Family Ties: Five Legendary Valley Dining Clans

Keridwen CorneliusJanuary 13, 2021
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The Johnstons; Photography by Mark Lipczynski
The Johnstons; Photography by Mark Lipczynski

The Johnstons

Culinary Utopians

Not long after Coffee Plantation co-founder Joe Johnston sold his coffeehouse chain in 1993, his wife, Cindy, instituted the “10-Minute Rule.” All of Joe’s future businesses had to be located within 10 minutes of their Gilbert home. Unexpectedly, this time-saving measure would profoundly shape Gilbert’s community and the lives of thousands of residents.

In Gilbert’s Heritage District, the Johnstons’ businesses – Joe’s Real BBQ, Liberty Market and Topo – have become landmarks. But it’s the transformation of the family’s 1960 homestead into the Agritopia neighborhood and farm, Joe’s Farm Grill and Barnone that fashioned Gilbert into a friendly, Mayberry-like village that embraces its agricultural roots.

It all stems from Joe’s belief that through thoughtful design, “we can influence the creation of community and make people feel like they’re welcome… I really take pleasure in people being happy, and that drives a lot of the design of [our] restaurants and communities.”

Joe and Cindy’s sons play integral roles in that community-building. William is CEO of Johnston & Co., the real estate side of the business, which is currently developing Epicenter, a mixed-used residence and retail site at Agritopia. Meanwhile, James is owner and chef at pizza place Fire & Brimstone, plus the upcoming ice cream shop Cream of the Crop, both located in Barnone – the family’s former barn.

The Johnstons fulfill their grand plans thanks to their opposite, complementary personalities. Joe is the visionary who cobbles together his travel experience and extensive research to create mental blueprints of big-picture concepts. “I think I’ve got pretty good ideas, but I’m fairly undisciplined, and I’m a procrastinator,” Joe says. That’s where Cindy comes in. “I’m very meticulous, and I usually get projects done ahead of time,” she says. Plus, James adds, “Mom doesn’t take crap from anybody.” James is a humble creative who cultivates a family atmosphere among his staff, while William is a future-oriented go-getter.

All the Johnstons – including James’ and William’s wives and children – live in Agritopia. So their customers are often their neighbors and friends, and the communities they’ve created on their own farmland intimately entwine their lives. “So we have a real sense of responsibility and stewardship for this area,” William says. “And I think it all goes back to the 10-Minute Rule.”

The Whites; Photography by Mark Lipczynski
The Whites; Photography by Mark Lipczynski

The Whites

Soul Food Fabulists

When Elizabeth White turned a former church into Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe in 1964, it was a leap of faith. Phoenix was still culturally segregated, and there wasn’t widespread demand for soul food like oxtails and okra. The single mother of four endured five lean years – until equal opportunity policies made workplaces more integrated.

“So [different races] got together that way,” recalls Elizabeth, 97. “During lunch, they would say to people, ‘Where you going to eat? And they would say, ‘We’re going to Mrs. White’s.’ And they say, ‘Can we come?’… And then we had all kinds of people coming through the cafe – whites, Mexicans, blacks, just everybody.”

Elizabeth’s son Larry eventually joined her, “and I fell in love with the cafe,” he says. “Then I had my son Larry [Jr.], and he fell in love with it.” Larry Jr. (nicknamed Lo-Lo) was so young when he started, he had to deliver drinks one at a time because he needed both hands, and he recalls playing “soldier” with his dad in the kitchen using pots and pans. Larry Jr. later opened Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles, which became a massive success and expanded to six locations, thanks to the food, fun vibe and Larry’s magnetic personality. “If you want to get rowdy, have a drink and turn up, you go to Lo-Lo’s, baby!” he says.

Larry Jr. and his family began traveling widely, picking up culinary inspirations that he turned into Monroe’s Hot Chicken (now with two locations) and Brunch & Sip (in Arcadia). Most of the White family is involved in the restaurants: Larry Sr. and his daughter, Kianna, run Mrs. White’s. Larry Jr.’s wife, Rasheedah, is in charge of finances, and their daughter Toyesha manages the Scottsdale Lo-Lo’s while overseeing company operations.

Larry Jr. didn’t attend college or culinary school; he credits his success to God and Grandma. “When I started growing [the business], my grandmother and my father would ask me, ‘Boy, where did you learn all of this?’ God paved the way, and I’m just walking the path that he has provided for. And Mrs. White laid down the foundation.” Amen.

The Borensteins; Photography by Mark Lipczynski
The Borensteins; Photography by Mark Lipczynski

The Borensteins

Legends of the Bagel

Lou and Lovey Borenstein are like a couple straight out of When Harry Met Sally. In Chompie’s award-winning YouTube videos, the pair sits on a couch and reminisces, finishing each other’s sentences and deadpanning hilarious quips in their Queens, New York, accents. But when the whole family gets together – including their three children (and business partners) Wendy, Mark and Neal – the jokes, anecdotes and compliments zing back and forth, and the conversation gets as mixed up as one of the everything bagels they serve at their beloved deli chain. Amidst the affectionate chaos, their remarkable backstory emerges, and it begins – surprisingly – with a serial killer.

In 1976, the “Son of Sam” killer was shooting women in the Queens neighborhood where Wendy was living with her first husband. Terrified of the killer and weary of New York’s weather, Wendy moved to Phoenix and persuaded the family to join her. The Borensteins had food industry experience, so they decided to introduce New York Jewish food to a Western populace that wouldn’t know gefilte fish from goldfish. Lovey recalls trying to buy Passover matzo at a Scottsdale grocery store: “You know where it was? Next to the Ajax cleaner and the furniture polish.”

