Our Food Scene: Making ‘Authentic’ the New Norm

Concept restaurants keep the industry fresh
by RaeAnne Marsh

Vig-Uptown

Our pocket of paradise has more than a fair share of celebrity and award-winning chefs spicing up the culinary scene, but what of the restaurateurs whose vison drives the development of our restaurant industry? The Valley is blessed with a plethora of innovators intent on creating unique dining experiences for residents and visitors alike. In these pages, In Business Magazine spotlights four leaders in making “eating out” a broader experience.

Styles vary, but the underlying theme is universal: authenticity. This starts with location. Says Tucker Woodbury, a partner in Genuine Concepts, “We love to build neighborhood spots, what writer Ray Oldenburg refers to as ‘your third place’ in his book The Great Good Place. He talks about work, home and your third place — a local bar or neighborhood tavern that’s welcoming, affordable and comfortable, and where you know you’ll find old friends and regulars, and meet new ones.”

Importance of neighborhood is echoed by fellow restaurateurs. “Our business concept nine years ago was all about bringing community together,” says Lucia Schnitzer, who, with husband Ken, opened Luci’s Healthy Marketplace in central Phoenix. “It’s always been like that since we first began to conceptualize.”

“Take a look around, and you’ll be surprised with how much real estate potential there is in Phoenix — historical buildings and shopping centers ready for a refurbish, empty lots begging for something cool to open, and neighborhoods that haven’t even been tapped into yet,” says Sam Fox, founder and CEO of Fox Restaurant Concepts, one of the Valley’s most prolific restaurant concept developers. “Sometimes you have to take a risk, like we did with The Yard at 7th Street. There wasn’t much energy over there, or a ton of reason to head that way for a night out — especially if you lived in Arcadia or Scottsdale. Now, it’s transformed into a major restaurant and bar mecca that people from all over the Valley are going to, to check out.”

It was a building, in fact, that was the impetus for the now-profusion of Postino Wine Cafés, which took its name from the first Postino being in an old, historic post office building. Sharing, “We always had a passion for architecture, a passion for our community, a passion for our neighborhood,” Craig DeMarco — who co-owns Upward Projects with wife Kris and friends Lauren and Wyatt Bailey — relates, “We found an old brick building at 40th Street and Campbell, down the street from where we lived. It was the spark that brought the Baileys and DeMarcos together to form Upward Projects.”

Continues DeMarco, “Our values are to find neat, historically or architecturally relevant buildings in great communities we can become part of.” Believing that adds character and soul to a diner’s experience, he says, “We constantly search for those types of sites — not to change it, but to bring it back to its glory.”

“We’ve always striven to differentiate ourselves by creating unique experiences for our customers, identifying niches that haven’t been filled yet in our market, and, typically, it’s the building that drives the concept and the design direction,” says Woodbury. “Call us crazy, but I don’t think we’ve ever referred to a traffic study or demographic information citing average family incomes within a specific radius when we pick a spot. If the location and neighborhood feel right, more often than not we buy the building, or sign and lease and build a spot.”

That was how dining destination The Orchard came about. Schnitzer shares that Luci’s Urban Concepts’ first endeavor, Luci’s Healthy Marketplace, had been received well from the neighborhood and members of the community, and the company was being asked by other developers to duplicate the concept in neighborhoods in outlying cities. “We didn’t feel ready for those neighborhoods.” But then Venue Projects (which had worked with Upward Projects on its Windsor restaurant) invited them to tour The Orchard. “It was overgrown, not developed,” she recalls, “but when I set foot on the property, I really felt the roots of the ground just wrapping themselves up on me and saying, ‘You have to commit to this.’” The reaction was shared by her husband and their partner, Jerry Mansoor. “When we had three people feeling the same voice, there was no doubt —  we knew this was where we’d have to develop.”

And observing, “The world is so fast-paced,” Fox identifies another hot trend in the restaurant industry. “There’s this need for a type of restaurant that can keep up with today’s guest but still provide an enjoyable experience. That’s why the fast-casual segment is booming. It’s a setting where dates, meetings, families and friends all feel comfortable. When I’m in a rush for dinner, I like to say, a good fast-casual restaurant is always the answer.”

Building Ambience

“We believe to be successful, restaurants should have a personality and tell a story,” Fox says. “If we can get our guests to experience this, then the value we provide during their time dining with us is so much greater.” When designing The Henry, Fox Restaurant Concepts’ restaurant on Camelback Road at 44th Street, Fox says, “We knew it was going to be a community space used for much more than a typical restaurant. I wanted it to feel warm and welcoming, so I probably over-thought every detail — from every ingredient on the menu to fabric on the curtains to the bookshelf display to all the natural lighting. We call ourselves “The Best Neighborhood Restaurant,” so it better feel like that to our guests when they walk through the doors.”

Making sure the ambience is authentic to the period is a cornerstone of Genuine Concepts. Says Woodbury, “If it’s a 1914 bungalow, like Vig Fillmore, the ambience will align itself with that period. If it’s the 1917 F.L. Hart Garage that’s the current location for the Crescent Ballroom, then the ambiance will be spare, much like it was 100 years ago. We never try and feel overly ‘themed’ or contrived. The more understated, the more interesting, in our opinion. We don’t believe people want to be in ‘Disneyland’ when they go out to drink or dine.”

