Mill Avenue has been Tempe’s golden egg for years. Whether it’s a hangout for Arizona State University students, an evening of fine dining for young urban professionals, or a night out on the town to go clubbing, Mill Avenue is almost always the first place people go when they come to Tempe.
And now, the city is looking to expand that social hotbed a few blocks west in Farmer Avenue.
If you were to walk from Mill Avenue to Farmer Avenue, the comparison between the two is like night and day. While Mill Avenue has what seems like an endless amount of bars, nightclubs and restaurants, the area near Farmer Avenue and First Avenue has empty lots and buildings.
Two of the buildings that occupy that space – formerly known as The Sail Inn and Thorens Showcase and Fixtures, respectively – were both noteworthy contributors to Tempe’s business. The former featured local music and became an iconic Tempe venue, and the latter created designs used throughout the Valley.
Neither business operates in Tempe any longer, and Thorens has been long gone for years. But the new developers are making their best attempts to honor what was once there.
In July 2013, Fox Restaurant Concepts purchased the warehouse on 149 W. Farmer Avenue formerly used by Thorens Showcase and Fixtures. Fox Restaurant Concepts (FRC) and its owner, Sam Fox, have made quite a name for themselves with successful restaurants sprawled throughout the state, including places like Sauce and Olive & Ivy.
But Fox’s original intentions for purchasing the warehouse were not for fine dining.
When Sam Fox first heard that the Thorens Showcase and Fixtures warehouse was for sale, it was around the same time he was in search of a new office
According to Brian Frakes, a local developer that works with FRC, he and Sam Fox were interested in the place, but it was unlike anything they’d worked with before.
“[Sam Fox] called me about three or four years ago and was thinking about moving his office,” Frakes said in a phone interview. “But when we first looked at [the warehouse], it was kind of a head scratcher because it wasn’t made for retail. We got a little gun-shy at first.”
A tech business bought the warehouse instead of FRC. But after a few years, FRC got an offer to buy the place once again. Yet by that time, Fox already had a new office. So the question was, what to do with this place?
“This is an old industrial building. It could have been a junk yard. But we fell in love with the soul of the building”
Fox purchased the warehouse shortly after opening The Yard, a “restaurant cluster” located off of 7th Street and Montebello Avenue in what was once a motorcycle garage. The Yard’s space is surrounded by Fox’s Culinary Dropout Restaurant, as well as a coffeehouse, bar and additional restaurants, with an open space in the middle for lounging or playing games like corn hole and ping pong.
According to Sam Fox, the timing was perfect.
“We had so much success with the Yard that we decided to try it again in Tempe,” Fox said.
And thus the project began in March 2014. The warehouse on 149 W. Farmer Avenue is FRC’s largest project to date, with around 14,800 square feet of space to develop. Though the project has no official name as of yet, a Culinary Dropout will be in the warehouse, as well as two private dining rooms, called “The Showcase Room” and “The Coop.”
The space will also feature The Madison, in which people can attend spin classes that have a nightclub-esque feel.
Andrew Varela, owner of The Madison, grew up in Tempe. For him, this project is something that he sees as a major contribution to his hometown.
“It’s something close to my heart,” Varela said. “I’m all about taking old structures and revitalizing old neighborhoods with new space and energy.”
Both Fox and Frakes said that they plan on trying to retain as much of the warehouse’s designs as possible. After all, it was the structure and appearance of the Thorens Showcase and Fixtures building that attracted them to the property in the first place, with features like big glass windows and wood ceilings.
“One of the reasons were leaving the building as much as we can there is because it’s such an amazing beautiful building,” Fox said. “We’re trying to honor that legacy.”
Frakes said that trying to restore a historical building like this is not cheap, but it’s worth the extra time and money.
“It’s probably cheaper to knock the thing over and build new,” Frakes said. “But that’s not why we bought the building.”
FRC hopes to have the space ready for customers by November of this year, and it’s the first major business to go into the Farmer district. The area was once home to the Sail Inn, a local hotspot for artists and musicians in Tempe, but Sail Inn’s space will soon be the new location of Scottsdale-based restaurant The Lodge.
Despite the Sail Inn’s disappearance, Fox said that he plans to incorporate the local music scene into their new space by including a stage for performances.
“We’re gonna have a great live music program there,” Fox said. “We hope to provide a great space for artists to play and highlight their work.”
The new FRC space will be part of an attempt to expand the Mill Avenue scene west. Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell said he hopes this will be an attractive place for young urban professionals.
The project FRC is working on also happens to hold a special place in Mayor Mitchell’s heart. While he was in high school, the mayor worked in the warehouse that FRC will soon occupy.
“I always say it’s near and dear to me,” Mitchell said. “My parents wanted me to find a job when I wasn’t playing football, so I worked in that warehouse when I was 16.”
Though Fox and the city of Tempe have big hopes for the district, not everyone sees the same potential.
Dylan Patterson, a senior at the W.P. Carey Business School at Arizona State University, has been living at the Farmer Avenue Lofts for the past month. He said that while he’s excited to have a place like the FRC restaurant that’s within walking distance, he doesn’t see a future in the city.
“I won’t stay in Tempe after I graduate,” Patterson said. “I love Tempe, but I still see it as a college town.”
Fox Restaurant Concepts’ new space will include:
- Culinary Dropout.
- “The Showcase Room,” a private dining venue that can serve up to 250 people.
- “The Coop,” a second private dining space that can serve up to 86 people.
- The Madison, a “Party on a Bike” spin studio with 60 bikes.
- The s.e.e.d cafe, serving healthy food in accompaniment with The Madison.
- Live stage for performances.
- 2,758 square foot outdoor lounge patio with eight sections of seating and an outdoor beer cooler.
- Outdoor games like ping pong and corn hole.
- A kitchen that can cater up to 1,300 people.
- Close to 90 parking spaces.