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Vin Vin Proposition
July, 2012, Page 33
Photos by David Zickl
The biggest thing we’re selling is a connection to our guests.”— Craig Demarco
The creator of Postino and La Grande Orange has an unslaked passion for cozy wine bars and vintage buildings.
Craig DeMarco stands in the middle of his next URBAN dining sensation, a 3,200-square-foot space that doesn’t have a name or even a concept yet. The 1950s building in central Phoenix, designed by famed Valley architect Al Beadle, has been gutted. All that remains are exterior walls of floor-to-ceiling glass, a bare concrete floor and, possibly, a long-lost skylight concealed by ceiling panels.
Two items sit in the otherwise-empty room: a brown leather sofa and a display board covered with photos of colors, textures and random objects torn from pages of magazines. Call it DeMarco’s low-tech version of Pinterest. Or, perhaps more accurately, his “Wouldn’t it be cool if...” board.
Those five words have been DeMarco’s guiding principle in launching eight quirky-casual neighborhood-centric eateries in 11 years, including Postino, La Grande Orange, Chelsea’s Kitchen and Windsor. “If it doesn’t start with that phrase, we don’t do it,” he says. “Not to say we’re irresponsible business owners, but it has to really be cool first.”
DeMarco says the “a-ha!” moment of his professional life came during a 2000 trip to Italy with his wife, Kris, for his 30th birthday: “Every little town had its own wine bar. Every afternoon, we’d chill out and drink wine, wearing shorts and flip-flops and T-shirts. It was very casual and a very good value. We came back and really wanted that experience in Phoenix, and it didn’t exist.”
So the young couple scraped together $150,000 (borrowing half from his father and maxing out their credit cards for the rest) and launched Postino, an unpretentious “wine café” in a 1955 brick building at Campbell Avenue and 40th Street that formerly housed Arcadia’s post office. With a kitchen that consisted of little more than two toasters and a cheap panini press, the menu was necessarily spartan – a few salads, bruschetta and panini. Postino’s signature offering? A $5 glass of wine, almost unheard of at Valley wine bars at the time. The price point engendered a whole new demographic of wine lovers. “We came back from Italy with this theory that wine is part of a lifestyle,” DeMarco says. “It wasn’t taboo to have a glass of wine at lunch. It was OK. So we decided to run the $5 deal from day one. I didn’t even run any economic studies on it. I just thought it was a cool thing to do.”
As Postino developed a near-cultish following, DeMarco opened La Grande Orange next door the following year, and added nearby Chelsea’s Kitchen in 2005 and Radio Milano in 2007. (The latter closed in 2009, the sole blemish of his career to date, although he says, “We learned more from that restaurant closing than any of them succeeding.”)
Since then, DeMarco has shifted his focus to the vintage-structure-rich area at Central Avenue and Camelback Road, where he’s cultivated an even denser cluster of restaurant brands in repurposed buildings: Postino Central, Windsor, artisan ice cream shop Churn, and the forthcoming Beadle building concept. “This neighborhood is really the most urban space we have,” he says. “[At] 40th and Campbell, we kinda fooled everybody. That’s not really urban, but we made it feel urban. This was Central Avenue. It feels like something special. There’s soul to it.”
It’s new ground in more ways than one for DeMarco, who grew up in Dobson Ranch, went to high school in Tempe and met his wife at ASU. His lengthy food-service resume includes a five-year stint managing now-defunct Balboa Cafe, where he was an avid fan of the Mill Avenue music scene. “That’s why it took me six years to finish college,” he admits.
The influences of that 1990s heyday on Mill can be seen, felt and heard at DeMarco’s various restaurants, most of which now fall under the umbrella of Upward Projects, a development company he and his wife formed with Valley investors Lauren and Wyatt Bailey. (The exceptions are LGO and Chelsea’s, which he opened with different partners.)
The entryway for Windsor, for example, is lined with old cassette tapes, reminiscent of the bar lined with Trivial Pursuit cards at the legendary Long Wong’s on Mill. “One of our things is: nothing out of a catalog,” DeMarco says. “We either find it or build it.” In that spirit, Lauren Bailey procured 80 chairs for Windsor’s patio from an ASU salvage yard for $1 apiece. DeMarco and Bailey also work with Local First founder Kimber Lanning to encourage business owners to consider adaptive reuse. Lanning cites DeMarco’s renovations – Postino Central was Katz’s Deli for 30 years, and Windsor and Churn occupy the former beauty salon where Rose Mofford’s beehive was coiffed for decades – as examples of the cost benefit to cities.
“I juxtapose them to Cabela’s in Glendale,” she says. “The city subsidized that one store for $68 million in terms of tax abatement, free land and cash. What does [adaptive reuse] cost the city of Phoenix? Maybe a parking variance.”
DeMarco also believes that giving new life to neighborhood landmarks helps to build a bridge to area residents. “We are into infill redevelopment and being part of the community,” he says. “When you’re serving a transient crowd of tourists, you’re not building regulars. The biggest thing we’re selling is a connection to our guests.”
DeMarco’s appetite for grassroots engagement led him to sell his interest in two La Grande Orange properties in California shortly after they opened in 2008; ever since, he opens only properties where the ownership team can have a regular presence. After the Beadle building, the 42-year-old has yet-to-be-fleshed-out plans for a fifth restaurant at Central and Camelback. He also wants to open two more in Gilbert’s downtown Heritage District, which welcomed Postino East in March.
“We’d love to go to Tempe – Tempe’s probably our next move – then north Scottsdale,” DeMarco says, gazing off into the distance and the future. “Wouldn’t it be cool if...”
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