Fox Leads the Hunt | Food Newsfeed
Christopher Barr

Sam Fox, CEO and Founder of Fox Restaurant Concepts, owns 15 foodservice concepts including The Henry, an upscale neighborhood restaurant located in the building with the company’s headquarters.

Fox Leads the Hunt

Underline Image

After raising Arizona’s dining scene, Sam Fox is opening restaurants around the country.

By Connie Gentry March 2015 Executive Insights

Sam Fox is a happy guy.

Laughing frequently as he discusses Fox Restaurant Concepts—the restaurant empire he built in Arizona and is rapidly expanding from coast to coast—Fox speaks with passion and enthusiasm about the dining concepts he’s created and the company he says has annual sales “in the range of $200 million a year.” Based in Phoenix, the company has 4,000 employees, including 85 people in the corporate office, which Fox affectionately calls “the big kitchen.”

Impressive numbers by any standard, but considering that Fox, 46, dropped out of college to open his first restaurant at age 21 and has since opened more than 15 concepts (a handful have come and gone, but the portfolio has 15 brands today), his reasons for smiling extend far beyond financial results.

For starters, real estate developers from around the country are courting him. All are eager to have Fox’s creative restaurant personality bring a new concept or one of his proven brands to their market.

“We have a whole team that is vetting real estate sites,” Fox says, adding that this type of due diligence is an important part of growing the business. “I was on a nine-hour real estate tour in LA yesterday,” he tells FSR. “I think we liked one out of the 40 sites we saw. I’m going to Washington, D.C., in a couple of weeks for a four-day real estate tour; I’ll probably stop in Chicago on the way; and I was in Texas the week before. We’re on the road frequently, looking at a lot of real estate, and that also lets us look at great restaurants around the country.”

The third-generation restaurateur can’t begin to name all the great places he’s visited and says he rarely has an opportunity to eat in the same restaurant twice, but he loves everything about the business of developing, owning, and operating restaurants.

Seventeen years into operation, Fox Restaurants’ original concept, Wildflower, is a Tucson dining landmark. The company’s portfolio is populated with six single-unit dining restaurants across the Grand Canyon State, as well as seven concepts that have expanded into multi-unit brands, plus The Rocket, a food truck, and The Showcase Room, an events facility. Fox talked with FSR about his passion for creating, when it makes sense to grow a concept from one great restaurant to several locations, and his dreams of building restaurants with adjoining hotel space.

Wildflower
Opened: 1998
Locations: One in Tucson.
Average check: $25–$30
Menu: Seasonal specialties, legendary shaken martinis, and stellar service make the Fox flagship a Tucson dining landmark.

North Italia
Opened: 2002
Locations: Six in four states.
Expansion: Adding three by 2017.
Average check: $25–$30
Menu: Menu/ A contemporary take on classic Italian food, with handmade pasta and pizza made from scratch.

The Greene House
Opened: 2005
Locations: One in Scottsdale.
Average check: $25–$30
Menu: California cuisine inspired by nature, with a boutique wine list.

Where do you get creative inspiration for your concepts?

I get inspiration from everything I do: It could be a place, a word, a food item, or a person. It could be something from my travels, somewhere I had dinner, something I read, or something I dreamed about. I like to tell a story and I like things to have a personality, then I lead that personality down a road and usually that personality takes over what it wants to be, whether it’s a new restaurant or a new food item or a design idea.

Tell us about one of the more unusual inspirations for a restaurant.

The Henry is located in a really old office building with our corporate offices, and we knew we were going to do a restaurant there but had no idea what it was going to be. We first opened our offices upstairs and a year later we peeled back all the walls downstairs and uncovered this sort of post-industrial vibe, so I felt like the restaurant wanted to follow that. The Henry now has a Ralph Lauren-meets-post-industrial feeling, but we couldn’t come up with a name for the restaurant. During the same time that we were developing this space, I was redoing my home, and the waterworks fixtures going in the bathroom at home reminded me of what I wanted the restaurant to feel like: sleek, contemporary, and post-industrial. So we named the restaurant after this plumbing fixture line—The Henry. It can be as silly as that, but that’s how things come to me.

How do you decide if a concept should be one location or expand to multiple locations?

Well some restaurants will always only be one: They’re so site-specific, small, and personal that they don’t have an opportunity to be more than one. We may look a little into the future, but the first thing we talk about is how we are going to build one great restaurant that works. We talk about the soul of the restaurant, the culture of the restaurant, how guests will use it, and how employees will embrace it. We talk about all that and then we build the restaurant.

