'Really great time' for Tempe as new Postino anchors College Avenue revitalization
Twenty years ago, then-roommates Craig DeMarco and Julian Wright, similar to many in their early 20s, were trying to decide on what they wanted to do for a career.
Both were attending ASU, and DeMarco was working at the Balboa Café, a now-defunct Mill Avenue bar.
“In the mid ‘90s, Craig and I were both soul searching for what we wanted to do for a career ... bouncing ideas off each other,” Wright said. “We both found that we were drawn to the restaurant business.”
The restaurant business would end up treating them well, but neither was instantly successful.
“It took us a little bit of time to figure it out,” Wright said. “But once we both figured it out and sunk our teeth into it, we both embraced success a lot.”
The former roommates are still friends, but after 15 years of growing their separate restaurant businesses, they’re now two of the most successful restaurateurs in the Valley and soon-to-be competitors.
DeMarco’s Upward Projects and Wright’s Fork and Dagger own and operate at least eight restaurants each. DeMarco grew his brand in the Arcadia and central Phoenix area, while Wright focused on Mill Avenue in Tempe.
However, DeMarco is now joining his friend in Tempe. The fourth Postino WineCafe is set to open in the north half of the nearly 7,500 square foot Art Annex on College Avenue, just two blocks away from Wright’s cluster of four Mill Avenue establishments.
“I think our timing is right for us,” DeMarco said. “But there’s other people who have been down there doing a great job before us. ... (Wright has) been down on Mill flogging it out for years. He’s even more of a Tempe trailblazer."
When he got into the restaurant business more than a decade ago, Wright had no intentions of opening up shop on Mill Avenue.
Wright called it “fate” that brought him to the area. It wasn’t the college culture, growing economy or influx of corporations located there today. In fact, Wright takes pride in bringing, at least in part, that growth to downtown Tempe.
“Originally, I found a location on Mill that just fit the personality of the concept I was working on,” Wright said. “I was comfortable with the area, and I felt that I could create something there that wasn’t there before, which I’ve done time and time again for 14 years now.”
Similar circumstances resulted in DeMarco opening the original Postino in the Phoenix neighborhood of Arcadia. Around the same time, DeMarco was close to a deal on a separate property before the historic Arcadia post office property “came out of nowhere,” Wright said.
While the two locations don’t share a lot aesthetically, they do share one important factor: the vision of two of the Valley’s most successful restaurateurs. Wright has conquered the Tempe bar scene, while DeMarco has specialized in casual, high-quality eating.
When he first moved onto Mill Avenue, Wright said there wasn’t much competition.
“A lot of times, I was just competing with myself,” Wright said. “But I always pushed to reinvent and recreate and come up with fresh ideas and fresh concepts for downtown.”
Finally, his efforts started to come to fruition about a year ago, as College Avenue began to expand and multiple restaurants and bars opened on Mill Avenue.
“It started well over a year ago,” Wright said. “There’s been more competition than the prior 12 years.”
He’s survived on his own for more than a decade, and with competition for a year. Now, with Postino opening up just two blocks away, he’s not afraid. Rather, he’s excited for the future of the area.
“We’re all excited to have Craig and Sam Fox move downtown,” Wright said. “(They) represent (Tempe) ... maturing and finally having enough post-grad and business professional density to support higher-end concepts and not just be reliant on college kids.”
Fox is another Arizona-based restaurateur. However, he’s expanded to more than just the Valley. Fox Restaurant Concepts has more than 14 concepts in 39 locations “and counting,” according to its website.
Fox’s newest location is his fourth rendition of Culinary Dropout, which is set to open on Farmer Avenue and First Street in Tempe, in a similar style to The Yard in Phoenix.
While Wright focuses on the bar scene and Fox continues to thrive with outdoor eating, DeMarco has opened restaurants in buildings he and Upward Projects renovate with adaptive reuse. Adaptive reuse entails finding an older building that is the “heart of a neighborhood” and renovating it to give it “another life,” DeMarco said.
The Art Annex has had many lives in its 60-year existence. While ASU has owned it for the majority of the time, it was originally an Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic School classroom. Under ASU’s ownership, it has served mostly as classrooms.
But while DeMarco and Wright were doing their soul searching, ASU football players were using the historic red brick building as a locker room, including during ASU’s 1987 Rose Bowl season.
“(Upward Projects’) big mission is adaptive reuse ... so we looked in Tempe and looked and looked, and finally heard that the Art Annex building at Sixth Street and College was going to be repurposed, and we got ahold of ASU,” DeMarco said.
Upward Projects has strict criteria to determine whether a location fits the vision of the company. The Art Annex checked all the boxes.
“It hit all the criteria for the site selection process: 1954 building, architecture and historical relevance, surrounded by great neighborhood,” DeMarco said. “A lot of these times when you just knock it down and build a brand new building, you lose a lot of the charm, the soul and the history, which is what we care about."
