Sam Fox Is Building A Restaurant Empire In The Desert

It's a Tuesday afternoon in Scottsdale, Arizona, and while lunch hour has ended and the workforce has been dispersed back to the glinting office buildings in the Valley of the Sun, a few dozen customers are camped out at the Henry, pecking away at laptops, lingering in booths, and transitioning to an early beer at the bar as a baseball playoff game flickers on the screen. Presiding over the whole scene, quite literally given that his office is a glassed-in box on the second floor, is Sam Fox, whose Fox Restaurant Concepts has quietly become one of the fastest-growing hospitality companies in the country.

Fox isn't a household name outside of the Phoenix area, but he's about to be. A few years ago, he made news when P.F. Chang's invested heavily in True Food Kitchen, with the company's chief executive saying, "Sam Fox is one of the most innovative restaurateurs in the industry." True Food, developed with Dr. Andrew Weil, has become a juggernaut, leading Fox Restaurant Group's expansion into 15 markets — with more on the way. Besides True Food, Fox oversees a wide-ranging portfolio that spans casual Italian (North), Mexican (Blanco Tacos + Tequila) and American (Culinary Dropout); beer hall–like sprawlers (the Yard); the self-explanatory Zinburger; neighborhood spots like the Henry; and, inevitably, healthy fast-casual (Flower Child). In short, as Fox tells me, seated across from me in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, 50 restaurants and 15 different concepts. Oh, yeah, and 5,000 employees.

"I sort of have A.D.D., and the organization has that as well, and I think it's healthy for us," says Fox, who is just 47, cycling through topics like further expansion, balancing quality ingredients with pesky profit margins, and what drives this self-taught mogul in the making. Here's our condensed, edited conversation.

One of the things that sticks out to me about your restaurants is that you guys have a real aesthetic. All the interior design and the graphics, the branding. Where does that come from?

It comes from myself and my team. We love everything that we do: food, wine, design, people — all the details. We're fortunate enough that we have my interior team working right here. I keep them close to me.

So it's all in-house?

We work with some outside designers, but I drive probably 80 percent of it. Then we have our graphics and marketing team. I like to keep all the creative here. All the creative stuff sort of funnels through me. I mean, basically everything funnels through me. That's just as much fun as running the restaurant as well: conceptualizing, coming up with ideas, menu fonts, music, uniforms, plate ware and all of that stuff that's mundane but needs to be thought about and how it interacts and gets used. I've personally built 85 to 90 restaurants myself since I was 20, so it's really easy for me to do it.

What are some of the guiding principles for the food that your restaurants serve?

Well, we have to like it. We're really good at thinking of what the guests want. We cook for ourselves. You have to have ideas and shape those ideas, but with that said, we're successful because we're very thoughtful of what works for the guest and what doesn't work for the guest and how that interacts with the restaurant, whatever restaurant that is, whatever brand that is. Henry's not a brand; it's a restaurant. True Food is a brand. We're very thoughtful of how it gets used, when we can get it, how we can get it, where it comes from. Can we afford to put it on the plate? Can the guests afford to pay for it? We're very price sensitive.

You'll see that we're not on the low end, but we're not on the high end. We're sort of in this bigger sweet spot, where it's everyday for some people, aspirational for some people, but it gets used a lot. We tend to do a lot of volume, and we do a lot of repeat guests, so there needs to be familiarity with the menu, then there needs to be stuff that people want to try different things and take chances. You'll see it sort of depends on what brand and what store and how it gets used.

"There's the restaurant side of things, and there's the business side of things. You can see that a lot of people are good at one discipline and not both."

I live in New York City, where chefs are treated like artists these days. You have a very different viewpoint of restaurants.

I do. We have those restaurants, right? We have a restaurant called Little Cleo's — very unique, one-off, dinner only, really esoteric stuff. The chef has free reign at that restaurant. Some of the chefs do; some of the chefs don't. Our thing is that we like to be busy; we like to do volume. We're not running a small Brooklyn restaurant that's doing a million and a half, $2 million. We're running $9-10 million restaurants in Phoenix. You know, so you have to do a lot of volume and lower check average which you're not used to seeing in New York. Or we'll run $5 million at Flower Child, which is fast-casual and has 2 percent alcohol sales, at $12 check average. So just think of the volume that goes. Not in Manhattan, where there's 6 million people walking by your front door every single day. The markets we're in, we know how to do business.

What do you think about the Phoenix area right now?

I think it's great. A lot of people come visit Phoenix and Scottsdale, so that's a lot of exposure. There's been a lot of young chefs, a lot of old chefs that have been here a long time, that have done really well. The food scene's great, and it's full of great people. The food scene everywhere is getting better, not just Phoenix. Where is the food scene not getting better? So I think Phoenix, Scottsdale has sort of this same trajectory — we get a lot of visitors, so it helps us a little bit more than a city that may not be as tourist-driven.

