Although central Arizona’s architectural history doesn’t date back as far as some of America’s older cities, the Phoenix-based Upward Projects restaurant group believes the area’s edifices from the 1950s and ’60s are meaningful. Focusing on adaptive reuse of buildings that served other functions—banks, a post office, and a school among them—Upward Projects has grown to a dozen restaurants and several brands.
The buildings are the starting point, says Craig DeMarco, one of the company’s co-founders. The specific direction of a concept isn’t determined until Upward Projects gets into the location. “In Phoenix, many developers would just erase everything [without concern for a building’s historic or architectural value]. But there are special places, and if they all get scrapped, everything becomes generic and homogenized,” he says.
DeMarco and his wife, Kris, along with another couple, Lauren and Wyatt Bailey, created Upward Projects in 2001 when they revived a former Phoenix post office and rehabilitated it into a neighborhood wine bar, Postino WineCafe.
The site was discovered by chance when the DeMarcos were walking their dogs in a tired part of Phoenix near the toney Arcadia district. The building was unique and surrounded by residential development. “This is something that is now ingrained in what we look for,” he adds. “The restaurant has to become part of the community or we take a pass.”
The serendipity in which they found the first building has continued through most of the restaurants, which includes six Postino locations, two Joyride Taco Houses, and one each of Federal Pizza, Windsor, and Churn.
Although other Phoenix-area operators are now imitating Upward Projects, “back in 2001, it was a dream for that building to come back to life,” Lauren Bailey says. “At that time a lot of restaurants were moving into malls and building new projects.” It’s important that buildings with compelling architecture and links to a community don’t fall to the wrecking ball, she adds.
DeMarco and Bailey have restaurant experience dating to their teens, and by focusing on developing a warm, friendly neighborhood spot with great ambiance and creative food, Postino thrived. The brand features nearly 30 wines by the glass, appetizers, soups, salads, and panini.
Postino’s success led the company to look at the run-down Central Avenue area next. Despite the tough location—“We used to find needles in the alley and there were lots of burglaries,” he says—they found a mid-century modern building that inspired them.
Nearly two years later—and an investment of around $1 million—a second Postino opened in that building. Its success was noticed by Pat Mahoney, whose commercial real estate business was across the street. “I would look out the window and see all the people visiting the restaurant,” he recalls. He eventually built a relationship with the Upward Projects quartet for the use of his parking lot, which also served an Italian restaurant in his building.
Shortly after the second Postino was launched, Upward Projects identified an old strip center a block away. In 2011, gastropub Windsor and ice cream parlor Churn opened there. That renovation exceeded $1 million. At the same time, the company homed in on a couple of Mahoney’s buildings in the same block, creating Federal Pizza and a Joyride Taco House.
“I had a lot of suitors for the Italian restaurant site, but because of what [Upward Projects] had done with Postino and how they handled some adversarial situations with the parking and the former restaurant owner, I chose them,” Mahoney says.
The company has added three more Postinos, including one in a previous Tempe school that later served as an art annex for Arizona State University and another in a former Gilbert restaurant that also is home to the first Joyride Taco House, which opened in 2013.
The first out-of-state Postino arrived in 2015 in a former Denver bookbindery, while a unit that opened last month in Scottsdale, Arizona, went a different direction: It’s in an upscale lifestyle center. But the next Postino, set to open in a former Valley National Bank in Scottsdale, will be Upward Projects’ “crown jewel,” Bailey says. The bank was designed by the late Frank Henry, an architect who served for years as studio master at Taliesin West, which had been the desert winter home and school of legendary Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “We looked at that building for years,” she notes. “It’s beautiful, and one of those buildings I literally would chain myself to so it would not be demolished.”
That’s typical of Upward Projects, which has been a Phoenix trailblazer in adaptive reuse, says Kimber Lanning, director of Local First Arizona. The organization focuses on supporting locally owned businesses and building stronger communities. “They have led the way in finding buildings with the bones, unique character, and sense of place to stand out,” she says. “We are absolutely seeing more restaurants,more businesses, diving into the redevelopment of older buildings.”