Innovating the Restaurant Market: Inside the Industry with Some of Our Leading Restaurateurs

by RaeAnne Marsh

The Global Ambassador

“Greater Phoenix is such an amazing incubator for up-and-coming restaurant concepts and has become a dining destination attracting visitors from across the nation and all parts of the world,” says Joey Maggiore, co-founder of The Maggiore Group. “It has really been growing quickly and it has been astonishing to be a part of our restaurant industry’s massive growth and see it exponentially expand.”

Kyu Utsunomiya, partner and co-founder of Conceptually Social, describes the restaurant market in Greater Phoenix over the past three years as a roller coaster ride. “Pre-pandemic, we were seeing significant growth of new concepts, both locally owned and by national brands. Whether QSR [quick service and fast casual] or elevated dining, the market was consistently announcing new openings and expanding into new development projects all over the Valley. This significant growth saturated the market in several areas of Greater Phoenix and caused many smaller, locally owned restaurants to be unable to compete.” He points to Downtown Phoenix and Roosevelt Row as prime examples of that impact and notes that 2020 and the pandemic shutdown impact would test the resolve of the industry. “The earlier rapid growth ceased completely and, sadly, much of the industry permanently closed doors. Only the well-funded or those who could quickly access government assistant would survive the year plus shutdown. 

“Fast forward to today,” Utsunomiya continues, “and the restaurant market has not only rebounded but back at rapid growth again and in many areas, becoming saturated once again. The Greater Phoenix market has never offered such a variety of concepts, price points, style of service and cuisines.”

“Surprisingly resilient” is how S. Barrett Rinzler, president and CEO of Square One Concepts, describes Phoenix so far, acknowledging that “given this economy it’s still a bit tricky.” Noting, “Phoenicians certainly like dining out and the influx of winter residents provides a boost to the sheer numbers of diners, he says the curveball today is food price fluctuations. “It forces us to be ready, flexible and creative on an ongoing basis. These last two years have shown us how. If the price of chicken increases, for example, we pivot. Do we simply raise prices or do focus on different ingredients, a new cut or new recipe that our customers will still enjoy? We’re still certainly bullish, but we’ve adapted and become smart right now in how we manage the price fluctuations in product and labor.” 

B & B Cocktail Lounge

In Christopher Collins’ view, Arizona, and the Phoenix Metro area as a whole, has and continues to set itself up for a successful future economically, but he notes a need to continue to embrace and bolster our business-friendly environment by working and building locally in our community. “I believe that supporting local business is paramount in fostering a thriving community, both economically as well as socially. Getting people excited about their community through events, charity and new business is also a great way to empower economic growth,” says the founder and operator of Common Ground Culinary. “I have full faith in Arizona’s business community for the next five, 10 and 20 years, which is why I have opened three new concepts in the past calendar year, two in Uptown Phoenix (Neighborly Public House and St. Urban) and one in the heart of Scottsdale (Collins Bros. Chophouse).”

“A lot has been happening in the Phoenix Metro!” says Lauren Bailey, CEO and co-founder of Upward Projects, who shares, “It has been so much fun to see concepts from other markets join us but, more importantly, see more and more great local chefs and talented restaurateurs opening new spots across the Valley. Some of my new favorites are Valentine, Bacanora and Sotisse.” As for Upward Projects, Bailey says, “We’ve been focused on bringing our popular wine café, Postino, to neighborhoods and communities that are often overlooked, such as South Tempe, which has been hugely supportive of our new locations. And now the outpouring of love from the West Valley has also led us to begin the development phase for our first-ever Postino in Peoria.” 

“The Phoenix restaurant market continues to demonstrate resilience and strength,” observes Sam Fox, founder of Fox Restaurant Concepts and of Author & Edit Hospitality. Noting the longevity of “some of the most incredible food experiences,” he names Pizza Bianco from restaurateur Chris Bianco, Postino from restaurateur Lauren Bailey), Hana Japanese Sushi House from restaurateur Lori Hashimoto and, Binkley’s from restaurateur Kevin Binkley as some examples. “In contrast, the market continues to pull in some successful new dining experiences that are notable international names, like Nobu, or new experiences, like Valentine and Bacanora. 

“Business in the market is strong,” Fox says. In his view, “Restaurants are bustling, online and to-go sales have remained strong, and we are very happy with the Arizona market.”