A lot of the decisions don’t happen until we are actually in the space, working in the kitchen and working with the food. We often spend a month, maybe even six to eight weeks, working in the restaurant before we start to hire our staff. We want to make sure we have the plan of what we want the restaurant to be when we open the restaurant. Then we say, “Let’s run this one at great [performance] for a while and if it makes sense from a guest perspective and from the business side of things, we’ll decide if we want to do another one.”

We don’t ever begin by saying we’re going to open 10 or 20 of a concept. It’s always been the case that we say, “Hey, this has been a good idea, so let’s take this down the road and see where it goes.” If one restaurant is great, let’s do more than one, and then if two works we move on to three. At three you kind of have an idea if you can do more. It’s an organic process; it takes on a life of it’s own and we let it happen.

Olive & Ivy
Opened: 2006
Locations: One in Scottsdale and one in the Phoenix airport.
Average check: $25–$30
Menu: Mediterranean cuisine served in opulent interior dining rooms or under the shade trees of the expansive al fresco patio.

Blanco Tacos & Tequila
Opened: 2007
Locations: Four in Arizona including one in the Phoenix airport.
Average check: $18–$25
Menu: Authentic Mexican food and beverage, including dozens of rare tequilas, sangria, margaritas, and beers.

Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar
Opened: 2007
Locations: 10 locations in six states.
Average check: $18–$25
Menu: America's favorite staples—shakes, gourmet burgers, and hand-cut fries—in a fun, airy setting.

Describe the culture in your company and your overall mission.

Our culture is built around the guests and the employees. With everything we do, we talk about how it affects the guests, and then we talk about how it affects the employees. We have a saying: “Yes is the answer. What is the question?”

We take it seriously that people are coming to our place, so hospitality is really important. In today’s environment, great service and great hospitality are almost a luxury, so we pride ourselves on making sure we deliver that. For instance, if I have a reservation on a Friday night at 8 o’clock in one of my restaurants, and the restaurant is on a wait, I would feel bad sitting down while someone is waiting for a table. I would give up my reservation to let a guest have that table.

You’re a multi-unit operator, but none of your restaurants are presented like a chain. How do you execute that?

First of all, none of the restaurants look exactly the same. Even in concepts that have multiple locations, they are always different. There are unique food items on the menu, unique beverage programs at those restaurants, the designs are a little different, and the management is different—but the culture is the same. We want the restaurants to feel as independent as possible, and we say all the time: “We like to be the biggest small company we can be.”

We also try to have a very localized approach; we connect with local people and embrace the communities.

Are there new concepts that you’re dreaming of?

There always are (laughing); there are 50 of them in my head—I just don’t have time to get to them all, but hopefully, one at a time, we’ll slowly get to them. I think we might get into the hotel business; we’re playing around with that now and working on a deal that might make sense.

You mean you would open restaurants in a hotel?

No, I would develop and build and own a hotel.

How exciting; would that be in Phoenix?

We’re not sure yet. While most hotels add food and beverage programs, we’re going to come up with a great restaurant that has some hotel rooms with it. When I think about the recent successes in Vegas, I think many of the reasons Vegas hotels are so successful is because of their great restaurants. I want to do a little reverse engineering and take the approach where I build a great restaurant, or two, and then design a small hotel around the restaurants.

True Food Kitchen
Opened: 2008 in Phoenix
Locations: 10 locations in six states.
Expansion: Opening four this year, three in 2016, and one in 2017.
Average check: $20–$25
Menu: A conscientious, community-based dining experience committed to healthy nutrients and Dr. Andrew Weil's anti-inflammatory diet.

Culinary Dropout
Opened: 2010
Locations: Three in Arizona and one in Las Vegas.
Average check: $20–$25
Menu: The vibe is edgy—for all those rebellious, fun-seeking intellectuals who've dropped from traditional paths—with inventive gastropub fare, energized happy hours, and live music.

The Arrogant Butcher
Opened: 2011
Locations: One in Phoenix.
Average check: $25–$30
Menu: Seafood, steaks, draft beer, and craft cocktails for the eclectic downtown crowd of politicians, sports fans, and culture seekers.

And when you do, we want to write about it. What has been your most surprising success?

I would say True Food has surprised me in how well it was received and how it instantly became so popular and so successful.

True Food Kitchen is your healthy dining concept based on an anti-inflammatory diet, and there are 10 units open with four more opening this year. Was its success due to timing as well as execution?

It was the timing, the food, the location, and definitely the people. The employees were amazing when the original store opened and they still are, but really everything worked from the beginning.

