Meet Your Tahoe Merchant: History flows behind one of Nevada’s oldest casinos
Ryan Summerlin April 3, 2013
In their mid 20s, young brothers Jim and Jeff Kelley took over their father’s casino in Crystal Bay. Because they had grown up watching their father in his work and were working at the time of his death, the boys knew how their father would have wanted things done.
“We’d grown up in the business and followed his program,” Jim said. “It’s The Nugget — it’s simple.”
Jim Kelley Sr. moved to the Reno/Tahoe area in the mid-50s from Idaho when gaming became illegal.
Kelley and his partner, Dick Graves, came to Nevada to open The Nugget in downtown Reno in 1954. The Nugget in Crystal Bay, Jim Kelley’s Tahoe Nugget, opened in 1962.
“My father’s niche was always to have loose slots and have a good product. Either good food or a top shelf drink.”
“We’ve tried to make it basically the same because it was good,” Jeff said. “It worked.”
Both in downtown Reno and at the Lake, Kelley had the same philosophy: good food and a good drink to bring people in to the casino.
He believed in pouring a top shelf drink for his customers and aimed to feed them well.
“My father’s niche was always to have loose slots and have a good product,” Jeff said. “Either good food or a top shelf drink.”
In his book, “The Rise of the Biggest Little City,” gaming historian Dwayne Kling said that is wasn’t long after opening the two locations that, “The Nugget soon became famous for its fine food, and reasonable prices.”
Especially at the Tahoe location, Kelley advertised to people working winters in the area that may be interested in, as it was promoted, “hard likker and good grub.”
The Nugget also became famous for its burger — The Awful Awful. The term comes from Kelley and Graves’ idea that it was “awfully big and awfully good.”
“Sixty years ago it was unusual to offer such a big cheeseburger; at the time that was a novelty,” Jim said.
Kelley sold The Virginia Street Nugget in Reno and Graves went on to open The Nugget in Sparks, later selling to John Ascuaga for a very low price.
Jim Kelley’s Tahoe Nugget, however, has been in the hands of Kelley’s family since opening.
The 3,500-square-foot casino celebrated 50 years on the lake last year, making The Nugget one of the oldest family owned casinos in Nevada.
Compared with other casino properties in Crystal Bay, The Nugget is newer in structure.
A fire in 1978 destroyed the building completely. The Kelleys lived just behind the property, and Jim remembers seeing it as a kid.
“Someone said, ‘The Nugget’s on fire!’ and we watched it burn,” he said.
Because the building was so old, the fire was a blessing in disguise.
“It’s tough to live in a really old building,” Jeff said. “It was scary.”
The Nugget is small. Inside there are real plants — and large windows look out onto the street, letting some light in to the local.
Fifteen seats line the bar; there are 15 beers on tap. The casino floor has the latest games, including virtual 21 tables.
Now open year-round, The Nugget cooks up its burgers and tacos in the woodfire smoker on the outdoor patio in the summer. Taco Tuesdays and pulled pork sandwiches are some of the items that keep people coming.
Besides, “putting a lot of money into having the latest games,” Jeff says, the Nugget has “no plans to change.”
Many employees have been with the Kelley family for seven years, some for more than 20 years. Building employee relationships was also important to Jim Kelley.
“Kelley was very well liked by his employees,” Kling said. “He was a firm believer in the philosophy that if you treat your employees well they will treat you well.”
More than 50 years Jim Kelley’s Nugget has brought a local and friendly feeling to people in the area. Jim Kelley’s sons run the business the way their father did, calling The Nugget, “a real honest casino.”
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