Hard Work And Family Key
To John Ascuaga’s Nugget

By Colleen Schreiber

SPARKS, Nev. — John Ascuaga, the owner of John Ascuaga’s Nugget hotel and casino, is the son of a Basque immigrant sheepherder who worked his way up from the bottom to build an entertainment empire but never forgot his roots.

This unassuming 5’4" man never imagined that taking a job as a bellman would be the first step in fulfilling the predictions of his high school class of ‘43. Uncannily, Ascuaga’s classmates had written in his senior yearbook that he would one day be the "owner of the largest gambling den in Reno."

"I never thought I’d end up in Reno," Ascuaga says. "I was milking cows and helping my dad. Heck no, I didn’t know this is what I wanted to do."

Hard work, pride in one’s work and being a man of your word were ethics instilled in him by his parents in early childhood. It was those ethics, this self-made entrepreneur says, that helped him achieve his goals.

"The main thing I learned from my dad was his word — the bond — honesty and integrity — and good work habits. He taught us how to work and I still have that same work ethic today."

Ascuaga’s father, Jose, came to the United States in 1914 from the village of Orozko in the Basque country of northern Spain. Like so many immigrants, the promise of a better future in the land of opportunity enticed the young man to leave his family and native homeland.

The young Ascuaga stepped ashore at Ellis Island unable to speak or understand a word of English. He took a train from there to Idaho, where a large community of Basques had taken up residence.

The elder Ascuaga began herding sheep for an Englishman, Ed Gilbert, and eventually acquired a herd of his own. Two years after settling in Idaho, he invited his wife by proxy, Marina Aguliz, to join him. She arrived in 1916.

In 1919 Ascuaga sold out of the sheep business and bought an 80-acre tract of farmland at Novice, 35 miles northwest of Boise. It was here that John and his three siblings were raised.

His father raised cattle, sheep and hogs, and farmed as well. They had milk cows and chickens, and "a garden that you wouldn’t believe. We ate great," Ascuaga recalls. "We ate a lot of cabbage soup. My mother was one of the best cooks.
"It wasn’t an easy life," Ascuaga concedes. "It was hard work, but my father took so much pride in his operation."

The family made a trip to town once a week to trade eggs for groceries, and it was a treat for them to get to go to the show once a month. The family owned only one car and that made it difficult for John and his brother when they began dating in high school.

Besides helping out on the family farm, Ascuaga also packed water for a grain thrashing crew and day worked for neighbors.

"The going rate was $2 a day," he says, "but I charged $2.50 because I was a better worker. I got the $2.50, too."

After high school, Ascuaga worked his way through college as a bellman in McCall, Idaho, earning two college degrees, one in economics from the University of Idaho in Moscow and another in restaurant management from Washington State.

A couple of incidents during his days as a bellman, Ascuaga says, proved to be excellent training in later years. Today he likes to share one story in particular with all his new employees. It’s about a newlywed couple on their honeymoon who arrived in a Cadillac convertible. Ascuaga remembers unloading at least eight pieces of luggage for which he received 25 cents. Another time a gentleman arrived in an old V-8 pickup with a bag in the back. He tipped Ascuaga $5. That experience taught him to work hard for each and every customer. He also learned the importance of remembering names and little details about customers.

While working as a bellman, Ascuaga met restaurateur Dick Graves. Graves was so impressed with Ascuaga that he immediately hired him when he graduated from college to run his food operations in Coeur d’ Alene.

When Idaho outlawed gambling, Graves, who had built his empire on slot machines, moved to Nevada. The young Ascuaga followed him.

Graves opened the first Nugget in 1955, a 60-seat coffee shop with about 50 slot machines, across from its current location. By 1958 the Nugget had grown so much that it was forced to move to a new building at its current site. By 1960, Graves wanted to retire, and he sold out to his protege, the 34 year-old Ascuaga, for $3,775,000 and nothing down. Terms called for paying the debt off in 12 years.

Ascuaga managed to do it in seven.

Though the world in which Ascuaga lives and operates today is much different from the world he grew up in, Ascuaga has never strayed far from his Basque roots and his agricultural upbringing.

In addition to his casino, Ascuaga operates three ranches and Nugget Meat Packers, a breaking plant in Reno.

"I love what a lot of people in agriculture stand for," he says. "A handshake to some still seals a deal."

He and Rose, his wife of 40 years, live at their Jacks Valley Ranch, 50 miles south of Reno. Ascuaga says he tries to get to Smith Valley, the headquarters for his ranch operation, at least once a week. He rarely if ever misses a roundup and he’s certainly in the thick of it during shipping time. The top chef from his hotel cooks for all the cowboys during roundup.

Ascuaga also owns a ranch in Bridgeport, California. All of the country he operates is deeded land.

