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How An Unmarked Dive Bar in Vegas Became One of America's Must-See Destinations — Within 3 Years of Opening In a contest hosted by Entrepreneur, the Silver Stamp was voted America's most loved mom & pop shop. Its success shows that making people comfortable doesn't have to cost a fortune.

By Kristen Bayrakdarian

entrepreneur daily

This story appears in the March 2024 issue of Start Up.

Mike Belleme

You might not guess that in Las Vegas — a place known for luxury resorts, opulent casinos, and just about any amenity imaginable — one of the city's most beloved establishments is in a single-story building a six-minute drive from the Strip.

There's a sole neon sign in the window that says, simply, "Open." But inside is a bit of magic: a bar, called The Silver Stamp, that makes just about everyone feel like they're back home, no matter where they're from. And in a city like Las Vegas, that's a high-wire act. "It's a transient city," says Andrew Smith, one of The Silver Stamp's co-owners. "We have so many different people coming here." And not just locals. Tourists seek the bar out in almost equal measure.

The Silver Stamp has become so beloved that when Entrepreneur held a vote to select America's favorite mom-and-pop shop (out of 150 of the most popular small businesses in the country, selected in partnership with Yelp), the dive bar won first place.

Related: These Are America's Favorite 150 Mom & Pop Shops, According to Yelp and Entrepreneur

This is all the more impressive given that Smith and his co-owner and life partner, Rose Signor, only opened the business three years ago, in February 2021. In that short time, they've paid off their two small investors, the business has averaged 23% revenue growth year over year, and by popular demand, extended their hours from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.

So what is the Silver Stamp getting right?

"A lot of people say, 'I don't know what it is, but I just feel so comfortable in your space,'" Signor says.

Comfort — it's no small thing. It's possibly the most important feeling a mom-and-pop shop can evoke. But it's also mysterious. You can't simply buy comfort. You can't follow a checklist to create it. You have to understand, deeply, what it means to you.

Image Credit: Mike Belleme

Signor and Smith met in 2017, when she hired him to work at Atomic Liquors, the oldest freestanding bar in Las Vegas. "It was an instant connection," Smith says. They'd both been in the service industry for years — Smith had managed a nearby bar before coming to Atomic Liquors — and they both shared an interest in the craft beer industry. Smith had planned to move to the Northwest at some point, but when he met Signor, he had a good reason to stay. And Signor had actually moved from Las Vegas to Seattle back in 2011 — only to move back a year later. She missed Las Vegas and the desert, and was inspired to infuse Sin City with some of the wholesome beer culture she loved.

But Signor and Smith's connection went deeper than a love of pilsners and IPAs. They'd grown up in small towns on opposite sides of the country — Peru, New York, and Yuma, Arizona, respectively — that instilled in them a strong sense of community and, perhaps more importantly, empathy. "I remember seeing situations [growing up] where I felt truly bad for people getting treated poorly and embarrassed because they didn't have enough money," says Signor.

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When Signor and Smith discovered that they had both, individually, been saving to open their own bars, joining forces was a no-brainer. "We knew we wanted to do something together," Smith says. They started dreaming about the bar they'd open, and even collecting decorations. A vintage clock here, a disco ball there. A wooden toucan to hang from the ceiling, sock monkeys to dress in funny, seasonal outfits. Their nostalgic, oddball, something-for- everyone aesthetic was representative of their mission for the business. "We'd been to so many establishments that have not made us feel welcome, or have made us and others feel like outcasts," Signor says. "We wanted everyone to feel included."

In May 2018, they took the leap. They quit their jobs together and backpacked for nine months through Europe and the U.S. to learn more about the history of beer. When their former boss at Atomic Liquors, Lance Johns, reached out and told them he had bought a few buildings in the downtown area, and he would lease one to them, the couple jumped at the chance. They had a vision, and they were ready.

Image Credit: Mike Belleme

Construction on the Silver Stamp began at the end of 2019. A few months later, we all know what happened: The pandemic hit.

Smith and Signor had planned to hold other jobs as they built out the space, but the shock to the service industry left them unemployed. They had already sunk $60K of their savings into gutting the space, buying materials and paying contractors, so they pressed ahead. But there were mistakes and setbacks during construction, and the funds dried up way before the bar was finished.

Related: Would You Turn Your Small Business Into a Franchise? Here's Why Everyone From Hardware Stores to Hot Dog Shops Are Doing It.

"We were beside ourselves," Signor recalls. "I remember stepping outside and thinking, We don't really have any money left."

At some point, the couple assessed their situation. Nothing was going to plan, sure, and the money was gone. But they had their own two hands, and a community of friends who were willing to help.

They began spending long nights repurposing old, torn-out wood, running electrical lines, and laying plumbing themselves, to cut costs. They sought out any help they could get. "One of the biggest things I learned during this process," Signor says, "and this is even after we've opened — is to not be afraid to ask as many questions and to reach out to as many people as you can. Sometimes you think you're bothering people, but in that dire moment, I remember panicking and hitting everybody up, asking for suggestions, and looking to people that have a little bit more experience with the situation. There were some really surprising people that came forward to help us just by mentioning what our situation was." People coached them through different processes, gave them a discount on their services, or lent them materials and machinery. They turned to others for counsel or attempted to replicate, through trial and error, what seemed to have worked for other successful establishments.

