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American Eat Co.

22 Sep 2018 by BizDESIGN in FALL 2018, FEATURES

By Jay Gonzales –

10 Tucson Eateries Under One Roof

If “made from scratch” is truly the end-all in cooking, then three local business partners appear to have hit on something huge with an eatery that is generating big buzz for its unique approach to dining.

The partners – Jesús Bonillas Jr., Rubén Cázarez and Guillermo Gallegos – created and built American Eat Co. & Market, taking the shell of a historic, family-owned meat market and creating a stand-alone food hall with a vibe that says Seattle, Portland, San Francisco or even the trendy joints now populating resurgent downtown Tucson.

While it’s a concept that can be found in other cities, the partners conjured the idea from scratch, unaware they had hit on a sassy venture that has been successful elsewhere. The idea came to them once they were convinced by a friend that the former American Meat Market building at 1439 S. Fourth Ave. was a bargain and worth taking a shot at building a business. The building sits a half block inside the Tucson city limits at the north edge of the city of South Tucson.

The partners, who all grew up on Tucson’s west and south sides attending Cholla, Tucson and Sunnyside high schools, had been in business together at The Common Group, which they started by buying and selling houses – commonly known as “flipping.” They had transitioned into buying, redeveloping and leasing small commercial properties – all on the west and south sides, where they still live – when American Eat Co. came into focus.

It took some convincing by a persistent real estate agent to even get the partners to consider the property, Gallegos said. He called their attention to it a couple of times before they began to take a serious look at it.

“We kind of brushed it off and then he came back a few months later, and it was still available,” Gallegos said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, I seriously think you guys should look at it.’ So that’s when we started doing some serious brainstorming. If we were to do something here, what do you do?”

Bonillas said, “We were going to do traditional retail in front and a commissary kitchen for food trucks in the back because it had such a large kitchen. It had everything, and we were going to use that infrastructure.”

The concept of a common kitchen for food trucks then became an idea to have space for food trucks to park on the property and create a place for diners to sit and eat in the building.

“That evolved into a full-fledged food court,” Bonillas said. “Over the course of about two months, we had the concept down to what we’re going to do.”

By the time The Common Group closed on the purchase of the property, the concept was set, including the look and feel of the dining area. The inside was gutted and renovated. It had been a meat market for more than 60 years and needed a lot of work. Touches, like exposing the metal framing in the ceiling, wood accents, refurbishing the concrete floor, artsy lighting, all add to a feel that when a customer walks in the door, they’ve been transported to a trendy food spot that you don’t generally find in the area.

“We wanted to bring this old building that has so much history here in Tucson and has been here forever and is special – especially to South Tucson – bring it back to life in the way that that’s going to pay homage to what it was before, starting with the name,” Gallegos said.

“As we began working here, it became clear to us pretty quickly how special this building – and the business that was here before us – were to this community. We had people dropping in on a daily basis telling stories about the meat market, of them coming with their mom and with their nana (Spanish for grandmother). It was amazing to hear those stories.”

The end result at American Eat Co. is not unlike a standard mall food court from an operational standpoint. The Common Group owns the building and two businesses, while leasing space to eight others in the 8,000-square-foot building for a total of 10 choices for a meal, drink or dessert. There are about 70 employees total with each of the restaurants having four to eight employees. Twenty are employees of The Common Group to do the cleaning, busing and dishwashing, one of the expenses that is shared among the restaurants.

What separates American Eat Co. from the standard mall food court is the quality and uniqueness of the menu choices. There’s not a McDonald’s or Starbucks or Sbarro anywhere to be found.

Instead, every eatery is a Tucson business, some that have been around Tucson for years such as the Greek restaurant Opa! and Upper Crust Pizza, a university-area staple. Others are brand new, like Dumb Fish, which is owned by the partners. Dumb Fish serves poke, cuisine that is described as “sushi in a bowl,” and is making headway as a trendy fare everywhere.

If you want Mexican, it’s there at Avenues, described by the owners as “Chicano comfort food” with street tacos and the like. There’s barbecue at AZ Rib House, burger sliders at The Bite and ice cream at Isabella’s. Café con Leche and the Market Bar, the former owned by the partners, are spots to just gather and get a cup of coffee or a cocktail or beer.

And for good measure, longtime southside butcher Dos Amigos has a small meat market that is becoming ever more popular now that Friday and Saturday nights are “steak nights.” Dos Amigos will not only sell you a prime steak or chorizo in three grades of spiciness, on Friday and Saturdays starting at 6 p.m., they will cook the steak – ribeyes, T-bones, New York strips – for you over mesquite on a grill in the kitchen and serve it complete with a baked potato and bread. Taking it a step further, Dos Amigos serves menudo on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The butcher, Andy Arias, is now a “restaurateur” as well, Bonillas said. Arias owns Dos Amigos with Yesenia Fimbres. “And he loves it. It’s a different interaction with his customer especially when he can feed them and hear the amazing feedback.”

The coffee bar opens at 7 a.m. The restaurants start serving at 11 a.m. Closing time varies by vendor, generally 9 p.m. on weekdays and 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. 

Rounding up the restaurants for American Eat Co. had the non-negotiable requirement that they be local. Through various business connections, the partners put out the word about what they were doing. They held a number of open houses with conceptual drawings of the space starting in November 2016.

While interest was immediate, through their experience in their prior redevelopment work, which purposely focuses on the south side, the partners knew there were going to be challenges in attracting established businesses to their venture. Fourth Avenue into South Tucson is a corridor of Tucson’s best Mexican restaurants, yet an unfortunate stigma remains about doing business on the south side, Gallegos said.

“We recognize that this side of town is severely underserved from a retail standpoint and a restaurant standpoint,” Gallegos said. “When we were growing up and we wanted to go to Olive Garden and Red Lobster, we had to drive north or east. We never had any of that stuff on this side of town.

“There are lot of needs and services that are lacking on the south and west sides, and we thought we were in a position to change that and decided to take it on.”

The business to flip houses was launched in 2010 with the backing of trusting investors, Bonillas said. Each successful project added financial resources to work with until the partners got into redeveloping distressed commercial properties to speed up their business growth to the point of having the capability to develop American Eat Co.

Carla Andoniadis, owner of Opa!, didn’t need a lot of convincing to take a spot in the food court. The original Opa! at 2990 N. Campbell Ave. closed earlier this year as the restaurant moved into American Eat Co. But Andoniadis said she had her eye on a southside location long before.

“I saw the value of coming to the southside about seven, eight years ago just based on being observant of who our clients were,” she said.  “People would come from the southside all the time without the coupons.

“I just felt that it was a shame that more restaurants didn’t go to the southside. I’m not sure why. Maybe they were afraid. But I definitely saw the value immediately and I was so happy to be a part of it. It was a perfect match.”

In its short existence – American Eat Co. opened in late March – Cázarez said he has seen it become more than a place to have a quality yet informal meal with something for everyone in a group. It’s become a community gathering point. It’s not unusual to grab a seat at one of the long benches or a high-top table and find yourself next to an old friend, or maybe make a new one.

“This is a place where the community can come and congregate,” Cázarez said. “It’s not sectional seating like in a restaurant. Your party can merge into the party next to you. You get to know and talk to your community members and enjoy a meal with them.”

“It’s an icon of a destination already,” Andoniadis said. “They built on the success of the business that was here prior. I’ve mentioned this to them before – what Memo (Guillermo) and Jesús and Rubén have built here will outlive them. How they reinvested and where they came from – this is beautiful.”

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