Valley restaurateurs and slow-food advocates want an elite food culture in Phoenix. Does regulation stand in the way?
Ted Batycki winds through a maze of grass-green walls with earthy brown bases. He passes a gaggle of chirping ladies armed with spray bottles full of vinegar, boxes of baking soda and a cardboard arsenal of Starbucks to fuel their merry cleaning on a sticky August morning in Cave Creek. Batycki expertly dodges a work crew assembling a table and maintains an effortless commentary, despite the intruding sounds and smell of the construction site. The buzz of a saw here, a puff of woodsy dust there to invade the nose and moisten the eyes – Batycki remains a polo-and-khaki-clad Sherpa unfazed by the chaos around him. He’s in his element at the site of the second location of Natural Choice Academy, the Valley’s first all-natural preschool, talking about what he loves most – education and nutrition.
“Here at Natural Choice Academy, one thing that we really pride ourselves on is our food,” Batycki says. “Unlike the typical school setting, all of the food is made right here on-site. It’s not frozen chicken nuggets, it’s not frozen fish sticks and it’s not French fries. It’s all real food. The big focus of what we do here is organic food: 95 percent of the ingredients that we use in our food are certified organic. The remaining 5 percent you simply can’t get organically, but we keep looking.
“What is really exciting is being able to take food from our garden and bring it here into the kitchen and make amazing meals out of it. A typical meal here might be something like white rice with organic chicken with cilantro that was grown in our garden.”
The future of that garden is troubling Batycki, co-owner of both NCA locations with wife Genna Batycki and sister-in-law Allyson Tewers. There have been rumblings of increased county regulations for on-site gardens that could hinder the garden’s progress or perhaps even put the kibosh on the whole preschool seed-to-table concept, at least locally. While some elementary and charter schools have similar programs regulated by the state, NCA is the first preschool of its kind in the Valley. Batycki’s concerns mirror the fears of would-be restaurateurs and food-truck operators throughout the Valley, who dread the red-tape rigmarole of regulations and licensing.
Without a doubt, the Valley’s food culture has improved dramatically over the past decade. Still, statistics indicate room for improvement. Phoenix is the sixth most populous city in the United States and is the most populous state capital, a reality not reflected proportionally in its food-and-beverage industry. Arizona has the fourth-lowest number of full-service restaurants per 100,000 residents in the U.S, according to FSR magazine, a restaurant-management trade publication. Meanwhile, the Valley’s celebrated food-truck scene, while growing, is dwarfed by comparison with other cities. San Francisco’s population is half of Phoenix’s, yet it boasts around 250 food trucks compared to our 48, according to Small Business Labs, which tracks and forecasts small-business trends.
Which asks the question: Is food in Phoenix everything it could be? And would a little less regulation be helpful?
When the nationwide popularity of gourmet food trucks picked up steam in the early part of the last decade, the Valley was noticeably slow out of the station. The most widely-cited reason: City-by-city zoning laws that made it difficult for operators to park near places with heavy pedestrian traffic. And it’s still a problem – though one that city leaders and food truck entrepreneurs are beginning to jointly address.
As chairman of the Phoenix Street Food Coalition, Brad Moore (owner with wife Kat of the Short Leash Hot Dogs food truck and its stationary offshoot, Sit…Stay)` has worked with food-truck operators, local businesses and city and county officials to boost the food-truck industry in the Valley. He’s working on an initiative with Mayor Greg Stanton’s office to improve parking rules for trucks and meeting with other cities to develop streamlined processes to make moving about the Valley easier.
“In the past three years, it’s (been) a big shift from, ‘Oh, you just have to figure it out on your own,’ to ‘Oh, let’s sit down and have a conversation and figure out how we can utilize the popularity of food trucks,’” Moore says. “It comes from the city’s willingness to work with us and create some processes that are easier to navigate and activate these temporary spaces (for food trucks to park). There are still reasons – and rightfully so – why they won’t allow you to just park on the street in Downtown, just due to congestion and trying to minimize hazards there. You can do some on-street parking outside of that Downtown core; you just can’t be on a major thoroughfare. It has to be on side streets. I think it’s limited to 30 minutes and then you have to move 300 linear feet because they don’t want people camped out in the public way for long periods of time.”