One person they leaned on a lot was Lance Johns, who knew how hard they worked from when he was their boss. "Lance is somebody that will give back to people who give to him," says Signor. "Having a mentor saved us a lot of time not having to second-guess ourselves."

One thing they never doubted was how they wanted their bar to feel: inclusive and, of course, comforting.

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They poured those values into every detail and decision. Christmas lights strung across the ceiling help keep the ambience neither too dark nor too bright. Bar stools are repurposed gaming chairs, designed for people to sit in one place for an extended period of time. The collection of cozy nooks and small seating areas encourages intimate conversations, and the music is kept at a low enough decibel that you can hear your neighbor talk. There are only two screens, an anomaly in otherwise tech-saturated Las Vegas. And this low-tech ethos extends to printing physical menus, even though the bar has served over 1,700 different beers in three years — averaging out to nearly two new beers a day. Finally, there's the diversity of decorations and memorabilia — a bubbling lava lamp, vintage beer posters, kooky seasonal decorations, scavenged beer-can art installations — that Signor and Smith had collected over two years before the bar's opening. They're now strewn across the wood-panel walls and, really, everywhere, so that customers have something fun and different to look at in each corner. Customers have even begun adding their own contributions to the decor.

"We have been to enough bars in our life to know what makes us feel comfortable," Signor says, "So how we created the bar was based on our own preferences." By trusting their own well-defined feelings, they built something universally relatable.

Image Credit: Mike Belleme

But creating an environment that is comfortable and relatable is about more than just creative decisions. It's also about financial decisions, and from the start, Signor and Smith were determined to keep costs down. "We have low overhead because our decisions weren't fueled by [trying to make] money," Signor says. "We intentionally made choices like a cheaper building off the beaten path and being our own managers and cutting out that salary."

Being intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of the space has also helped them foster the spirit of the bar and its employees. "Our definition of a bartender isn't someone just serving drinks," says Signor. "It's about building a relationship with these guests. When we're hiring, we look for people who genuinely appreciate other people, treat them with respect and kindness, and create a really safe space that people want to come back to." Their ideal hire is someone who has positive energy, is able to leave their personal life at the door, can laugh and joke with people, and is humble (which they define as "not intimidating and able to put people at ease").

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It's painful to let people go when they don't live up to those standards, Signor says. But it's also essential. "When prioritizing what to do next, I always think of the guest sitting in that barstool," she explains. "We tell the staff to pretend we're the guests on the other side. What are they seeing? Really envision it from their perspective."

But, while Signor and Smith want their employees to put themselves in their customers' shoes (or, rather, stools), they also believe that employees have to be happy for customers to enjoy themselves. They offer health benefits — something they say is mostly unheard of in their industry, but something they wanted when they were employed by others. They are also transparent with their employees about finances and business decisions, sharing numbers and providing reasoning for changes. They take their workers' thoughts into consideration, whether it be opinions on events or on shifts in workflow. And they don't ask employees to do anything they wouldn't want to do. (The pair continue to work bar shifts alongside their staff — including cleanup duty.)

"Don't be afraid to get feedback," says Signor. "Our staff is so important to us and really we wouldn't be the bar that we are without them. So we lean on them, and they lean on us."

The same way she encourages her employees to look at things through the customer's eyes, she makes a habit of looking at a situation from the viewpoint of her employees. "I've learned to always try to put myself in the mindset of the other person," she says. "I roleplay with myself in my head: If I say this to them, what do I think their response will yield? And could I say it differently? I just really try to understand where they're coming from before we approach the situation." She adds, "And then if we're frustrated, we sleep on it. That was something that my mentor told me: 'Always take a couple of days to reflect.'"

These days, when Smith and Signor reflect on their business journey, it's notable that, in a city known for its fabulous attractions, The Silver Stamp has become its own must-see destination. "We've become a bar people bring their families to when they're in town because they have to show their parents, their uncle," Smith says.

Signor adds, "We've had grown people cry when they first come in here. The space touches them immediately."

People are always looking for comfort, and the Silver Stamp shows that if you devote yourself and your business to that quality above all, people will feel it — and deeply appreciate it. You just need a vision, and a willingness to get your hands dirty. "Every single aspect of this bar we've had our hands in," says Smith. He and Signor think it's funny that one of the bar's quirks that locals and tourists love — the fact that they don't have signage outside their building, giving the bar that local, in-the-know vibe — came about because they couldn't afford the sign they had designed.

That's the kind of thing you never could have planned for. So, while Smith and Signor have received offers to franchise the bar, they don't think what they've created can be replicated. They do have other plans in the works. But The Silver Stamp will remain dependably unique — news that is its own kind of comfort.

Related: Here's the Secret to Growing Your Small Business, According to Execs at UPS, Airbnb, Mastercard, and Other Big Brands

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