Sam Fox loves to conceptualize great dining experiences.
Sam Fox never dreamed he would be where he is today. Certainly not when he was a young kid going through the booths at his parents’ deli in Chicago, looking for spare change that slipped out of customers’ pockets. And not when he would bus tables or run errands for tips while folks enjoyed their after-dinner coffee at his family’s diner in Tucson.
He did know, however, that he loved the restaurant business. “You learn so much about life, so much about people, when you’re in this business,” Sam says while sitting in his offices above The Henry, one of his newer Fox Restaurant Concepts, on East Camelback Road in Phoenix.
He’s dressed casually, in an open collar shirt and jeans, as is his staff. Through his panoramic wall of windows, he can watch the traffic on Camelback as cars turn south into The Henry or north into The Flower Child, the newest of his concepts. The offices are open and airy, with comfy couches throughout and big screen monitors flashing. There’s a feeling of comfort and camaraderie emanating from the receptionist in the offices upstairs to the waitstaff downstairs. At 10 am the patio section of The Henry is filled with mini-meetings and coffee klatches, while an indoor secluded room has several folks with laptops open, appearing to use the space as their virtual offices.
This atmosphere isn’t created by happenstance. It’s all part of the “concept.” And the concept is all Sam Fox. In fact, there are 15 different restaurant concepts that are all Sam Fox. He is the 46-year-old dreamer, creator and inventive genius behind the restaurant empire he has built, which now spans 44 locations in eight states – with more to come. In his humble, unassuming way, he is quick to point out that while he comes up with all of the creative elements of the concept, it is his staff and workers who carry out the ideas and bring them to fruition.
Sam’s family came to Tucson from Chicago when he was just 5. His father opened The Hungry Fox, which still exists under different ownership.
“It was truly a mom-and-pop place,” he recalls.
His family joined Temple Emanu-El where Sam became a bar mitzvah. He was active in BBYO when he was a teen at Sabino High School and was a member of AEPi when he attended the University of Arizona.
The irony is not lost on Sam that although he didn’t graduate, in April he received the UA Executive of the Year award from the UA’s Eller College of Management.
“I dropped out to open a restaurant, Gilligan’s Bar & Grill, before I was 21,” he says with a smile.
This award puts him in the company of such distinguished individuals and fellow awardees as former Gov. Janet Napolitano, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
“(Sam) has earned an outstanding reputation as a creative visionary, savvy entrepreneur and philanthropist, values we share here at the Eller College,” says Eller College Dean Jeffrey Schatzberg. “It is only fitting that we honor him as Executive of the Year.”
The UA award is only one of many recognition awards Sam has received. In 2014 he was named to Nation’s Restaurant News’ Power List of the 50 most influential people in restaurants; he received the 2014 Richard Melman Innovator of the Year Award from Restaurant Hospitality; in 2015 he was named as a James Beard semi-finalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category for the sixth time. Also, in March of 2015, Sam was named Restaurateur of the Year by the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame, presented by the Scottsdale Culinary Festival and Scottsdale League for the Arts.
Sam is understandably proud of the recognition he and his restaurants receive, but holds fast to his strong belief that while awards are nice, “that isn’t why we do it.” He knows that people have a choice as to how they’re going to spend their discretionary dollars. “It’s our job to encourage, entice and then appreciate the fact that they like to come through our doors.”
Early on Sam knew he loved food and the creative aspects of the restaurant business, but he also knew he didn’t have a handle on the requisite business practices.
“My dad was a great guy and had a great restaurant, but I could see he wasn’t a great businessman,” says Sam. “Actually, watching him alerted me to some of the possible stumbling blocks, and in some ways, made me an even more astute business person myself.”
He read everything he could find on running a business. Though college wasn’t for him, he spent his time seeking advice from others and educating himself. When he realized he had little interest in some areas, he started building his team to create a strong foundation for his creative ideas.
In 1998 Sam opened the first Fox Restaurant Concept, Wildflower American Cuisine, which still flourishes on Oracle Road in Tucson, offering a variety of seasonal dishes that change regularly and their famous “artfully shaken martinis.” In 2001 he moved to Phoenix to expand the business and to be closer to his wife’s family, since his own parents had moved to Florida.
Things kept growing. Sam loves to discover potential restaurant sites and personally works with architects for both exterior and interior design.
“I even like to choose the fabric for the upholstery. It’s that attention to every little detail that can really make the difference,” he says. He comes up with the overall concept including the name, attitude, atmosphere and menu.
“For example, when I thought of Flower Child, I just kept emphasizing the word ‘happy,’ ” he says. “It needed to have a happy feel about it from the minute you walk in.” The official tagline is “Flower Child’s fundamental promise is to serve happy food for a healthy world.”
