Sam Fox’s Culinary Dropout shows restaurateur can still make the grade

Sam Fox will open the doors to Culinary Dropout at Grant Road Lumber Yard on Wednesday, Sept. 20, his first new restaurant in Tucson in a decade and one of the most expensive projects the Tucson native has undertaken since he launched his restaurant career with Wildflower in 1998.

The price tag for the 19,000-square-foot project at the former Grant Road Lumber, 2543 E. Grant Road, could top $11 million — the amount he paid to open a similar restaurant/entertainment complex at The Tempe Yard in 2014.

“Tucson is really going to be proud of what we were able to build here,” Fox said Friday, on the eve of hosting an invitation-only weekend of preview events for 1,200 that gave his staff of 250 a chance to iron out any kinks. Two more events are planned for Sunday.

“We’re excited to be here,” Fox said.

The opening comes more than a year after Fox announced in spring 2016 that he was buying the lumber yard and converting it into a sprawling restaurant and entertainment center that includes foosball tables, cornhole courts, ping pong tables, a private dining room and live entertainment. A private dining/conference room called The Coop can seat 100, or accommodate 175 in a cocktail party setting, while the dining rooms can seat a total of 500 to 600.

At Saturday morning’s lunch preview, a couple of hundred guests nibbled on plates of build-your-own antipasti with thin-sliced, spicy capicola and sherry-drizzled beets on pillows of whipped goat cheese, house pub burgers and the house special 36-hour pork ribs, slow cooked and drizzled with a slightly spicy jalapeño molasses. As they sipped craft beers and cocktails and tucked into gooey, cinnamony hunks of Monkey Bread topped with homemade vanilla bean ice cream, Fox strolled around the twin dining rooms greeting friends and strangers alike.

Tucson businessman Chris Edwards of Tucson Appliance gave Fox a big hug and asked him to pose for a picture, taking the same fingers-pointing-toward-the-camera stance Edwards uses in his ubiquitous TV commercials. He quickly hugged a woman who works with the University of Arizona athletic department who came bearing a Wildcats bobblehead for Fox’s son and greeted an employee setting up a table with Culinary Dropout T-shirts that they sold to benefit victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Fox shook hands with several people as he made his way into the kitchen, where dozens of employees brought the gastro-pub inspired menu to life, all of it from scratch. A baker checked on loaves of bread proofing in tin pans as another chef two rows of work stations over stirred a pot of soup. Fox opened the walk-in freezer where a pair of chefs trimmed cuts of meat.

“All of the proteins are prepared in the cooler,” he said, and one of the chefs smiled and nodded.

Culinary Dropout joins a handful of Fox Restaurant Concept titles in Tucson, including Blanco Tacos + Tequila and Zin Burger, the last two restaurants that Fox brought to his hometown. That was in 2007 and in the decade since, his Tucson-born, Phoenix-based company has launched several restaurants, including Sauce Pizza + Wine, which he sold to the founders of Ra Sushi in 2015; and True Food Kitchen that he launched in 2008 with Tucson health guru Andrew Weil and arguably his most ambitious restaurant project.

“Who would have thought a health food restaurant would do so well,” Fox said.

In October, Scottsdale-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro parent Centerbridge Partners will take over the True Food health food restaurant brand with plans to bring it to markets across the country. Centerbridge, in a deal that was hashed out two years ago between Fox and the Scottsdale company, inherits the 23 True Food restaurants that Fox has opened across the country in the past nine years; two more True Food outposts are set to open next spring — one in Nashville, Tennessee, and the other in Boca Raton, Florida.

“We’ve built this great brand and now it’s time to let it go off on its own,” he said, comparing it to a parent seeing their child off to college.

Fox can imagine something similar happening with Culinary Concepts, which has grown over the past four or five years to include a location in Austin, Texas, and Las Vegas. Tucson is the sixth location, but Fox said there are four in the works, including a Gilbert project set to open in winter 2019, and projects in Denver and Nashville.

“I can see Culinary Dropout taking off in the next 24 months,” he said.

And he sees potential in growing North Italia, which is in La Encantada. There are 11 North Italia restaurants in five states, including Kansas, and there are plans to open three more in the next two years, including a second Austin, Texas, location and one in Philadelphia, Fox said.

In addition to the lumber yard property, Fox also acquired the adjacent car wash on the corner of Grant and Tucson Boulevard. He knocked down the business and has broken ground for what will be a 6,500-square-foot building that will house an Orangetheory Fitness studio, a sandwich shop and a poke bowl restaurant.


Read other exciting news