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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2004 — July — Multiconcept Operators

Desert Passage
Arizona proves fertile ground for concept creator Sam Fox.

It’s a balmy spring evening, and North, a restaurant in La Encantada, a tony shopping center nestled in the foothills of Tucson, Ariz., is filling up fast.

In 1998, President Sam Fox launched Fox Restaurant Concepts, which operates four full-service concepts including North (below) and a fast-casual pizza concept.

The restaurant’s white leather furniture, vast expanse of windows and sleek, spare styling belies the variety of customers congregated at the tables and booths: big-haired tourists; tanned, Gucci-clad retirees; belly-button-baring 20-somethings; and even a clutch of teenage girls adorned in pastel prom dresses.

The Tucson location is the second North. The original is in Scottsdale, Ariz., home of Fox Restaurant Concepts, a multiconcept operator of a handful of full-service restaurants as well as a quick-casual pizza place. It’s all the handiwork of Sam Fox, who launched the company in 1998 with a single restaurant called Wildflower.

Fox has grown slowly, opening a full-service restaurant or so a year, as well as developing Sauce, the pizza concept. But this year, the company will step up growth quite a bit.

It plans to open four Sauces and two North locations, planting the company in Phoenix, Denver and Newport, Calif.

Fox also has three more projects in development: A yet unnamed Asian-American restaurant, a 21st-century interpretation of an old-fashioned drugstore that Fox calls The Counter, and a 9,000-square-foot restaurant, wine bar, cafe and marketplace to be developed in Scottsdale, Ariz.


Company: Fox Restaurant Concepts

Headquarters: Scottsdale, Ariz.

Units: 8

2003 Systemwide Sales: $16 million

2004 Systemwide Sales: $26 million (company estimate)

Average Dinner Check: Wildflower, $35; Bistro Zin, $42; Bloom, $38; North, $30; Sauce, $10

Average Unit Volume: Wildflower, $2.6 million; Bistro Zin, $2.1 million; Bloom, $3 million; North, $3.5 million; Sauce, $1.6 million

Expansion Plans: 5 Sauces in 2004, 5 in 2005; 2 Norths in 2004

Thanks to all this activity, Fox, which grossed $16 million last year, should earn $26 million this year. “Everyone’s excited about the future,” says Christopher Cristiano, Fox’s executive chef. “Everyone’s really working hard to be where we are today.”

Deli Beginnings
Fox, 35, is no stranger to the restaurant business. His father operated delis in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., where Fox was born, and in Tucson, where the family relocated when Fox was 4 years old.

Fox dropped out of college, where he studied real-estate finance, to open a sports bar called Gilligan’s. Despite Fox’s restaurant genes, Gilligan’s proved to be more of a learning experience than a profitable venture. “I lost a lot of money, but it was a great education,” Fox says.

Three years after opening Gilligan’s, he sold it to his bookkeeper and used the proceeds to open City Grill, a more upscale concept. “I was maturing, and so was my taste and palate,” Fox says. When City Grill begat a second concept, Metropolitan Grill, Fox merged with another local restaurant company.

The match was hardly made in heaven. “My tastes were getting more sophisticated and theirs were mainstream,” Fox recalls. “I wanted to try different stuff, and we ended up not seeing eye to eye.” In 1998, the partners voted Fox out of the company.

That same year Fox opened Wildflower, a casual, full-service restaurant featuring a sophisticated yet accessible “New American” menu, in Tucson. Fox created Wildflower spinoffs Bistro Zin and Bloom, and expanded to Phoenix and Denver.

New York, Chicago or Los Angeles might seem more fertile ground for a concept creator, but Fox couldn’t be happier with Tucson. “There’s a good cross section of people in Tucson and Arizona, too,” he says, noting that the city is a popular relocation spot for New Yorkers, Californians and Midwesterners. “A lot of people eat out here. We get good feedback from guests,” he says.

Travel Plans
Fox believes that if a concept will work in Tucson, it’ll work anywhere. With that philosophy in mind, he’s designated North and Sauce as his growth vehicles. While Fox developed Sauce for expansion, he says North’s expandability took him somewhat by surprise.

Although the three current Sauce units average 2,500 square feet with seating for 60 to 90, future units will be larger to accommodate three registers, a longer queue and bigger menu boards.