Federal Pizza

Author & Edit Hospitality:

  • The Global Ambassador, expected to open in mid-Phoenix in late 2023

Common Ground Culinary:

  • Wally’s
  • Grassroots
  • Sweet Provisions
  • The Collins
  • The Mackintosh
  • Neighborly Public House
  • Coming:
    • St. Urban
    • Collins Bros.
    • Chophouse

Conceptually Social:

  • The Larry
  • Kaizen
  • Be Coffee
  • The Dressing Room
Fox Restaurant Concepts:

  • Flower Child
  • Fly Bye
  • The Henry
  • Culinary Dropout
  • Dough Bird
  • Blanco
  • Olive & Ivy
  • The Greene House
  • Arrogant Butcher
  • Zinburger
  • Wildflower

The Maggiore Group:

  • Hash Kitchen
  • The Sicilian Butcher
  • The Sicilian Baker
  • The Mexicano
Square One Concepts:

  • Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers
  • Bourbon & Bones
  • Wasted Grain

Upward Projects:

  • Postino
  • The Windsor
  • Churn, Federal Pizza
  • Joyride Taco House

Their Recipes for Growth

“Location, location, location” is the familiar mantra of the real estate industry, but as these restaurateurs tell us, the concept underlies their decisions on where to open a restaurant — and it comes into even greater play when the restaurant group has more than once concept to consider opening there. Dining is an experience that these restaurateurs carefully curate.

Common Ground Culinary 

“The Common Ground Culinary mission is to create community driven results that have ‘soul’ and strive to be a staple of the neighborhoods each concept serves,” says Christopher Collins, founder and operator, sharing examples around the Valley: The company’s two concepts in uptown Phoenix, Neighborly Public House and St. Urban, match the up-and-coming Seventh Street dining district’s creative and stylish vibe. Its concept The Collins Small Batch Kitchen reflects the Biltmore’s family-friendly neighborhood with a daily menu of favorites and a rotating weekly menu based on the season’s freshest ingredients available. And the recently opened Collins Bros. Chophouse in the McCormick Ranch neighborhood is the company’s take on a classic chophouse that fits nicely with the community.

Collins Bros. Chophouse

Of his company, Collins says, “Our Common Ground Culinary family is the best in the industry” and cites “incredible support for each of our concepts that comes from our dedication to outstanding service.” His goal is for all his concepts to be approachable by many age groups, offering a place where families can come and enjoy a meal together, couples can come on date nights or to celebrate special occasions, groups of friends can meet up for an awesome dinner, and people can feel comfortable and proud hosting business lunches and dinners. “I make a great effort in matching the neighborhood to the concept so that we can seamlessly integrate ourselves into our guests’ daily lives,” says Collins.

Looking back over the recent COVID-19-related challenges, Collins relates, “I can say my leadership style never changed these past couple of years. The biggest lesson I learned from the many disruptions that came these past couple of years was the significance of control in my industry. Control is absolutely crucial in the restaurant industry. Control over every little detail is something that restaurateurs need to get their vision executed properly. I realized that there are certain things that are 100% out of your control. Once I, myself, came to accept our current environment, I was able to work with my team on an individual level to strategize a way to push on collectively as a team. Once we got a good grip on the situation, we were able to breathe a little easier from a management perspective. Our success was directly related to rolling with the punches and worrying only about what was within our control.”

Conceptually Social

“Location and concept style typically go hand in hand,” says partner and co-founder Kyu Utsunomiya. He cites North Scottsdale’s elevated brand experience and Old Town Scottsdale’s heavy bar and nightclub focus as standard examples. However, he sees the East Valley (Gilbert, Chandler, Queen Creek) as exceptions to the norm, due to the multi-family housing growth that has created huge demand for any and all concept style.

The Larry

“Connecting to the local diner has now, more than ever, been influenced by social media and food and bar influencers such as AZ Foodie Diana Brandt and Eat Drink AZ’s Melissa Anaya.” Utsunomiya sees this even more pronounced with TikTok influencers and the teen-to-mid-20s generation, and adds, “Collateral influence is also significant when the locals themselves post their experiences and recommendations.” In fact, Utsunomiya notes that live remote and in-studio spots were previously the strongest way to reach the local diner but now barely move the needle. “As well, as much as many restaurants would love to participate in local food festivals, the price tag to costs and impact on labor resources is now showing to be too costly to justify,” he shares.