For his True Food Kitchens, the first of which opened in Phoenix in 2008, Sam partnered with an old friend, Dr. Andrew Weil. “Andy was from Tucson also, and he wanted to get into the business. He talked to me about a menu based on the principles of his anti-inflammatory diet. We spent a year developing this particular concept.”
They now have 10 locations spanning six states, each designed to reflect the local character of the region in an upscale, green and sustainable environment.
Several of the restaurants, like True Food, focus on healthy options and sustainable practices. True Food uses as much locally raised produce as possible, gluten-free options are available at Sauce and sustainable seafood is served at Little Cleo’s. Flower Child’s website notes, “We work with ranchers who respect, protect and love their animals – and our food supply. Our proteins are all raised naturally, without additives. Our organic produce is guided by the wisdom of the Environmental Working Group.”
“We want to give options,” Sam explains. “Plus I feel a responsibility to the environment as well as to our customers.”
Some of Sam’s ideas are on a slightly smaller – though no less clever – scale. His Juby True, for example, is a friendly little walk-up juice stand that follows the same philosophy as True Food Kitchen, “proving that nutrition can exist in harmony in a glass as well as on a plate.” He’s branched off to a mobile concept with The Rocket, a modified cargo shipping container that has been transformed into a massive pizzeria on wheels. He borrowed the pizza dough recipe from North Italia, another of his popular concepts, and serves salads. The Rocket is available for private parties and charity events, as well.
Speaking of charity events, Sam is well-respected as an active philanthropist. He’s been an avid supporter of the Boys & Girls Clubs since his company began. He’s also a life member of the Thunderbirds (active members become life members at age 45). As part of its mission to promote Phoenix, 79 years ago the Thunderbirds created what has become the renowned Phoenix Open golf tournament, now a major charity event. He was the honorary chair for the American Heart Association’s Heart Ball in 2013, and he lends support to organizations such as notMYkid and UMOM New Day Centers.
“In addition to our big charities, though, I take just as much pride at being able to give a $25 gift certificate to the neighborhood child who comes in for his Little League team,” he confides. “Feels good.”
In addition, each restaurant has the autonomy to develop its own charitable giving process. For Earth Day in April, for example, Flower Child donated its proceeds to three local charities: Audubon Arizona, Phoenix Arcadia Rotary Club and Arcadia High School’s new campus garden.
Sam’s wife, Emily, and their children, Noah, 10, and Chloe, 8, understand the life of a restaurateur. The kids often come by the office and The Henry after school and just hang out. “The other day I had Chloe shadow one of the hostesses,” says Sam. “I could see her wanting to start out in the business that way. Noah’s helped out, too. I’d love them to go into the business. You can learn so many important life lessons.”
How would Sam feel if his children chose to follow his route and drop out of school?
“Not an option!” he says grinning. “Fortunately Emily was the student, so she gives those study skills to the kids, and I add in the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a great combination.”
Sam tries to spend as much time as possible with his family, even though his business often takes him across the country.
“I was able to coach Noah in flag football, and we spend lots of time having meals together, sometimes at a Fox restaurant and sometimes others,” he says. “My children have already developed very sophisticated palettes. They’re great to take out to eat. Noah will even eat oysters and beef tartare.”
The family spends as much of the summer as they can in Coronado, CA. Sam is very happy that this summer he’ll be opening three new restaurants in nearby Manhattan Beach and Newport Beach.
“That’ll be easy,” he says. “Last year I had to go to Houston, Atlanta, Austin and other high humidity places in the summer. It’ll be great to be able to stay along the West Coast and be close to the family this summer.”
Summer at Fox Restaurant Concepts promises new offerings on a regular basis. There will be cooking demonstrations at True Food, as well as community dinners at North Italia, where a chef explains the various components as diners eat in a communal setting. The summer also kicks off their annual giving campaign called Feed the Soul, where $1 from each kid item sold will be donated to the No Kid Hungry charity. And watch for clever promotions like the recent Yard Sale at The Yard, where Little Cleo’s is housed.
Though the recent recession hit Arizona particularly hard, Fox Restaurant Concepts was able to maintain during that time.
“In fact, we doubled down,” Sam says. “We were able to get some great deals on leases and properties, and we stuck to what we do well – giving the customer a great experience.” He kept developing new concepts and opening restaurants across several states.
Having just opened another Flower Child in Scottsdale, Sam’s not sure what new idea will pop up next.
“I find ideas for concepts everywhere I look,” he says. “It’s part art and part science. I probably enjoy the art a little more – that’s the coming up with the concept itself, designing the physical setting and creating the ambience. The science deals more with running the business, though I also have fun with the part of the science that includes things like developing new recipes.” In fact, Sam coauthored a cookbook called True Food with Andrew Weil in 2012; the book became a New York Times bestseller, containing “freshly imagined recipes that are both inviting and easy to make.”
Whatever he comes up with, chances are good it will be another novel concept that endears itself to the public.