By Tiffany Kjos –
Culinary Dropout is like nothing you’ve ever seen in Tucson.
But don’t take that from us; take it from patrons dunking pretzel bites into cheese fondue and drinking out of … a paper bag? More on that later.
In the meantime, ingest this: It’s the first project Fox Restaurant Concepts has built in Tucson in 10 years, spending $9 million to buy and develop the property where the venerable Grant Road Lumber used to sit, east of North Tucson Boulevard.
“I’m going to say it – this is the most significant redevelopment in the city of Tucson. It has so much impact because now we have other users looking at Grant Road, thinking ‘Maybe we can do something,’ ” said Dean Cotlow, who brokered the purchase of the property.
The restaurant is 22,000 square feet, about four times larger than the average eatery in Tucson. It employs more than 200 people. And it stands out – a metal and glass wonder in a neighborhood that could use some attention.
“The fact that any entrepreneur believes there’s that kind of value and that kind of opportunity in our city is fantastic,” said Andrew Squire, a city of Tucson economic development specialist. “It’s huge.”
Tucsonans are familiar with Fox Restaurant Concepts and the local-boy-does-good story about Sam Fox and his bevy of eateries, starting with Wildflower on North Oracle Road.
At the helm of Tucson’s Culinary Dropout is Fox’s longtime partner Regan Jasper, who scouted locations on Broadway and Speedway but fell in love with the old Grant Road Lumber site.
“There are things to talk about downtown, but midtown doesn’t really have anything to talk about except a widening project on a road. So here’s a win for midtown,” said Jasper, who spends much of his time on the road opening new Fox restaurants. “People asked, ‘Why are you spending that much money at Grant and Tucson?’ ”
Short answer: A similar Fox enterprise in a depressed area in downtown Phoenix – at Seventh Street and Montebello Avenue – saw an influx of new retailers, something the Fox team hopes to replicate here.
Squire, the Tucson economic development specialist, said sometimes new retail business creates a ripple effect, attracting other new companies.
“There can be a really strong synergy when somebody sees something successful,” Squire said.
What about the neighbors?
Kingfisher Bar & Grill, which has been at 2564 E. Grant Road for 24 years, is hoping the area will get a boost. “I think it’s great. It brings people to the area. I think Sam Fox has always done a really good job with all his many different food concepts,” said Jeff Azersky, who along with business partner James Murphy owns Kingfisher.
The ongoing Grant Road widening project won’t directly affect the neighborhood for several years. Meanwhile, his new neighbor has something that makes Azersky a little envious – valet parking. Culinary Dropout, which was “overwhelmingly” busy right out of the gate, has had to be creative about parking space, borrowing from businesses nearby that close at 5 p.m.
Jasper’s office is in Phoenix, but his home is in Tucson, where he lives with his wife.
“We want to be a member of this community, this part of town,” he said. “We want families to be here. We want celebrations to be here. We want people to celebrate birthdays and bachelor parties and bachelorette parties here.”
With more than 50 restaurants in several different states, Fox Concepts works with many charities, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tucson and the Tucson Conquistadores.
Culinary Dropout, at 2543 E. Grant Road, is in the “dead center” of Tucson, said Cotlow, the real estate broker.
“All of a sudden it changes the whole makeup of Grant Road. I mean it changes it for a long ways west and a long ways east.”
Within a short radius are the University of Arizona, downtown and the foothills.
“Sam (Fox) has an unbelievable creative eye and he can see all these little details ahead of time,” Jasper said. “It was fun that I got to find this piece of dirt for him and say, ‘Hey, look at this beautiful opportunity that we have.’ It’s almost 4½ acres. It’s a big piece of real estate.”
Jasper hoped to recycle the old lumber store, but three fires throughout the years and its age made that impossible, so they razed it and started from scratch.
Fox bought the property for Culinary Dropout plus a former car wash to the west that will be home to a retail center anchored by national fitness center Orangetheory Fitness
Culinary Dropout is divided into distinct spaces, including a dining room, bar, enclosed patio with games (“The Yard”), and a glassed-in, private area (“The Coop”) that seats around 100 and has its own bar.
“You can play a little ping-pong and drink a beer. Or you can have a private-dining party with a set menu for 100 people – all under one roof,” Jasper said.
In creating Culinary Dropout, Fox sought to capture diners from students to families to businesswomen who want to stop in for a cocktail: “Edgy, fun, casual, late night.”
The menu includes antipasti, sandwiches, soups and salads. Mains include 36-hour pork ribs, cannelloni, ribs and fish and chips. Prices range from $3 to $24. A sandwich or salad will set you back about $12.
The eye-popping kitchen is surrounded by glass.
“It’s all done fresh. You can see them prepping it right there. Your food is going from a refrigerator to a cooktop,” Jasper said. “It’s bar food but it’s so good.”
There are Arizona-brewed beers galore, plus the usual suspects such as Bud and Corona.
About that paper bag – for $1.95 you get a can of beer, but the bartender gets to choose which kind. Not so adventurous? Go for a glass of wine or specialty cocktail. Mules, shandies and cocktails run around $11. Beer is $6 or so. Wine starts at $6 a glass or $24 by the bottle. Happy hour runs from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Sipping on a drink recently was Manny Chavez, 36, who’s been to the Culinary Dropout in Tempe, which is among several other Culinary Dropouts and other Fox restaurants in the Phoenix area.
“When I was there I was like, ‘I wish they would open one here,’ ” he said. “It’s fun. It’s hip. We need things like this in Tucson.”
Culinary Dropout at Grant Road Lumber Yard
2543 E. Grant Road
Open 7 days a week.