Utsunomiya credits the company’s embracing of change as a significant positive. “These past years have taught us to pivot quickly. The best example of this is with how, when and where we launched our most recent concept, Kaizen Sushi,” he shares. The partners’ original plan was to open it on Roosevelt Row in its own space but, with the pandemic affecting the economy, realized they could open and launch Kaizen Sushi within their existing concept space, The Larry. “As The Larry was a breakfast and lunch, Monday-through-Friday concept, we weren’t maximizing the space and its revenue ability.” So, they decided to focus Kaizen Sushi as dinner-only for this first location and use simple ways to change esthetic via artwork, table setup and style of service, changing from the Larry’s daytime counter service to Kaizen Sushi’s nighttime full service. 

Deciding to launch the concept at the start of the pandemic shutdowns, Utsunomiya and his partners focused on take-out and delivery — running orders to guests as they drove up to the restaurant and creating their own delivery program. Regarding the latter, having the resources of their catering company, Conceptually Social Catering, was an advantage since third-party delivery took a heavy percentage. They had warming boxes to keep hot menu items hot and coolers to separately store and transport the cold, as well as the vehicles to use for delivery. “Our goal,” Utsunomiya says, “was to extend the guest service model via delivery and prove to ourselves that elevated sushi could travel and be delivered all over the Valley.”

Fox Restaurant Concepts

“I don’t have a structured approach to how we grow in the market,” says Sam Fox, founder of Fox Restaurant Concepts, explaining, “I am inspired by real estate, a new growing neighborhood or menu items I come across in my travels that might complement an area in our home state.” For Culinary Dropout, for example, he jumped on an old motorcycle garage on 7th Street in Phoenix. “Everyone thought we were crazy,” he recalls, “but we are so happy we took that chance, because the space is just amazing.”

Noting that everyone in the restaurant business has to learn to adjust based on ever-evolving circumstances, Fox says, “I’ve always seen that as just a challenge to make ourselves better.” Recently, for instance, the pandemic caused FRC to focus strongly on its to-go business — emphasizing the importance of providing food that’s good from the time it’s ordered to the moment it makes it to the table at home. “We also invested in key technology to help make takeout dining more convenient overall,” he says.

“I take pride in the fact that we will not sacrifice hospitality or forget the gratitude we have for every guest, so we’ve also doubled down on training and food development, even though it would have been easier to cut back,” Fox shares. In fact, he says he sets high standards, and he credits his team with upholding those standards, day in and day out. “It’s taxing, but it’s rewarding and really sets us apart in our industry,” he says.

Culinary Dropout on 7th Street

With multiple concepts and varied locations, Fox says he bring gratitude and humility to connecting with the local diner. “We will never forget where we started. I am so thankful.”

Fox has also recently launched a new hospitality endeavor, Author & Edit Hospitality. Its first property, The Global Ambassador hotel, is expected to open next year at Camelback Road and 44th Street. Not surprisingly, the dynamic restaurateur — whose numerous industry recognitions include multiple James Beard Foundation awards as Outstanding Restaurateur — has planned a stellar lineup of inventive culinary offerings. The hotel’s signature restaurant will be a Parisian bistro and brasserie offering artisan coffee and exquisite pastries by day and curated wine and charcuterie pairings by night. There will be a poolside restaurant highlighting Mexican and Peruvian dishes; a sophisticated members-only grill built around a centerpiece bar; and a rooftop restaurant and lounge overlooking the iconic Camelback Mountain boasting inventive cocktails and shareable plates inspired by the many flavors of the Mediterranean region. 

The Maggiore Group 

“It has always been important for us to really put forth a lot of time, thought and intention into our concepts,” says co-founder Joey Maggiore. “For every single concept we create, we think of every single detail — from the location to the menu to the cocktail program, design, ambiance, music, staff attire and even more, to cultivate an intentional full dining experience.” For instance, the Hash Kitchen locations in Scottsdale tend to attract many leisure guests who are looking for unique brunch experiences while they are visiting resorts or attractions such as golf courses and spring training games. The Sicilian Butcher locations are strategically placed next door to The Sicilian Baker in family-friendly neighborhoods, as they’re meant to be a casual Italian-Sicilian dining establishment for everyday dining and a gathering locale for families and friends.