According to Moore, a bigger obstacle for Valley food truck operators than onerous regulation is the basic urban structure of the Valley itself.
“You have to have a different approach here, so what we’ve tried to do with our truck and our business is think of it in terms of how do we group [many] food trucks together,” Moore says. “You almost have to create a destination for people to go to, as opposed to if you were in downtown San Francisco [where] you could probably survive on just the pedestrian traffic that passes by. Even in the downtown core, if you park on the corner you might not have too many pedestrians passing by.”
His solution, and that of other Valley food trucks: Create special events like Food Truck Fridays at Phoenix Public Market, and Saturday’s Food Truck Caravan in Scottsdale. “It’s just a different type of [urban area], so you have to have a different approach,” Moore says. “The approach that’s worked for us is, how do you create, out of a vacant parking lot, a destination? How do you create a place that people will want to go to and, ultimately here in Phoenix, will get in their car and drive to?”
Aric Mei, owner of The Parlor Pizzeria in Phoenix, agrees that the Valley’s structural feng shui is slightly off. “I think unfortunately the city planning in Phoenix is what is most responsible for the fact that we’re behind culturally,” Mei says. “We really are lacking an identity in terms of where our true epicenter is. Most big cities have a real, true epicenter. They have a Downtown that is a real Downtown. Do we have a Downtown? Yes. Is it pretty much a ghost town after 5 o’clock? Yes. We also have Tempe, where the university is, which is arguably another epicenter. We have Old Town Scottsdale, that’s arguably another one. We have 24th Street and Camelback, which is where the Parlor is closest to, that’s another sort of (key) spot. We don’t just have one thing, we just have this sprawl, these enormous distances that people have to overcome if they want to get somewhere.”
License to Still
Still, regulation can’t be wholly dismissed when evaluating the Valley’s relatively underserved eating scene. To wit: Arizona’s liquor licensing regulations are regarded as some of the most restrictive and Byzantine in the nation, and may play a role in suppressing the number of Valley restaurants – especially full-service restaurants, which often rely on beverage sales to broaden their profit margins. It’s no coincidence that the state with the lowest number of restaurants-per-100,000 residents – Utah, with 49.6 – also drinks the least, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“There are a lot of parts to this moving machine,” says Lee Hill, communications director for the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control. Applicants for liquor licenses must wait 105 days for their application to be processed, which includes a thorough background check. After state approval is granted, the application is sent to a local governing body, where it goes through another round of scrutiny and concomitant licensing, processing, issuing and, later, renewal fees. “The licensee almost has to apply twice,” Hill says.
Additionally, of Arizona’s 17 different liquor licenses, three are classified as quota licenses, which are limited in quantity and issued via a lottery system. New licenses only become available when the population of a county increases by 10,000 residents. Once obtained, a quota license can be sold “like real property on the open market,” Hill says. Some such licenses have been sold on Craigslist and eBay.
These quota licenses apply to bars, beer and wine bars and liquor stores. As such, the state’s emerging brewing and microdistillery industry has struggled to find its footing within the licensing system. Arizona has only three microdistillers; comparably-populated Washington has around 60.
“Our industry is still new,” says Jason Grossmiller, distiller and co-owner of Arizona Distilling Company, a microdistillery producing small batches of craft liquor in Tempe. “Basically with local authorities, you just have to walk them through the process and show them what you’re making. You just have to let them know that you’re not making moonshine in the backyard, you’re not storing 100-proof alcohol by an open flame.”
Grossmiller’s main quibble is with what he feels are exorbitant tax rates at the federal level, which tax smaller, homegrown operations like ADC the same rate as industry monoliths like Jack Daniel’s: $13.50 per proof gallon. Tax breaks exist for breweries and wineries, but not yet for microdistilleries. Grossmiller is hopeful that with local authorities’ increased knowledge and understanding of his industry will come more local support and potential for tax-incentive legislation at a local level to offset the federal weight.
“When they learn what we’re trying to do, they’re eager to figure it out with us and work with us through it,” Grossmiller says. “It’s a learning process for everybody.”
