begins to make sense. 

Ignoring the casino games in front of them, each panelist discusses his or her role in the development of Revel, a stunning $2.5 billion resort destination billed by some as the potential savior of Atlantic City because of its departure from gambling—the boardwalk’s lifeblood for more than 30 years—and its reliance on other forms of entertainment.

When the panel ends, one of the presenters, Chuck Bragitikos W’87, takes a walk around the casino floor, brushing past an unused slot machine. He doesn’t like to gamble, he says. But he does know what makes a good restaurant. That’s why his two-man Philadelphia company, Vibrant Development LLC, partnered with Revel to create fresh concepts for retail, dining, and entertainment—a project he believes can help change the pulse of the Jersey Shore city for good.

“We’ve been marketing this project for the last six years and we’ve barely mentioned the casino,” Bragitikos said, not long before Revel’s lavish Memorial Day Weekend grand opening. “It was always driven by the resort and amenities and the location and the cluster of restaurants.”

A former entrepreneurial-management major at Wharton with decades of experience in real-estate development, Bragitikos was a perfect fit for Revel, an enormous, glistening tower on the northernmost part of Atlantic City’s boardwalk. Years earlier, he and his Vibrant partner, Jason Spillerman, helped develop the Quarter at Tropicana, an Old Havana-themed enclosed shopping mall that contains over 40 stores, 11 nightclubs, nine restaurants, and a spa. His biggest coup was luring Carmine’s to come to the Tropicana, marking the legendary Italian restaurant’s first expansion outside New York City. Bragitikos remembers many people thinking at the time that it would be impossible.

“With the Tropicana expansion, when we first called people about the project, they thought we were crazy,” Bragitikos says. “Atlantic City, at that point, didn’t have a Borgata; it didn’t have a pier. It really was on no one’s radar. But if we find the merits in something, we’ll gladly grab the flag and run up the hill with it.”

Because of their success with Tropicana, Revel CEO Kevin DeSanctis tapped Vibrant to attract more quality restaurants to the Atlantic City marketplace. Soon after that, Bragitikos and Spillerman partnered with famed Philadelphia restaurant owner (and Iron Chef champion) Jose Garces to bring two of his most popular Philadelphia restaurants—Amada and Village Whiskey—to Revel, along with a replication of his popular Guapos Tacos Truck. (“The goat tacos are killer,” Bragitikos says, as he approaches the Mexican-takeout window that sits adjacent to a margarita bar, just off the casino floor.)

“He got it right away,” Bragitikos says of Garces. “He had been approached by tons of people over the years. But the truth is he got our vision.”

There are many reasons why a restaurateur might turn down an offer to expand his or her brand to Atlantic City. For decades, after all, the city’s casinos all seemed to feature the same collection of predictable eateries: a steak joint, an Italian place, a buffet, and a coffee shop. They weren’t even intended to make money; they simply served a function for people who wanted a quick meal in between the craps table and the poker room. And for those folks who wanted to enjoy “fine dining,” a concept Bragitikos believes is now dead, they could put on a suit and sit through a long, multi-course dinner at an old-fashioned steakhouse.

“It was so tired and dated,” says Bragitikos, who used to joke that it was easier to round up friends to take a plane ride to Las Vegas than to make the short drive up the Atlantic City Expressway. “It was ripe for refreshing.”

Each of the 14 restaurants Bragitikos and Spillerman selected for Revel is there for a reason. They all have their own themes, have passionate people running them, and can morph from a place to get a fine but casual daytime meal into a fun and edgy nighttime destination. And they’ve all been strategically placed so they can create “natural energy,” Bragitikos says. Amada, for instance, sits right near the self-parking entrance with a dramatic ocean view—a major improvement over what Bragitikos calls the “soulless arrival experiences” of other casinos. Even Revel’s casino floor has some non-gambling appeal: natural light, some ocean views—not to mention a few blackjack tables that practically sit on top of neighboring nightclubs.

“We guided the architects on how to do our stuff right,” Bragitikos says. “And we did it from two perspectives—one, from the customers’ perspective, to make a place so it has feeling, and two, from the operators’ perspective, to make it so it works and makes money.”

There’s no mystery behind Revel’s goal to be defined by its restaurants, clubs, and stores. Ever since Pennsylvania legalized gambling in 2004, Atlantic City’s revenue has plummeted as people have found their casino fixes elsewhere. Bragitikos and others concluded that the only way to reverse that trend was to rebrand the city as a tourist destination and try to extend its reach to places like Washington DC.

Luckily, Bragitikos has experience trying to change the direction of tough-luck towns. Having gotten his start in the business through a work-study job at the Fels Center under Michael S. Rubin C’75 GAr’78 G’79 Gr’86 (and worked with him at Molinaro Rubin Associates after graduation), he helped negotiate the agreement for a $30 million expansion and privatization of the aquarium in Camden while securing development rights for 30 acres of land adjacent to the city’s waterfront—where he hopes a hotel and residential units will be built. He also worked for more than a decade as a developer for entertainment-oriented venues at Rubin’s MRA International, before he and Spillerman created Vibrant in 2004.

In addition to Vibrant’s work in Atlantic City, Camden, and Maryland’s National Harbor, one of the firm’s biggest projects was consulting for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who wanted to catalyze new businesses around the team’s $1.3 billion stadium, which opened in 2009. (Spillerman and Bragitikos got to spend a lot of time with Jones, but when they went to games with him, the two Eagles fans made sure not to actively root against their hated rival.)

Lately, though, Bragitikos estimates that, at times, “nearly 100 percent” of his work has been devoted to Revel. And as he walked around the still-partially-under-construction resort one recent afternoon, a bounce in his step was noticeable.

“It’s surreal,” he said with a smile. “You live in two dimensions for so long—and then you see it all just come to life.”

—Dave Zeitlin C’03

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