Restaurateur Sam Fox is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the opening of Wildflower this month. Since opening Wildflower, Fox has launched Fox Restaurant Concepts, which now runs nearly 50 restaurants around the country in eight different states, including Tucson’s Blanco, North, Culinary Dropout, Zinburger and Wildflower. He’s also been named one of 50 most influential people in the restaurant biz by Nation’s Restaurant News for five years running and has been a James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurateur 11 times. To celebrate his two decades in business, Wildflower (7037 N. Oracle Road) will serve a five-course meal for $55 a person ($85 with wine pairings) on Oct. 30.
What inspires you to go to work each day?
It changes every day. So many things. We get to touch so many people, whether it’s employees and our guests. We serve millions of people a year, and just getting up every single day to strive to hit our goals and achieve what we try to do, and deliver great hospitality and great food, and just a great work environment for all of our team every single day. That’s what gets me up in the morning.
When you opened Wildflower 20 years ago, did you imagine you’d be where you are today?
Not a clue. I had no idea. Early on my career, I struggled a little bit, and I’m very grateful for where we’re at today. I don’t take it for granted at all. And a lot of people—I have probably, on that opening lesson of Wildflower—seven to 10 people that are still in my company that have big jobs and have grown into running departments, and partnerships, and things like that. So when I look back on that, it was a great growth experience for us, and I’m proud of all the people that we’ve developed out of that one restaurant.
You grew up in the restaurant biz, watching your family run The Hungry Fox. How did that shape your sense of how a restaurant should work?
I always spent my time in the restaurants, even after school, and I saw the ups and the downs of the restaurant business. My parents had The Hungry Fox, and it was more of a mom-and-pop place, and those were just hard jobs that people had. And so it gave me appreciation for what it took to be successful. It’s shaped me to understand that you gotta come to work every single day, and execute, and perform. And I learned a lot from my mom and my dad, from how they ran their business and how they treated people, and really still use that foundation for who I am today as a person and how I run my company.
One thing I notice about all your restaurants: The servers always seem upbeat, engaged and eager to take care of the diners. What sort of magic do you work to ensure that kind of positive attitude?
We just talk a lot about culture. And you can talk about culture, and a lot people do, but really, you have to demonstrate culture; that’s more important than talking about it. So we talk the talk and we walk the walk. And so we give all our team members an opportunity to be successful. We invest in training. We invest in development and promotion. We set a great work example. We want them to enjoy themselves and have fun. They’re really the ones that are controlling the success of our business, so we feel that it’s very, very important that they’re enjoying their time at work, and they have the tools to be successful, and that we really provide a great environment of culture that takes care of the guests all the time.
What do you make of the farm to table localism movement in food these days?
I think it’s amazing. You should take all the opportunities that you can to support local farmers, local artisans that either bake bread locally and use local wheat, or whether it’s cheese makers, or people who are providing honey. Even people who are making aprons or building a lot of our ironwork at any of our stores, I think supporting all those local businesses is really, really important. And it’s nice to see some of those people get recognized in the recent years.
Do you see the food biz as a vital part of the local economy?
I think the food business is a very vital part, not only from an economic standpoint. Obviously, it provides jobs, and wages, and growth for a lot of people. It keeps people traveling to communities. There’s a lot of online stuff, and there’s a lot of delivery stuff, but we love having an environment that’s community focused. People can go to restaurants and have conversations with their friends and their family and other people in the community. So not only from an economic standpoint, but from an engagement standpoint, I think it’s very important to have these businesses thrive in our communities.
What sort of dishes are you excited about these days?
We have a lot of vegan and vegetarian dishes that have been on our menus for a while. People are enjoying them as much as having meat and fish on the plate. People are trying to figure out how that affects how their diets are and how they want to eat. I’m proud of all the food that we put on the plate.
Outside of your own restaurant, you’re looking to get some takeout to bring home, where would you go?
There’s an old, classic Chicago steakhouse up here in Phoenix called Don & Charlie’s that I get takeout from a lot. We love Pizzeria Bianco down here as well. And then when I’m in Tucson, I don’t have a specific one, but I love all the great old Mexican restaurants that are in town that I enjoy visiting when I’m back there a lot.
What about downtown Tucson? It seems like there’s a real food thing going on there. Any thoughts a Fox restaurant in downtown?
We continue to look. I think there was a little influx of a lot of seeds that happened kind of quickly over the last several years, and I think the business needs to catch up to all those seeds a little bit. Obviously, with the hotel that’s happened down there, and a lot more businesses and a lot more development happening, I think that will get there, but we’re just kind of taking a wait-and-see on how the business is getting developed down there. And then I think the last component is the little more residential component coming into the marketplace down there as well.