In the affluent Buckhead district of Atlanta, an old Blockbuster is finding new life as a wine bar/café. The building has been gutted and retrofitted, but the original structure remains.
And so too does a bit of the building’s history: One wall is entirely lined with old VHS tapes.
This personal touch is the calling card of the restaurant in question, Postino, a Phoenix-based concept under the umbrella group Upward Projects. The Buckhead location, slated to open in early summer, represents the brand’s easternmost outpost in its nearly 20-unit system. Each restaurant boasts a one-of-a-kind wall filled with paraphernalia. At one Phoenix store, it’s matches. In the Denver location, it’s books. And in a Houston unit, it’s old-fashioned keys.
“It’s a huge wall of these glittering keys. They’re all donated by our customers, and it creates an interesting thing to look at,” says Lauren Bailey, CEO and cofounder of Upward Projects. “Usually the art wall has something to do with the history of the building. The one in Denver was an old bookbinding building, so we did a wall of books.”
The quirky practice can be traced back to the first-ever Postino. The team wanted to decorate a wall with cassette tapes but didn’t have the time or money to hunt them down. So instead, they recruited customers to donate their own cassettes in exchange for a gift card, and thus a tradition was born.
Although no two walls are the same, the objects share a core theme.
“They’re often, for some reason, items that society is gearing away from in some way,” Bailey says. It’s in this space where Postino excels in an unconventional approach to sustainability. The three Rs of recycle, reuse, reduce are the most common edicts, but “repurpose” and “restore” are arguably just as valuable. For Postino, that means transmuting random (sometimes obsolete) objects into art and renovating buildings as needed.
With the exception of the dining tables and chairs, the brand rarely buys new furniture, opting instead to bring in second-hand pieces and castoffs. The light fixtures are all vintage, while its credenzas and shelves are lined with salvaged curios.
When opening new units, Postino seeks out existing spaces rather than new builds. Not only does this strategy offer inspiration for the art wall, it also keeps the chain from sliding into a cookie-cutter template.
Needless to say, it’s an involved process for Upward Projects and its partners on the ground.
“We lovingly torture our brokers in our real estate markets to find these buildings and then continue to torture ourselves with bringing them back,” Bailey says. As an example, she points to Postino’s Montrose location, which was once the largest gay bar in Houston. The building was in such poor condition that it couldn’t be sandblasted, which made for a slow, meticulous restoration.
“We’ve gotten really good at it. It is painful—I’m not going to lie—but the product of that and preserving these buildings across the country is something that we’re insanely passionate about,” Bailey says. “It pains me deeply to see these buildings being scraped. I’m all about growth—it’s a wonderful thing—but to have the gift of the restoration of these spaces is something that we’ve held really dear since the beginning.”
Other facets of sustainability have evolved over the years, sometimes in rather serendipitous ways. Back in the mid-2000s Postino was approached by Ray DelMuro, owner of Refresh Glass, a then-fledgling company that created glassware through recycled materials. He was interested in taking the restaurant’s old wine bottles off their hands. Even after Bailey clarified the sheer volume—some 900 bottles every week at each location—DelMuro was still game.
“At that time, there wasn’t—and still isn’t, really—a great commercial glass-recycling program in Phoenix,” Bailey says. “I was so excited because it was devastating to watch that many bottles go into the landfill every week.”
Once business took off for Refresh Glass, Postino started using the glassware at its six area locations, a tradition that continues today.
By Bailey’s own account, this was an organic step toward sustainability. When COVID hit, the restaurant, like so many others, was forced to hit the accelerator on multiple fronts, particularly carryout. At one point, she recalls seeing a location’s 20,000-square-foot basement completely packed with single-use to-go utensils and receptacles. Even that massive amount would only last the restaurant a short time, she says. Postino quickly adopted compostable and recyclable materials for its to-go boxes. By the end of 2020, it had customized them to read, “Good Food, Good Mood,” with the Postino logo underneath.
Upward Projects restaurants also tweaked their online ordering page so customers would have to select whether or not they wanted utensils. That small change had a big impact, Bailey says.
“I think [restaurants] try to do everything and that’s problematic because it can become overbearing, not only from a price standpoint but just implementation,” she says.
It’s also easy to become hung up on more common sustainability practices without thinking outside the box. On the surface, targeting old buildings and collecting cassette tapes might not seem like an eco-forward pursuit, but by eliminating the need to build new restaurants or buy new decor items, Postino is cutting down on waste. It’s still sustainability, Bailey contends, just a different shade of it.
“It wasn’t purposely about sustainability necessarily, but it is. It’s sustainability in a different way,” she says. “Of course, it’s important to preserve the environment, but it’s also important to preserve the very buildings and places that make these communities vibrant.”