SugarHouse’s Philly-Born GM: “You only get to open once”

Wendy Hamilton says casino means jobs — and two new restaurants — for locals

What are the odds that a biology major from Duke University would end up running Philly’s first casino? Fittingly, the gaming-house career of Philly-born SugarHouse general manager Wendy Hamilton, 39, was “completely accidental,” she acknowledges with a laugh. “I always planned to go to med school. I was trying to find a job after college when I got an offer from a big company in the casino industry. I took it, figuring it was good for a few months.” That was in 1994. Stints at a number of Harrah’s operations and at Philadelphia Park Casino followed, along with a master’s in business from St. Joe’s. “There are a lot of women in the industry,” Hamilton says. “I always found it welcoming. People opened a lot of doors for me.” [SIGNUP]

When we spoke in late July, Hamilton was busy overseeing the final stages of prep for SugarHouse, which is set to open this week. “The slot machines arrived,” she told me. “We have carpenters, electricians and slot technicians out on the floor, hooking up power, bolting machines into place.” Most importantly, the cocktail-waitress uniforms had been chosen: chocolate brown pleated city shorts with a belt, and coral halter tops.

At SugarHouse’s “dealer school,” 200 Philly residents “with no experience” were busy learning the game of blackjack. Ten thousand people showed up at the Convention Center for the casino’s first open call to fill its 800 jobs; eventually, there were 27,000 applicants. “We picked people very, very carefully,” Hamilton says. “There was a four- or five-step audition process. We’re looking for people who have a natural inclination to serve.” As she points out, “You only get to open once”—and it’s her job to make sure that when guests leave, they can’t wait to come back.

Part of the allure, she hopes, will be SugarHouse’s two restaurants: the Refinery, named for the Jack Frost sugar refinery that once stood on the casino site, and Jack’s, a 24/7 shop for sandwiches, salads, coffee, pastry and the like. The Refinery will be more formal, but “not white-tablecloth,” says Hamilton, with “everything from amazing high-end burgers to chicken sandwiches and Philly favorites.” One area of the menu she expects to be popular: “social meals,” meant for large parties to share.

The Refinery is Hamilton’s favorite part of the casino complex: “It’s all glass, and the view of the river and the Ben Franklin Bridge takes your breath away. I’m from the city, but you know how it is when you see something from a different place for the first time?” The Refinery also overlooks the brick-and-asphalt promenade, for biking and walking, that SugarHouse has built around its property, with hopes of extending it to other paths and eventually to nearby Penn Treaty Park.

The biggest challenge for Hamilton—and her staff—will be to maintain the energy of the opening. “When folks got the nod [for jobs], they were so excited,” she recalls. “It was 8:30 a.m., and they were high-fiving each other. Everybody’s pumped now, but we have to keep that going.” That’s why the selection process is so important, she says: “A good casino worker goes 24/7. They become close to each other. They’re team players, they work holidays, they’re enthusiastic. They enjoy being in the mix.” And Hamilton enjoys doing her part to help what she foresees as a definite economic plus for her hometown. “Jobs are a big deal right now,” she says. “I always felt there was nothing better in this business than paying someone a jackpot. But you get the same feeling when you give a job to a family that needs it.”