Let's talk about Flower Child. Is that what it sounds like? It's healthier?

Healthy fast-casual. That's [the one across the street from the Henry] our second one. We're building our third one.

Was that driven by you specifically? You were thinking that people want to eat better?

Well, we have True Food, and that was full service. It's growing and doing well. In the meantime, we have had a couple of fast-casual concepts; we sold one of them. We wanted something a little more casual, something a little more everyday. It's been unbelievable, the response on Flower Child. I call it better fast-casual. It's not $7-$9, it's $12-$14, and it's not salads — it's proteins built around salads, plates and bowls. It's a full-service restaurant masquerading as fast-casual.

It sounds like you have a pretty strict business formula, but you also have a reputation for sourcing quality ingredients. That's not easy, right?

Our discipline is we want to build a great restaurant, and we want to be busy. But equally important is the quality of ingredients, what we're serving our guests and how it's being presented. We're figuring out how to make money and with that comes listening to our guests and watching the food trends closely. People are more and more concerned about where their food is being sourced and its quality, which aligns perfectly with our mission and core values.

But you're not cutting corners — you're not backing up the food services truck into the back of the place.

No, we don't have any commissaries. We believe in making everything in the building. If you go [to Flower Child], get the lemon olive oil cake. It's gluten free; it's dairy free. The only fat in there is olive oil, which is a healthy fat. It might be one of the best desserts in the whole company. Made every single day at a fast-casual restaurant. You don't see that.

It seems like all of your concepts are working. Is there ever something that doesn't work?

Sure. We've had a failure or two along the way, but I think I got to store 29 before I closed a store. So I was 29-0 at one time, which we feel is a pretty good record in this business. We're good at adapting in our environment, figuring it out and tweaking. When we opened Flower Child, I think for the first month, we changed the menu 22 times in 30 days. We did little tweaks, an ingredient.

So, like a live test-marketing kind of thing?

Yeah, even changing things that were working. Things that I felt could've been better or weren't working for me. I'm not sure what it was, but we're never satisfied. We're always pushing to be better. Even today, if we had a great day, how can we do better tonight? How can we do better for lunch service tomorrow? How can we do better for dinner service tomorrow night? That's my job to blow things up all the time and sort of create chaos within the organization and look at things. Even if we sold something 1,000 times and people loved it, can we do it better? Can we not do it better? So we're not afraid to tinker with things.

How did you get on this track? Did you study under somebody?

No, I've only worked for myself. I worked for my dad — he had some restaurants, but nothing like what I have. It was a diner, a little deli, when I was growing up [in Tucson]. When my dad was in the restaurant business, it was very unglamorous. It was long hours and not a lot of money. I would work in the restaurants, then I dropped out of college, opened my first place when I was 21. I worked there three years and never made a penny from it. You really learn how to run a business with no money and worrying every single day if I was going to be able to keep the doors open. I got into a fight with my chef and he broke his arm, and I had to learn to cook because I couldn't afford to pay anyone else. A lot of hard knocks and trial by fire early on.

How did you learn the business of running a restaurant?

When I opened my first restaurant, I thought I knew everything. I worked for my dad, I waited tables and I bused tables, and I didn't know there was a business side of things, so I talked to my team, and it's the restaurant business, so there's two businesses. There's the restaurant side of things, and there's the business side of things. You can see a lot of people are good at one discipline and not both. A lot of people are wealthy business people, and they jump into this business, and they have no idea how to run a restaurant. You see restaurateurs, chefs particularly, going to open their own restaurant, and they have no idea how to run a business. So I really feel like the organization's really good at both.

You were saying earlier that every city is evolving. What are some of the cities that inspired you?

I travel a lot. Austin is great. I was in Oakland last week. I think Oakland's food scene is exploding. San Francisco's forced out all the chefs and the rents, but there's still so much of this culture around there. That was awesome. We have two places in Houston, and Houston's food scene is pretty good right now.

What about here? Is Phoenix in any danger of getting oversaturated?

I mean, hey, there's always room for a good chef and a good concept, right? Always room. You've seen a lot of commercial success come out of Phoenix with a lot of brands over the years. P.F. Chang's started here. What that's done is spun off a lot of people who have gone on to open their own restaurants. You see a lot of young people and a lot of little interesting stuff, and I think it's great for everybody. I see the scene continuing to get better. Access to great produce is available here, and grains. We're starting to get better cattle and local meats. Obviously seafood — we're close to the West Coast, and we get seafood in. I think the quality of products is getting better. The knowledge of food from the people who come into the stores is so much better, so that drives everyone to be better. Having it be a warm-weather town, you get nine or 10 months of good business, so you see people do well here.