As the temperatures cool down a little we head to another of the Valley’s hot corners — spots that have something going on. Today's tour guide is Kimber Lanning, Executive Director of Local First Arizona.
We met in downtown Gilbert, at the corner of Gilbert Road and Page Avenue, at the north end of downtown. Sitting outside at Water Tower Plaza, underneath the aforementioned water tower, Lanning says downtown Gilbert has become a hotbed of locally owned shops and restaurants.
One of the restaurants Kimber mentioned is kind of a poster child for a new program Maricopa County has started: it gives restaurateurs the option of a cheaper, six-month permit, rather than the normal year-long one. The idea is to encourage them to open in non-traditional spaces. The original Postino, in Arcadia, is housed in an old post office.
Lauren Bailey is a co-founder of Upward Projects, which owns Postino, as well as several other Valley restaurants, Federal Pizza and Windsor among them.
Bailey said all these restaurants are in spaces not built for restaurants. When she looks for real estate, she says she looks for something older, with some character.
"It’s something that’s important to us, and we think that Phoenicians especially are really proud of the history of this city, and we look at that as a way to highlight it," Bailey said.
Bailey said she and her colleagues let the buildings tell them what they want to be, rather than looking for a space for a specific concept. She said working with older buildings can be both a blessing and a curse.
"You never know what you’re going to find, and sometimes those things are really amazing things that you find, most of the time, and sometimes the curse side is that you find something that ends up costing you a little bit more money or makes it so you can’t do something that you originally had thought," she said.
Bailey, though, said nothing she’s ever encountered in an older building has stopped her — more on that later. In approving the new program, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors is hoping to have more restaurants open in non-traditional spaces.
County Supervisor Steve Chucri, who is also the President and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association, says restaurateurs are, by their nature, risk takers.
"You’re not going to hit the ball out of the park each and every time, but I think a majority of the time you’re going to be able to utilize an existing building and make the necessary conversions," he said.
Chucri said he expects adaptive re-use to become the rule in new Valley restaurants, rather than the exception. He said restaurants have to bring it beyond their menus, since diners today expect great food when they go out to eat.
"What they want is a setting that’s going to be cool and different, where they can celebrate with their friends, and they can go and brag about it the next day and then before they go to sleep that night, they’re going to post things or check in on Facebook as to the great experience they had," Chucri said. "So, that’s why I think this is becoming more and more important."
Chucri said the restaurant industry is too competitive for operators not to look for every advantage.
Now, back to Bailey’s dealings with older buildings. She said she’s had to replace roofs and remove asbestos, among other things. But she said one of the most interesting issues cropped up when Upward Projects was turning the First Federal Savings and Loan building into Federal Pizza.
"When it was built, unbeknownst to us, they placed about a three-quarter inch plate of steel that was about 13 feet by 13 feet that was under their vault, so that no one could tunnel under the ground and get into their vault, which we thought was pretty funny," she said. "But, when we had our plumbing plan, the guys came in and started saw cutting the concrete, and they hit this and we couldn’t get through it."
Bailey said the company had to re-work its plumbing plans, but that ultimately, it wasn’t that big a deal. She expects to see more Valley restaurateurs looking to older buildings for their eateries, and applauds the county for trying to encourage them to do so.