North’s design is reminiscent of a big-city loft with exposed brick walls, wood floors and steel accents.

“We only intended to do one store, but that store became very successful,” says Fox. He ticks off the chic look, reasonable prices (entrees average $17) and decidedly un-Southwestern menu (Italian is its major influence) as some of the reasons each North grosses $3.5 million a year. “We’ve been knocking it out of the park since Day One,” Fox says.

Spacewise, the concept is flexible: The first North, which opened in May 2002 in Scottsdale, is 2,500 square feet; the Tucson location is 5,500 square feet. This year, the company will open Norths in Denver, where Fox operates a full-service restaurant called Bloom that opened in August 2000, and in Glendale, Ariz. Plans are also in the works for a North in Newport, Calif. “Developers are calling us,” says Fox, adding that existing cash flow will finance expansion.

North’s Seared Ahi Salad (top), $10, is served with mixed greens, asparagus and roasted-tomato vinaigrette. All customers at North receive complimentary Mediterranean kalamata olives and Tuscan bread (above).

Plans are a bit more aggressive for Sauce, a 60- to 90-seat, 2,500-square-foot space with a limited menu of pizza, pasta and salads. At Sauce, which averages $1.6 million in sales and boasts a $9 check average, customers place their own orders, then food is delivered to their tables. Opened in Tucson in 2003, the first Sauce was converted from an existing restaurant and has room for only two cash registers and a short queue. Subsequent versions of Sauce will have room for three registers, a longer queue and bigger menu boards.

Three Sauces are currently open, and three more will open this year in Gilbert, Tucson and Scottsdale, Ariz. Fox expects to open four more next year in Arizona and one in San Diego in mid to late 2005. “We’ll open 15 to 20 stores, then decide what happens,” he says.

Leaving the Comfort Zone
Fox intended Sauce to be “a concept that wasn’t so chef-driven.” That’s quite a departure, considering how often Fox and his employees use the term “chef driven.”

“It’s driven by seasons, newer culinary technique and lighter fare,” explains Cristiano, who opened Spago in Chicago. “It’s watching the trends and changing with the times, and even being a step ahead.”

Cristiano is sure that Fox will be able to preserve that chef-driven feeling even as the company expands further from its Arizona base. “All [the chefs] are under my training. That’s how we do it. I’m at the stores every single day, believe it or not. Owning a restaurant is a 24-hour business,” says Cristiano, who, along with Fox and two other executives, has a financial stake in the company. When the company starts expanding, Cristiano will keep in touch with the restaurants’ chefs via phone. “They have all my numbers,” he says.

Finding good locations will prove a much more formidable challenge, Fox says. “Making great real-estate decisions is tough when you go out of your comfort zone,” he admits, though he adds that his college courses in real estate now come in handy. “I do all my own real estate,” he says.

Realizing that he couldn’t handle the growth spurt on his own, Fox went on a hiring spree. His batch of new employees includes Mike Geavaras, a former director of operations for Ed Debevic’s who is director of operations for Sauce; Michael C. Hood, a former Restaurants Unlimited regional manager and now director of operations for Fox’s full-service concepts; and Dana Klein Schibel, Fox’s first in-house marketing executive.

“It’s been great,” says Hood, who left Restaurants Unlimited partly because of changes there but mostly to work for a startup. Fox, says Hood, “has a different approach to restaurants than I had grown up with. His style and style of food is right-on with today’s needs and customers’ needs.”

Fox’s competitors agree with Hood’s assessment. “Either you have it in this business or you don’t in terms of creating concepts and following through,” says Don Luria, owner of Café Terra Cotta in Tucson. “He’s got the right touch.”

Sauce North

Wild Mushroom and Truffled Arugula, $9

Roasted Eggplant and Hummus, $8

Chopped Salads
Spinach, Pancetta and Goat Cheese, $5

Chicken, Pine Nuts and Gorgonzola, $7

Baked Beef Lasagna, $9

Romaine Hearts, Citrus Fruits and Hazelnuts, $6

Prosciutto Shrimp, Truffled Arugula and Seared Lemons, $10

Fennel Sausage and Roasted Peppers, $11

Tagliatelle with Fresh Peas and Mushrooms, $11

Plates of the Day
Fire Roasted Steak “Delmonico,” Italian Potato and Cipollini, $26

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