Ocotillo Restaurant: A Story of Four Founders
FOUR DISTINCT PERSONALITIES WHO SHARED A VISION AND FOLLOWED THEIR DREAM TO CREATE ONE OF PHOENIX’S NEWEST RESTAURANT CONCEPTS.
Once, long ago, Arizona didn’t get much respect for its food. Sure, we had good Mexican food. Always did. But a common criticism was that we lacked interesting restaurants that served diverse cuisines. The last few years, however, have seen a surge of new concepts and styles of food.
A few neighborhoods around the Phoenix metro area have become magnets for these new restaurants. Certain streets, in fact, have become restaurant rows. Seventh Street, for example, from the Central Corridor south is lined with locally owned restaurants. If the owners of the new Ocotillo on Third Street and Flower have their way, Third Street might become the new restaurant destination street.
John Labahn, the architect who designed Ocotillo, long believed that Third Street had great potential because of its proximity to both businesses and residences so he bought properties along the street years ago. His vision for the property at Flower changed as the economic climate of Phoenix changed. It became apparent to him that repurposing the property was a better idea than just refurbishing it as an office building.
Enter Walter Sterling, an accomplished chef, introduced to Labahn through a mutual friend. The two came up with the idea of opening a restaurant on the site. Together they created a business plan and developed the concept for what is now Ocotillo. Their vision, which they have realized, was offering three separate entities under one “roof.”
The extensive outdoor space houses a beer and wine garden and a coffee bar (O to Go) while the indoors offers seating for small and large groups, and a bar. A movie screen and DJ setup support events.
Sterling and Labahn talked and planned for more than two years. During that time, Sterling brought in two long-time industry friends with solid experience: Chef Sasha Levine and Sommelier David Johnson. The three restaurant veterans—Sterling, Levine and Johnson—are heavy hitters in this town, bringing with them years of experience and accolades.
Four active owners. Not silent partners. Could be a little scary but each offers something unique that’s made their partnership work.
Ocotillo serves what Chef Sterling calls “New American cuisine with an emphasis on local and seasonal.” There will always be mainstay items on the lunch, dinner and weekend brunch menus but others will change with the seasons and availability of ingredients.
According to Chef Levine, the menu is “eclectic; veggie driven but not crazy local.” She intends to stick to seasonal and local ingredients as much as possible but realizes that sometimes she’s going to have to source from farther away than Arizona to get the best ingredients. And getting the best is what Sterling and Levine are all about.
Johnson, who is multitasking as the front of the house manager and the “beverage guy,” has worked in a slew of local restaurants. In fact, if you eat out, you’ve probably met him. He is finally doing what he always wanted to do.
“I want the restaurant to be casual, fun and relaxed. I didn’t want another pretentious restaurant. I saw through Walter’s eyes what the restaurant could be and I was convinced.”
I asked about the biggest obstacle they each faced in getting the restaurant off the ground:
For Labahn, “Restaurant ventures have a stigma of failure, so raising the money was very challenging.”
For Sterling, “Not showing the employees how stressed I actually am.”
For Levine, “Opening the restaurant!”
Sterling and Levine developed the menu together and share chef duties. Sterling, influenced by his mother’s great cooking, started cooking at an early age and has worked in some of the best restaurants around the country. He wants people to say that the food at this restaurant is fresh and vibrant. He wants guests to leave satisfied but not overly full. That was a high priority when he and Levine developed the menu.
Levine, a C-CAP scholarship winner and a graduate of Arizona Culinary Institute, considers herself very lucky: “I have been mentored by some of the best chefs in the city. Everyone I have worked with has influenced my cooking. The best thing I did for my career was to work for and with lots of great people. And I think the influence of many of these chefs is evident in the menu.”
The menu does indeed reflect the varied backgrounds of the two chefs. “There should be something for everyone,” says Sterling. There’s something for the meat eater, the vegetarian, the diner who prefers small plates. And of course there are the wines curated by one of the most knowledgeable wine people in the business, David Johnson.
So what do the owners like best on the menu? Johnson’s favorite dish is Ocotillo Chicken. “It’s genius. Simple. All the things I love about Arizona: chiles, citrus, local honey, pecans and dates.”
Sterling loves his new pasta extruder so for now whatever pasta is on the menu is his favorite.
Levine loves the small plates, the falafel burger, the Japanese fish and chips. “I wish people would try the chicken wings and pork steak,” she implores.
The owners of Ocotillo are playing to their strengths. And since they’re in it for the love of it, the restaurant is more than the sum of its parts.
Sharon Salomon, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, freelance writer and dedicated eater who hopes that someday she can meet the challenge of balancing all the calories she consumes in the interest of research with enough exercise to keep her weight stable. She can be reached at email@example.com.