It’s important each store has “its own personality and soul,” shares DeMarco, explaining, “We’re sensitive [to that] because we cluster our stores — at Central and Camelback, you can see all our brands in one afternoon.” Differentiating interiors — down to paint colors and lighting — to make each feel special, DeMarco says, “We can’t replicate what we’ve done in the past; we’ve got to innovate all the time.” But he emphasizes, “We don’t change the exterior of the buildings very much; in fact, we try to keep them as original as possible.”

Building new would have been much less expensive than the adaptive reuse project that took The Orchard three-and-a-half years to come to fruition. The building that now houses fine-dining restaurant Pomelo dates to the 1920s, when it was “a home for the orchards,” Schnitzer says. “We considered what was happening in this house, walking ourselves through the life of the family, and asked, ‘How can we duplicate that?’” Pomelo’s “Green Room” is the original dining room, and features a table made from a 100-year-old eucalyptus tree that had stood on the property. The living room, with its fireplace, became a lounge area. The basement is used for private dining or a meeting room, and an extension was added to the building for a bar.

The Orchard is, however, more of a destination than just a restaurant. “It’s close to our first location, but we knew we could do something different, a new experience,” Schnitzer says. The core was still about community. “We niched right into a neighborhood,” she says. She and her partners wanted to create a place that would be welcoming for families of all kinds, for date nights, for people coming by themselves or with a party — where they could “celebrate life and each other.”

Sam-Fox-CS

Sam Fox

Founder and CEO
Fox Restaurant Concepts

“What can I say? I get bored easily, and if I do, it’s safe to assume majority of diners do, too,” says Sam Fox. “In reality, it’s actually more like a ‘catch 22.’ On one end, we are respectful of mainstays, signature dishes that guests repeatedly come back for, and we are careful not to rock that boat. But on the culinary end, we are constantly challenging our chefs to create that next, big, great dish. We want it to intrigue our guests enough so that they try something different, too. Listen to your guests and push the envelope just enough so they’ll try a new dish and maybe discover a new favorite.”

On the sustainable food movement, Fox notes, “The Valley may not experience four seasons throughout year, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to eat seasonally all year long. We are so lucky to have a local collation of passionate farmers who provide produce and product as much as possible to restaurants.” And he points out, “Not only is it healthier to eat with the seasons, but also, from a cost perspective it can be way less expensive — a win-win if you ask me.”

Craig-DeMarco

Craig DeMarco

Co-Founder and Co-Owner
Uptown Projects

“Our site selection is family- and pedestrian-driven, including dogs,” Craig DeMarco says, sharing, “It’s rewarding to be such a big part of the neighborhood mixed community.”

Uptown Projects stores are Postino Winecafe, Churn, Windsor, Federal Pizza and Joyride Taco House, all developed with an eye to being innovative. “They are different cuisines, and we work with different types of food and chefs,” DeMarco says, noting that, in their Mexican restaurant, “We cook more from scratch. And that takes a lot more skilled labor.”

Noting that each concept is a distinct brand, DeMarco shares, “And we continue to grow.”

Lucia-Schnitzer

Lucia Schnitzer

Co-Founder and Co-Owner
Luci’s Urban Concepts

Starting with Luci’s Healthy Marketplace, the focus for Lucia Schnitzer and her husband, Ken, is “bringing community together” and “making moments that really count,” she emphasizes, sharing, “Being a breast cancer survivor, that’s what inspired the business to start evolving the healthy market.”

Schnitzer explains they developed the concept around “giving people back their choices, with good ingredients and healthier foods.” And she says, “We’re excited to bring something to our own community [in Central Phoenix],” which she describes as “a beautiful community with a lot of history and a diverse demographic — multiple communities within the community.”

Tucker-Woodbury

Tucker Woodbury

Partner
Genuine Concepts

The impetus to develop different ideas, says Genuine Concepts partner Tucker Woodbury, is opportunity. “Some of it has to do with the Phoenix market; some has to do with exposure and living in other markets, both Denver and New York. So there’s always been a lot of ideas and concepts running through my head.

“And Phoenix was always somewhat of a blank canvas — meaning no one had done some of the things we’ve always thought about doing. We just think, ‘I bet Phoenix would love a place like this …’ — whether it be a live music venue, basement bar, speakeasy, whatever — and then we create it.”

On menu creation, Woodbury says, “I wouldn’t say our menu are overly ‘foodie’ or trendy; although we try and source locally when we can, weaving in buzz words like ‘farm-to-table’ and” ‘sustainability’ doesn’t really apply to us.” He notes, however, the company’s value proposition includes “fresh ingredients, interesting flavor profiles, and delicious choices that are affordable and approachable” and he credits Executive Chef, Jorge Gomez as being “as creative and talented as any Chef in the Valley.” Says Woodbury, “We’ve made a conscious decision at all of our stores to create menus and experiences that allow our guest to visit us several times a month.”

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