Restaurants come and go in Las Vegas, but few make an impression like the just-closed Uncle Joe’s Pizza, a Fremont East institution in Las Vegas.
The restaurant closed on Sep. 30, 2014, after 18 years of operation downtown. The owner, Xhindi “Bushi” Hazbi, sold the remaining 11 years of his lease to the Downtown Project.
For years, people have mistakenly called Bushi’s “Joe.” In fact, though, Joe was the name of his uncle.
When Bushi first came to America from his native Albania, he worked for his uncle Joe in San Diego. Bushi says, “I came with my uncle to Las Vegas because he liked to play baccarat at the Stardust casino. While he played, I took the car and drove around and saw Las Vegas. Two hours later I told him I wasn’t going back to San Diego with him. I told him I love Las Vegas.”
Bushi’s first job in Las Vegas was a busboy, then took on another job as a cabbie. While working the two jobs, he often got just three hours of sleep a day.
In time, he met the owner of the space where Uncle Joe’s came to be, and in 1995 bought the place. Uncle Joe’s opened in August, 1996.
The day he opened, a Friday, Uncle Joe’s made more money than the previous establishment had made in months, and Bushi never looked back.
“I’ve been in the food business for almost 25 years,” says Bushi. “I’m sad to be going, but it’s time to go.” In other words, Downtown Project finally made Bushi an offer he couldn’t refuse.
As for whether Downtown Project paid enough for Bushi to retire, it’s unlikely. Bushi says, “To buy out an 11 year lease is a lot of money. I was very happy. The people from Downtown Project were very reasonable.”
What’s for certain is while Bushi may open another business in Las Vegas, after taking some time to travel, it won’t be in the restaurant business.
What else will he do during his time off? “I love to write and read,” says Bushi.
As for the employees of Uncle Joe’s, they’ve all found other work. The dishwasher at Uncle Joe’s has moved over to Eat restaurant, also downtown.
Uncle Joe’s night manager, Jeff, found another gig based largely on the goodwill other businesses have toward Bushi and Uncle Joe’s. Jeff is moving to a position at Hennessey’s, nearby.
“Bushi is the best boss I’ve ever had,” says Jeff. “And probably the best boss I ever will have.”
As for what’s next in the Uncle Joe’s space, nobody knows for sure. Bushi thinks it will be another pizza place, as Downtown Project also purchased his kitchen equipment.
Others at the restaurant have heard it could be a Zappos retail store or even a nightclub. Apparently, the next tenant will have to be on a 30-day lease, so no more decade-long commitments will be in the offing.
Downtown Project has also purchased the Kabob Korner restaurant next door, but no closing date has been set.
Uncle Joe’s closure means the end of a beloved neighborhood fixture, one that often payed it forward in the form of random acts of kindness, giving free pizza to homeless people and others in need.
“For a long time,” Bushi says, “from 1997 to 2002, the bus used to come and drop off inmates being released from jail, that used to be on 1st Street, right outside the door. They came in and ate for free. I never charged anybody, ever. Just to help.”
“Why not?” says Bushi, smiling ear-to-ear. “This place made so much money, you wouldn’t believe it. I worked very hard. We had nothing to worry about. Back then, Uncle Joe’s would make $20,000 a month. I couldn’t believe it. Back in Albania, my father made $70 a month.”
Bushi’s generosity was on display in the days leading up to Uncle Joe’s closing. He gave away a lot of slices and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches during those final days, and deeply discounted meals to lots of loyal customers who came to bid farewell to Bushi and his employees.
As a final act of generosity, Bushi plans to take dollar bills customers placed on a giant map of the U.S. and Europe through the years (denoting where they were visiting from), and will give the money to the homeless. He and his wife, Bona, will keep one dollar bill each from the wall as keepsakes.
Those bills will serve as a memory of a time when people in downtown Las Vegas had many fewer dining options. As other pizza places and other restaurants opened, business was never the same at Uncle Joe’s.
Now, Uncle Joe’s sits empty, with brown paper inside the windows.
It was never flashy or high-profile. Just a simple pizza joint in a neighborhood that’s changed dramatically in recent months, and continues to evolve.
Downtown won’t be quite the same without Uncle Joe’s. So long, and thanks for all the pies.
Uncle Joe's Pizza