Ocotillo
An event platter piled high with Organic Farm Vegetables, Spicy Eggplant Purée, Yogurt-Dill Sauce, Crispy Pita, and Za’atar .

Phoenix’s Ocotillo is a Perfect Fit for Every Occasion

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With an abundant, loyal following and a design built for every setting, Ocotillo continues to rise in The Valley of the Sun.
By Ellen Koteff September 2016 New Concepts

Ocotillo began as a dirt lot right in the center of Phoenix’s vibrant, diverse city. The restaurant, named for a plant indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, took nearly three years to construct, understandable considering its massive, compound-like setting divided into several unique spaces, including an independent coffee bar and a beer garden. The multi-use nature of the 38,000-square-foot venue, coupled with its bull’s-eye location, has chef/owner Walter Sterling tracking well ahead of early projections.

“If you looked at a map of Phoenix, Ocotillo is right in the middle, and we pull from the entire area,” Sterling says. “We attract a wide range of clientele because of it. There are older people, young tattooed kids, gays and lesbians, lawyers, doctors, nurses, and business executives. We don’t have guests that look the same. I love that diversity.”

With projected sales of $5 million for 2016, Ocotillo has had a phenomenal opening year by any measure. “By the end of our first year, we will have paid back all of our investors,” Sterling says. “I had told them it might take much longer than that, but you always want to underpromise and overdeliver.”

Opened in September 2015, Ocotillo is a massive operation. Designed by TrueForm landscape architects and Labahn Ryan Architects, Ocotillo seats nearly 400 people in a variety of settings, including the Chef’s Garden, the Mesquite Terrace, The Beer Garden, Lucy’s Lawn, Ocotillo restaurant, and an independent coffee bar.

Ocotillo serves around 15,000 covers per month with a $28 check average and consistently notches an enviable 20 percent in food costs. 

“Our check average is lower due to our independent coffee bar on-site, and we do a high-value lunch and brunch business,” Sterling says. “The value and lower check average is fine with us because we do a lot of volume because of it.” 

Sterling, along with co-chef Sacha Levine and sommelier/general manager Dave Johnson, oversee an 81-person staff that covers more than the 75 hours the restaurant is open each week.

“Our operation is built for speed. We do as much as possible in advance. I am a big believer in preparation so that service goes fast,” Sterling says.

Featuring a lunch, brunch, and dinner menu that each contains about 42 items, the offerings change seasonally. Best-selling dishes include a Halibut Ceviche with avocado, tomato salad, tomatillo, crispy corn quinoa, and herbs for $15; and house-made pastas such as Casarecce Pasta with pork ragu, rainbow chard, tomato chilies, basil Parmesan, and olive oil for $19; and Tagliatelle with white shrimp, grilled zucchini, squash blossom, preserved lemon, basil, and Serrano chili for $23. 

The beverage menu is popular with its eclectic list of offerings. Some examples are the Nutella Iced Coffee Boba for $4; ginger, lemongrass, and mint tea for $3; and the fresh coconut milk plus a shot for $11 total.

Sterling and his management team pay a lot of attention to detail and watch food costs closely.

“We do so much with vegetables and are finding new growers all the time,” he says. A case in point is Ocotillo’s Organic Green Asparagus dish, which features Burrata, chickpea purée, oven-dried tomatoes, olive oil, and Aleppo pepper for $14.

“Our food is evolving so fast,” Sterling says. “We do New American cuisine with a focus on health, wellness, and seasonality.

Ocotillo

“Our guests notice the quality of our food and even tell us they ‘can taste the love in it,’” he adds.

Already celebrated in local publications and on social media outlets, Ocotillo relies heavily on regulars for its lunch business, but Sterling says he notices plenty of new customers at dinner.

“I am amazed at how many people we get coming in as first-time diners,” he explains.

Coffee for the coffee bar is sourced from Sightglass out of San Francisco, and Ocotillo features a wide variety of wines and beers. Beverage sales run about 35 percent with food tallying 65 percent of sales.

“We incentivize through profit sharing and create a fun company culture. This place is not pretentious at all, and believe me it goes a long way,” he says. 

Despite Sterling’s comfort level with one year under his belt, he insists it wasn’t always that way.

“The first three months were the most terrifying of my life because I had no idea if we were going to be successful or bankrupt,” Sterling says. “I put my life savings into this place and yet when we opened the doors, I had no clue what would happen.”