Sicilian Butcher

The restaurateurs’ success in connecting to the local diner lies in making them feel like a part of the family by welcoming them in a warm, hospitable environment coupled with a unique experience. “It is incredibly important for our staff to have a passion for hospitality and to have the ability to provide guests with high-level service. We really try to make sure of that from start to finish — our guests feel like they are being taken care of and our hospitality staff is taking care of them.”

Always striving to keep things new and exciting, Maggiore says, “Social media definitely drives a lot of what we do. That is the direction our world has gone into, and to ignore that would be one of the biggest mistakes we could ever make.” He credits success also to “consistently refreshing our current concepts and creating new ones.” This includes creating experiences no one has ever tried before such as a build-your-own cannoli bar at The Sicilian Baker, a Bloody Mary bar where guests can customize their beverage from start to finish at Hash Kitchen, and an interactive margarita bar at The Mexicano, all of which he says has worked really well. “Brunch, Italian or Mexican restaurant concepts aren’t new. However, we stay ahead of the curve with elevated food and beverage programs and differentiate ourselves with accentuated social media-driven dining ambiances.”

Hash Kitchen made the Nation’s Restaurant News list this year as a 2022 breakout brand and is the only Arizona restaurant brand on the nationally recognized and coveted list. “The recognition really took our businesses to the next level and has given me the creative freedom to continue developing new restaurant concepts — with The Italiano and The Rosticceria in our restaurant opening plans in the new year,” Maggiore shares. “Being named as a ‘breakout brand’ by an established publication has allowed us to accelerate our expansion plans outside of Arizona and reach new communities.”

Hash Kitchen

Square One Concepts

Square One Concepts is planning a second location of Famous 48 opening soon in Gilbert, and anticipates a high-end demand in menu options from that particular Gilbert neighborhood similar to the demand at its flagship Famous 48 in Scottsdale at Gainey Village. Similarly, the third location of Bourbon & Bones Chophouse and Bar opening in December in North Peoria at 83 Marketplace is anticipated to produce a very solid performance, again based on area demand, according to S. Barrett Rinzler, president and CEO. “So, you might see a pattern here. Our site selections recently tend toward outlying, underserved areas; and then niches of the inner city where we see missing options that one of our brands can deliver,” he says. 

Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers Downtown

Brand décor is fairly standard throughout each location of each particular concept — but with flexibility to customize design based on the unique characteristics of each space in order to appeal to the local customers. Rinzler gives as example of filling a niche the Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers Downtown that opened in late summer at Chase Field. “It has s a fantastic atmosphere every day and makes sports fans even more enthusiastic to be there. It’s a destination dining spot that raises the excitement at all 13 Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers locations.” New locations next year will be in Maricopa, Verrado in Southwest Phoenix, and in Northwest Tucson in Oro Valley. The following year will see locations open in Surprise at the new Prasada as well as potential others out of state.

“We’re straightforward about our dining experiences. That’s how we succeed at connecting to the local diner,” Rinzler says. Describing the B&B Cocktail Lounge in Old Town Scottsdale as a fabulous spot to escape and relax, he says its contemporary throwback vibe of a golden age of cocktails plus gourmet shared plates appeals to a broader range of guests than had been imagined. “Bourbon & Bones Chophouse and Bar is for that discriminating diner with a cocktail program second to none, whereas Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers delivers a high-quality, casual setting with great food and sports viewing that is second to none in the Valley.” Famous 48 is a cut above CB&CB in terms of the experience and features some great food options along with an energetic atmosphere with sports, events and live entertainment.

Says Rinzler, “You connect with customers when you deliver on the anticipated. For us, it’s the finest food at a value. If the value is there, the price point diminishes in importance honestly. We work hard to crystalize each brand’s layers, each’s calling card. That way, local or otherwise, diners have confidence in the experience.” 

There’s been no change in style of service due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Rinzler notes the need today to be flexible. “No longer is a menu set for a year or even six months,” he says. “Today, we think ahead, stay aware of supply costs and have a team ready to rock ’n’ roll when adjustments are needed.” The most important need he sees is knowing the customer. “Arizona diners, especially in the Valley, are sophisticated; they’re accustomed to quality at every level,” he says, describing our lifestyle here as a cut above most places. “We’re a hometown company, and no matter how large we grow, we want our customers to love our dining experiences.” 