County and state officials don’t see themselves in the food-and-bev suppression business. Ideally, they work to balance the general good with business-friendly policies. To that end, they’ve approached emerging industries – from food trucks to microdistilleries to, now, preschool gardens – as learning opportunities to grow and develop regulations that make sense and enhance the experience for guests and operators, says Sherry Gillespie, government relations manager for the Arizona Restaurant Association.
“Our food code comes from the federal government, so it’s an FDA food code and we adopt it for Maricopa County and counties throughout the state,” Gillespie says. “You can also adopt supplements that are essentially extra chapters to the food code. As things change, they then adopt these changes within their food codes and different counties do.”
John Kolman agrees. Kolman is director of Maricopa County Environmental Services, which issues permits and conducts inspections of restaurants, public accommodations, pet shops and school grounds. He says that consumer safety is paramount and that regulations exist to further that goal, which government, industry and consumers all share.
“We’re working cooperatively to make sure that the public is safe out there,” says Kolman. “We definitely think that regulation needs to be meaningful to the community and to the industry. Our real goal at the end of the day is not to put up obstacles or barriers. It’s to help industry come through the regulation and meet the regulations because if we’re not, we have a big disconnect out there.”
Preschool-garden operator Batycki remains cautious after hearing rumors about increased regulation for commercial businesses that would put NCA’s garden in the same category as on-premise restaurant gardens like those found at The Parlor – where Mei produces herbs and a small crop of vegetables for the kitchen – and the Camelback Inn.
“We’re certainly aware of what’s coming: it’s a regulatory environment that’s about food safety,” Batycki says. “There are current guidelines for schools, but a preschool like ours is treated like a commercial business. We’re treated the same as a restaurant. Currently there are no regulations in place for commercial businesses (regarding on-site gardens) and the county, from what we’ve heard, is preparing to come up with some rules. There are some people that lean toward not allowing it at all and there are others that perhaps are more like-minded to us.”
Batycki hopes that both NCA gardens – the first location’s 1,000 square feet and the new location’s 2,000 square feet – will remain intact and spark a trend in preschool garden-grown food. NCA’s gardener, Laura Denyes, has taken a garden safety class and is employing a training manual for school gardens developed by the University of Arizona in partnership with the Arizona Department of Health Services. She sees it as a proactive jump-start to ensuring that the gardens meet any future county requirements. Batycki’s team has installed prep sinks in the gardens, use separate prep sinks for garden food in their kitchens, plant only organic seeds, use an organic, vegetable-based cleanser in the kitchen and have thoroughly educated themselves about proper food safety, the crux of existing and potential regulations.
“It’s a free program right now where they’re just trying to get people ahead of the curve, so we thought why not be involved from the beginning and really establish and maybe influence some of that practice?” Denyes says. “I am rooting for compost and rainwater harvesting, but that’s not part of it at the moment…First things first, let’s make sure the kids can eat food that they’ve participated in growing.”
Kolman says that this is in line with the county’s aims.
“We as an agency try to key in on that and help schools and industry make good choices, help them understand what things they should be doing in their facilities in terms of washing and cleaning and making sure, at the end of the day, that whoever consumes that product, that we’ve done what we can to reduce the likelihood of illness,” Kolman says. He says education and an ongoing dialogue with restaurateurs and people like Batycki are more important and effective than a “static checklist.” It’s more about a holistic understanding of food safety and making it a part of everyday processes.
These small on-site gardens are apt metaphors for the Valley food-and-beverage scene at large – checked, but thriving and growing despite tangible obstacles.
“Parlor’s garden is organic and it’s respected and people love it. I’ve talked to dozens of people who have told me that our sweet little garden inspired them to go home and plant their own or it’s just got them thinking more about sourcing food locally,” The Parlor’s Mei says. “It’s doing exactly what we wanted it to do, which is get people thinking about seasonality in food, freshness in food and proximity in food...There’s a lot of real opportunity here (in the Valley) and luckily enough, we have a lot of great people who are thinking about things in the right way and trying to push things in the right direction. I think it’s going to be an evolution like any city, but hopefully we’re heading in the right direction.”