You’ve said that in recruiting for True Food you weren’t looking at people with restaurant experience per se, but instead company representatives went to yoga classes and spin classes to meet people.

Yes, we do that system-wide. We’ll go into a market and send people to gyms or to take yoga or spin, or even bartending classes, and they’ll talk about the Fox brand, and the restaurant concept, and what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to hire like-minded people who are living the lifestyle of the restaurant because we feel they are our best ambassadors and can be passionate about the brand. That strategy is all part of the company culture we talked about.

From all you’ve created, do you have a favorite concept?

Not necessarily—I love them for different reasons and hate them for different reasons.

Speaking of hating, what have you tried in a restaurant that you would absolutely never do again?

Nothing. I’ve had few failures along the way, but I’m not afraid to try anything again. I’m stupid enough to think I could do it better the next time.

In addition to developing and running the restaurants, do you dabble in the kitchen?

Most definitely: I work with all the chefs and I typically write the menus with the chefs and do all of the food tastings with them. While I don’t consider myself a chef, I’ve opened a lot of restaurants, been around a lot of food, and can cook pretty well myself. I also work closely with all of our beverage professionals. In our restaurants—if you can touch it, taste it, see it, or feel it—I’m involved in it.

The Henry
Opened: 2013
Locations: One in Phoenix.
Average check: $30–$35
Menu: Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, this is a classic neighborhood retreat where guests can grab coffee, enjoy a light salad or hearty meal, or simply gather for drinks.

Juby True
Opened: 2013
Locations: Three in Phoenix area including one inside True Food Kitchen.
Average check: $8–$15
Menu: A quick-serve beverage bar with chef-driven recipes for organic cold-pressed juices.

Little Cleo's Seafood Legend
Opened: 2013
Locations: One $30–$35
Menu: Billed as this desert city's "coastal gem," the restaurant's seafood is prepared fresh daily and includes ocean delicacies like loup de mer, Pacific white sea bass, and warm truffle butter jars with crab.

Who in the industry has been a mentor for you, or someone you would want to emulate?

There are a lot of successful people in the industry but I’ve become friends with Rich Melman, and I have a lot of respect for him, for everything he’s done, and for how he built Lettuce Entertain You into a big company with all these different brands.

How do you decide where to open new restaurants?

We travel a lot and work with a lot of developers. We’re in 12 states now, and we’re not afraid to go anywhere in the country if we feel like it’s the right piece of real estate. You’ll see our organization continue to grow beyond Arizona—already about half of our locations are outside the state, and over the next five years the majority of our growth will be outside Arizona. We probably have 30 people on the road all of the time.

Do you own all of the locations?

We own most of them, but we do have a license agreement with a partner for Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar. That partner has 12 locations on the East Coast, and we also have four airport locations in Phoenix under a partnership with HMS.

Thinking about potential changes in the industry, if Sysco and US Foods merge, will it have an impact on your operations?

Since we don’t use either one of them, probably not (laughing). Consolidation can be good and bad, and it raises questions: Can they consolidate and share some costs? Will that cost savings be provided to the end user, which is us? Or is it going to be provided to the shareholders, which is them? It’s still too early to see how all that will play out. I think competition is good and healthy for everybody, but [this merger] could go either way and when you have fewer choices it becomes a concern.

Do you source from local farms and regional distributors?

Yes, we use a lot of local farms, and we’re in a buying group called DMA, which uses six distribution companies like Sysco or US Foods. We negotiate prices with one DMA vendor and then those prices are offered all across the country. It’s like a co-op, but on a big scale.

Flower Child
Opened: 2014
Locations: One in Phoenix.
Expansion: Opening in North Scottsdale in May.
Average check: $15–$20
Menu: A fast-casual concept serving fresh, healthy, sustainable food.

What might you do differently in 2015 than years past?

We’ll keep innovating in our menus and keep getting better in operations. We come every single day and ask, “How will we be better than yesterday?” We have a long-term approach and talk about the future, but in a couple of hours I’m going to talk with the restaurant group and see how we did for lunch today. And in the morning I’m going to talk about how we did for dinner tonight. When we talk about things, we’re able to learn more and get better at what we do. Of course we’re going to innovate and open new restaurants, those are givens, but we need to make sure we execute and operate every single day.

What do you find most exciting about your work: the food, the operations, or the entrepreneurial development?

It’s everything. I love what I do, so I wake up every day blessed to get to work with food, with wine, with great people. I get to touch a lot of lives, and I get to create. The thing that drives me the most is creating new things, whether it’s the food or dining concepts or designing uniforms and tableware. I get to have this creative edge.