Famous 48

And there has been industry recognition as well, with Rinzler being named Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame “Restaurateur of the Year” in 2017. “For me and our entire team, it was a tremendous vote of confidence that the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame believed in what we were doing — enough so to award us with such recognition,” Rinzler says. “While there may have been an uptick in our business, more important was the great honor and a huge boost of morale to myself and our team.”

Upward Projects

“Upward Projects is more than just a catchy title,” says Lauren Bailey, CEO and co-founder. “It speaks to both our ethos of building up the communities we serve, and also how we are a proud collective of 25-plus markedly unique restaurants over five brands in four states.”

Best known for Postino, an Arizona-born restaurant concept with unique locations across Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Georgia, the company also caters to a wide variety of audiences and neighborhoods thanks to additional restaurants: Joyride Taco House, Federal Pizza, Windsor and Churn. And the company is always on the hunt for cool historic buildings and underserved communities to bring its brand to. “When opening any new location, our first choice is always adaptive reuse and restoring existing building that are an integral part of the history and fabric of the neighborhoods they surround. Plus, by not using a cookie-cutter design approach, we’re able to incorporate the unique design and history of a building to inspire each location’s unique art and design.” For example, Postino is known for mid-century modern design; however, each location has an art wall that ties back to the building’s history. The art wall may be made of retro telephones, keys, polaroid pictures or books; no two walls are the same — but each relates to the neighborhood and history of the space, such as Tucson’s museum of neon highway signage and the Denver LoHi location inside a former book bindery. 

Postino – Credit: Shelby Moore

As far as focusing on unique, hidden pockets, Bailey says, “When we first chose to open Postino in Gilbert, a lot of people told us we were crazy. But Craig DeMarco, who is Upward Projects’ founding partner, and I just knew it would be a great spot to land especially because there weren’t many wine spots in that part of town.” Now years later, the Gilbert Postino has proven to be one of Upward Projects’ most popular locations, and Bailey expresses appreciation of how the community has “adopted us and made us the gathering point for so many celebrations, get-togethers and memorable moments. It’s truly such a lovely community to be part of.”

And Bailey shares the personal history that underlies another Postino location. “As for Postino Annex in Tempe, Craig and I were both ASU graduates, so going ‘home’ just made sense. Craig came up in the business bartending on Mill Avenue and I worked at both PF Chang’s and House of Tricks. Tempe really is where both of us fell in love with the business. So, we looked at Postino Annex as a way for us to both give back to the Tempe community, and also create a new local landmark for today’s students, professors and everyone to kick back and fall in love all over again with this amazingly vibrant college community.”

As the Arizona wine and craft beer scene has evolved and grown over the past 20 years, Upward Projects has focused on continuing to offer guests unique, tasty experiences. “At Postino, we were able to work with a winemaker to develop our signature ‘Downtown’ blend, which is now a fan favorite,” Bailey says. “We’re also privileged to have the opportunity to build relationships with local breweries which allows us to source quality hops for our beer lovers.” 

Windsor – Credit: Grace Stufkosky

Another example of connecting to the community is Upward Projects’ supporting it in a hyper-local perspective. This last April, Postino Wine Cult hosted a Pride Ride that raised money for Arizona-based LGBTQ+ local nonprofit One-N-Ten at the Postino Central location. The company has also partnered with Phoenix Children’s Hospital by gifting complimentary Board and Bottle redemption cards to 6,000 nurses to celebrate Nurses Week and to thank them for all they do in our community. And, says Bailey, “Serving as the Devour Culinary co-founder; we are fortunate to execute a hyper-local food festival here in Valley that showcases independent restaurants, and strengthens the fabric of the Phoenix dining community that we all enjoy so much.” 

Upward Projects recently introducing Arizona’s first-ever wine subscription service, Postino Wine Cult, which Bailey says “has given us an amazing new platform to interact with our most loyal guests.” The innovative program extends the Postino connection right into customers’ homes and allows these “culties” to share their passion for boutique wines with friends and family who might have never stepped inside one of the restaurants. “Plus,” Bailey notes, “it’s a great way to create a space for exclusive perks and experiences, and really make them a part of the extended Postino family.”

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