Today he runs a commercial herd of 1700 cows with a Hereford base. Initially he had a registered herd of Herefords, but he dispersed all but a small herd of the registered stock years ago. He also maintains a small band of sheep at his home place.

"Being Basque, I had to have at least a few sheep," he explains.

All the beef raised on the Ascuaga ranches is slaughtered at Stockton, California, and then shipped to Nugget Meat Packers, where it is processed for use in his casino restaurants. Ascuaga says his Nugget was built around service, with food as the draw.

His breaking plant also supplies most every other hotel and casino in the area as well. In addition to Ascuaga’s own cattle, the plant buys carcasses from J.R. Simplot Co. and some of the large packers like IBP. Six butchers and two steak cutters process, on average, about 44 head a week, or approximately 9000 pounds of beef. Ascuaga’s Nugget hotel grinds its own hamburger, some 6000 to 7000 pounds a day, and cuts all their own steaks. The breaking plant simply supplies them with the strips.

Nugget Meat Packers also processes some pork and lamb and has plans to expand the pork line in the future.

Ascuaga considers quality one of the single most important factors in the food business.

"I’m the biggest believer in quality," Ascuaga says. "I learned it the hard way. I’ve been the whole nine yards.

"I thought I was really smart," he continues. "When we started out I thought we could serve cow T-bones. The price was right, but in a month there wasn’t any business. There’s simply no substitute for quality beef," he reiterates.

Dick Keim, general manager of Nugget Meat Packers, says part of the reason Ascuaga opened his own breaking plant was because he got tired of not being able to get what he wanted when he wanted it.

Keim says he looks for carcasses that are Yield Grade three or better with a modest amount of marbling. Specifications for Nugget Gold Trim beef, which is what the Nugget serves exclusively, is a quarter inch trim or less.

The beef is appropriately aged, and all steaks, except the filet, go through a needling process.

"As a small operator, we can’t always offer price, but two things we can always do is offer quality and service," Keim says.

Nugget Meat Packers basically has three types of customers: those who believe quality is more important than price; those who want quality but price is important as well; and those who are first interested in price.

Ascuaga has long been a supporter of the cattle industry. Most recently his hotel hosted the summer meeting of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

"The beef industry is just like any other industry — it has its problems," Ascuaga remarks. "If it was all a bowl of cherries everyone would be in the business."

Educating the consumer, he believes, is the beef industry’s biggest task at hand.

"We have to tell today’s consumers the importance of having meat in their diet," Ascuaga says. "My parents ate beef all their lives. My dad lived past 80 and my mother past 90."

He took it upon himself to develop an advertising slick with the tag line: "Heard the good news about beef?" to push that very cause. He shared his ad idea with the American National Cattlewomen’s Association during the NCBA convention.

Ascuaga is no doubt a businessman first and foremost, and he believes in taking risk to make a buck, but he admits his ranching operation is mostly for his own enjoyment. He struggles with the reality that for many people in agriculture, making a living is "tougher than hell."

Besides his love for the agriculture industry, one of Ascuaga’s other real passions is youth.

"I have the opportunity to see and work with so many great young people, and when I see someone taking pride in their work my buttons pop out," Ascuaga remarks. "That pride is something that so many in our world have lost, and we’ve got to find a way to get it back."

Ascuaga believes all young people must learn how to work. "Everyone should have to start at the bottom and work their way up. If they’re doing a good job, give them a raise and let them know they’re doing a good job."

A number of years ago, Ascuaga initiated a scholarship program for each of the 19 high schools in Reno.

"It’s one of the greatest programs I’m involved in," he says. Ascuaga takes time to read every application. "We have some of the greatest kids, so many brilliant young people who never get recognized. They really inspire you and that gives me hope," Ascuaga says.

This year marks his 42nd anniversary in business. Ascuaga has plowed profits back into his casino, expanding more than a dozen times. Much of the decor reflects his parents’ roots.

Today he’s one of the last sole proprietors of a large casino. While most other local casinos have gone public, the $100 million-plus Nugget family operation doesn’t have plans to change anytime soon. After all, three of Ascuaga’s four children are integrally involved in the business.

That said, Ascuaga is still the boss and still practices his hands-on management style.

"I’ll never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. That’s part of my raising," Ascuaga remarks.

At 72, his only real goal is to continue like he’s been going since he was a young bellman. Hard work is his secret, he says.

Regrets?

"I’ve always enjoyed agriculture. I just wish I had more time for it. I wish I didn’t have quite so much to do, because I would love to spend more time at the ranch riding my horse, Nugget."

But then Ascuaga’s competitive streak re-emerges; if he were 40 years younger, he vows, he would buy a car agency, and "show them how to sell cars."




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