They opened Chompie’s Bagel Factory in 1979, and some of their customers thought the pumpernickel bagels were chocolate doughnuts. But they gradually gained a following, thanks to their homemade food and the welcoming atmosphere Lou and Lovey created. “Mom touches a lot of people’s hearts,” Wendy explains. “She’s got generations of customers that have been bringing their grandkids and babies in just to see Mom.” Lovey agrees:
“I am very good with children. I feel like the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.”

For a time, Wendy, Mark and Neal weren’t sure the restaurant industry was for them. “No pun intended, but I needed to be in the bagel business like a hole in the head,” Neal jokes. But eventually they joined the family business full-time, with Neal developing new products, Mark overseeing operations, and Wendy in charge of marketing. “Our parents trapped us here. It’s Jewish guilt,” Mark deadpans.

Kidding aside, they all say they’ve gained a passion for their work as they’ve weathered numerous challenges and helped Chompie’s expand to multiple Valley locations. “I think our love for one another, our passion for this family and making our customers happy is our mission in life,” Wendy says.

The Maggiores; Photography by Mark Lipczynski
The Maggiores; Photography by Mark Lipczynski

The Maggiores

Meatball Virtuosos

These are difficult times for expressive Italians – especially if you’re Tomaso Maggiore, beloved owner of Tomaso’s Italian restaurant, and everyone wants to kiss you. Some regulars have been dining at this Camelback Corridor restaurant since it opened in 1977, so COVID-19 precautions have created poignant changes in the atmosphere. As Tomaso’s son, Joey, explains, “We tease my dad that he kisses everyone at Tomaso’s. Everyone wants to come in and hug and kiss, and we’re grabbing my dad and saying, ‘No, you can’t hug and kiss people right now!’”

That warmth and affection is one reason Tomaso’s has endured and given rise to a dozen more Maggiore Group eateries Valleywide. The other reason is the food. Tomaso grew up in Sicily, where his family made wine and ran a restaurant. He emigrated to New York at age 19 with $100 in his pocket, and within a few years, he was running his own restaurants. “America is wonderful,” Tomaso says. “It was very easy to be successful. The only thing you have to do is work very hard and create a nice atmosphere and great food.”

Attracted by Arizona’s Sicily-like weather, Tomaso moved the Maggiore clan to Phoenix and introduced the Valley to authentic Italian cuisine. Joey and his sister, Melissa, grew up in the family’s restaurants and have spread the Maggiore dynasty across the Valley and in California. Melissa – who Joey says is “Tomaso with a dress” – is currently transforming the Scottsdale Tomaso’s into her own concept called The Italian Daughter. Joey – who describes himself as a “loud, crazy, black sheep, gold-chained wacko” – brings his charisma to his boisterous restaurants, The Sicilian Butcher and Hash Kitchen.

The family regularly returns to Sicily, where they’re involved in winemaking, and they’re constantly trying to achieve a balance between classic Italian cooking and modern American tastes. You can hear that tension in the salty banter between rebellious Joey and traditionalist Tomaso, who’s skeptical of Joey’s bold ideas (like the Bloody Mary Bar) and once asked him to “turn off the DJ” at Hash Kitchen. But the concepts have proven popular, and Joey plans to open several new locations of The Sicilian Butcher and Hash Kitchen in 2021.

As the Maggiore Group expands, customers can still expect the personal touch, Joey says. “Anyone can open a restaurant and have good food. What separates that? Better service, better food, your personality and making people feel like they’re part of the family.”

The Chavezes; Photography by Mark Lipczynski
The Chavezes; Photography by Mark Lipczynski

The Chavezes

New Mexican Maestros

Most Arizonans know Los Dos Molinos for its spicy New Mexican fare, massive margaritas and festive atmosphere. But few know the moving story of the family behind the restaurants. It began in the 1970s when Victoria and Eddie Chavez opened an eatery in Springerville, Arizona, that Eddie built by hand. Locals clamored for Victoria’s cooking, and Los Dos Molinos soon moved to a larger space nearby. The highly independent family, including the five children – Sandy, Cheryl, Loretta, Antoinette and Andy – worked in the restaurant, built much of their home, did their own repair work and cooked almost everything they ate, from tortillas to candy.

“The kids have a funny joke about my mom and dad,” Sandy says, “because there was not a sentence that was ever said that the word ‘work’ was not in it.” Indeed, it took a lot of hard work to expand Los Dos Molinos to the Valley. For example, Victoria bought a decrepit, burned building – once the homestead of silent film star Tom Mix, later a morgue – and transformed it into their famous South Central location by spending 24 hours a day at the restaurant and sleeping in a booth.

But as their eateries experienced success, the family endured tragedies. Andy was killed in a car crash at age 18. Victoria was so shocked she suffered a stroke and lost vision in one eye. Loretta and her daughter, Dominique, got into a car accident, and Loretta died instantly. Later, Eddie was thrown from his motorcycle and eventually died due to traumatic brain injury. In November 2019, Victoria passed away.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of hardship,” says Drew Melton, Sandy’s son. “But there was no ‘give up’ in us. What’s helped us get through is the pride that we have in this business and not wanting to let each other down.”

The family is dedicated to carrying on Victoria’s legacy. “I got into this business to tell my grandma’s story and make people happy,” says Drew, who runs the Camelback location along with Cheryl’s daughter, Reina Torres. Loretta’s daughter, Dominique de la Paz, and Sandy run the South Central restaurant. Sandy’s cousin John Gabaldon runs the Mesa location.

The family’s love for each other and for those who have gone before them is what motivates them every day, Reina says. “My [family] showed us that no matter what, we needed to take pride in the legacy that they created. And we’ve been lucky enough that each of us love it as much as they do that we’ve been able to keep it going.”

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