Like a Fox

A (former) Tucson Original makes good in the regional restaurant market Perfect

In Major League Baseball, hitting .400 is almost impossible; nobody's done it since 1941.

In the business world, .400 is not such a great number, whereas batting 1.000 is nearly impossible. But that's pretty much what Sam Fox has done since starting Fox Restaurant Concepts in 1997. The president and CEO of the company, Fox has had an incredible string of successes, both in Tucson and other markets.

His first FRC restaurant, Wildflower, opened in 1998, and the company has continued to expand to the point where today, there are 24 FRC restaurants. Among his restaurants are Tucson mainstays such as Wildflower and NoRTH, and newer fare like Blanco, a high-class taco place.

"A lot of things (go into a successful new restaurant)," says Fox by phone from California. "That's the key. It's not a great location; it's not great food; it's not great service. It's all of those things, plus another 10,000 details."

His company has a habit of creating new concepts, as the company name might imply. Of his 24 restaurants, there are 11 distinct, different brands. Fox has even gone so far as to close a successful restaurant to develop a new concept on the same ground: Bistro Zin shut its doors to be retooled and reopened a year later as Zinburger, an upscale hamburger joint that's his latest addition to Tucson. "In regards to Bistro Zin, it was a great restaurant, and a lot of people, including me, were sad to see it go, but not everything lasts forever. It's better to go out on the top than on the bottom. Especially today, with the way the economy is, people want a bit of a lower check average, so (Zinburger) is really working for us."

Fox continues to have great success with his restaurants, but he has faced difficulties in other areas. FRC was last year kicked out of Tucson Originals, a coalition of locally owned restaurants. The removal was preceded by Fox relocating his headquarters to Scottsdale six years prior, and his continued expansion into new markets, including Texas and Colorado.

"I was a founding member of (Tucson Originals)," says Fox. "I truly think our restaurants are Tucson originals to this day. I look at our company as a Tucson original. I live in Phoenix; when people ask me about my background, I'm very proud to talk about being from Tucson. I'm proud of where I've come from. (Being kicked out) was a little disappointing, and I wasn't happy with that decision. Everyone had a vote in the decision, and they voted me out of the deal. It's something I don't dwell on or think about.

"I wish all those guys the best of luck, and for me, we just look forward to taking care of our store. I thought we brought a lot to the organization. We had a lot of strengths with our (company), like buying power, that Tucson Originals could have used. It's like, 'These guys have become too successful; let's kick them out.' That's their decision. I don't want to cause a big stir over it; it is what it is. At the end of the day, we try not to make a big deal about it."

Fox grew up working in his father's restaurants around town, including the Hungry Fox. He says the experience gave him a "great foundation for the restaurant industry." Fox opened his first restaurant, Gilligan's Bar and Grill, in 1992, shortly after dropping out of the UA.

"Dropping out of college wasn't a hard decision at all," says Fox. "Trying to figure out what I wanted to do--that was the hard decision. When I look back, I was just really young. I was very entrepreneurial, I wanted to do something for myself; I wanted to work for myself; I wanted to create my own deal. ... I was not the best student at the university, and I felt like there was something more for me.

Fox says his first restaurant provided a great learning experience.

"There's nothing that can replace real life experience. ... When I opened my very first restaurant, I didn't really have any money, and it was a struggle," he says. "I had a tough time paying the bills, and that was really the foundation for who I am today. It's really hard running a business with no money. You just really try to figure out where you can save, or where you can build guests. You're working the business every single day, because you have no other options, or (you're) going to close the doors."

Fox eventually sold Gilligan's (which has since closed), then started and was bought out of another company before beginning Fox Restaurant Concepts in 1998.

Despite the move away from Tucson, Fox still has a fondness for restaurants in the area.

"I think it's great. It's been great for us; there are a lot of great restaurants in town. There are always new people opening stuff, and that's always fun and challenging. I'm a restaurant guy. I go out to dinner, and I eat out at a lot of different restaurants all over Arizona. ... I appreciate great restaurants, and I always try to learn something from all my experiences when I go out to eat all the time. It's always fun to go out to new places in Tucson and see what's going on."

He says foodies can expect more Fox Restaurant Concepts activity in the Old Pueblo. "We're always looking (at the possibility of new restaurants in Tucson)," says Fox. "We have eight stores there, and it's a great place for us as we evolve and do new things. Zinburger's unique to Tucson; Montana Avenue's unique to Tucson; Blanco's unique to Tucson. The community has been very supportive of our stores. Especially in today's trying economy, our business has done very well in Tucson. ... As Tucson continues to grow, I'm sure we'll grow with Tucson. We're looking for another Sauce location in town right now, and I'm sure there'll be more."