Another integral part of Upward Projects vision is developing an area and building a community. On Central Avenue in Phoenix, DeMarco did this by opening five restaurants on the same block. While there are no official plans for additional Upward Projects restaurants in Tempe, DeMarco said he is actively looking for additional real estate in the area that fits his criteria.
Postino likely wouldn’t be opening in the Art Annex if it weren’t for David Wetta of Wetta Ventures, who signed the lease on the building with ASU, then subleased it to DeMarco. When Wetta presented Postino to ASU for approval, university officials weren’t familiar with their alumnus’s restaurants. However, it was an easy sell, Wetta said.
“The University was really counting on me,” Wetta said. “They weren’t familiar with Postino, which I think was a little unnerving to Craig.”
Wetta Ventures, like Upward Projects, focuses on adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Rather than open its own restaurants in them, however, Wetta finds businesses to which he can sublease the property.
Like DeMarco, Wetta thinks Tempe is becoming increasingly attractive for businesses. When he got the opportunity to lease the Art Annex, he couldn’t say no.
Although many businesses are looking at Tempe, Wetta said they are trying to avoid the bustling Mill Avenue because of culture that comes with it.
“They don’t want to be on Mill Avenue,” Wetta said. “They want to be in Tempe around the University to take advantage of all the great activity. But they want another kind of identity than Mill Avenue offers.”
The weekend crowds can make the sidewalks near impossible to navigate and endanger those driving in the area, all so “a bunch of college kids (can take) advantage of their weekend,” Firehouse Tempe server Elle Engler said.
Firehouse is a newer bar on Mill Avenue, located at University Drive. Not all businesses are part of the bar scene, though. Hippie Gypsy is a smoke shop on Sixth Street that caters to a more laid-back crowd.
“(There are) just a lot of drunk people,” Hippie Gypsy employee Sierra Druyon said of a typical Friday night on Mill. “(Dressed up) more fancy than they would be — and less clothing than they should be wearing, that’s for sure.”
Just up and across Mill is El Hefe Super Macho Taqueria, one of the more rowdy bars on the street, Engler said. El Hefe is partially owned by Wright.
Engler listed her bar, El Hefe and Gringo Starr — also owned by Wright — as the most popular bars on Mill.
While she said she enjoys working on Mill, not having to deal with the drunk people on her commute home makes it easier on her — she lives on Mill, which, she said, presents its own problems because of the noise.
It’s a different story for Druyon, who can’t seem to avoid the crowd on her way home from work at the popular smoke shop.
“The only obnoxious thing is the amount of jaywalking that happens late at night,” she said. “Being a sober driver who’s driving home from work, and having drunk people run in front of you ... is very scary. You’re afraid you’re going to hit someone.”
However, jaywalking isn’t the most dangerous thing the drunks of Mill Avenue are doing. Many of them, Engler said, are getting in their cars and driving after a night of barhopping.
“I would say there are more irresponsible drinkers than responsible ones,” Engler said. “The DUIs here are nuts. A lot of kids do live around here, too, so I’m sure they think they can just make it home.”
She commended the police presence and amount of taxicabs available.
According to the Arizona Department of Liquor, Arizona police made 413 DUI arrests during its latest DUI taskforce over St. Patrick’s Day weekend, up from 364 the year before. The amount of traffic stops nearly doubled, from 4,899 in 2013 to 8,643 in 2014.
The year 2013 was the first on record (dating back to 2004) that DUI arrests decreased in the state of Arizona. The number dropped from 32,171 in 2012 to 26,890 in 2014, the least DUIs since 2010.
Even though Druyon and Engler agreed that it can be dangerous, both said working on Mill is a fun, unique experience.
“It’s always interesting; there’s never a dull moment,” Druyon said. “If it was anywhere else, it wouldn’t be as fun.”
Despite the new developments of College Avenue, two blocks east, Druyon was adamant that it — or anything else — could never compare to Mill Avenue.
That’s good for Tempe, Wright thinks. Although he dismissed the idea that being on Mill Avenue brings a negative connotation with it.
“The more Mill Avenue matures, the more it attracts residents and businesses, which is good for everybody,” Wright said. “I think the scales are tipping in favor of decent restaurants for the first time in Mill Avenue’s history.”
Even a company as innovative as Upward Projects didn’t want to enter the Tempe landscape until it saw some real momentum. DeMarco pointed out USA Basketball’s plans to move onto the corner of University Drive and Mill Avenue as a positive indicator of future growth.
“I think Tempe has an amazing next 10 years,” DeMarco said. “We’re kind of looking at the landscape and seeing who else feels confident in Tempe, which builds our confidence, too.”
Postino ANX is set to open in fall 2014. Surrounded by successful local businesses, such as Royal Coffee Bar, Mad Hatter Brew Pub, Sol Diablo Cantina Kitchen and, of course, Wright’s restaurants two blocks away, DeMarco sees a bright future for the new Postino and the Mill Avenue District.
“We’re always excited about being part of something that’s bigger than ourselves,” DeMarco said. “I think it’s just a really great time for Tempe.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanWebeck