Not long ago, you would have found sheep roaming across the street from the relatively struggling “Downtown Ocotillo” development, according to developer Spike Lawrence.
But today, the upscale strip mall appears to be coming into its own thanks to unique concepts like The Living Room restaurant, whose owners recently opened The Sushi Room right next door in October.
In 2006 Lawrence assembled 30 acres in the area, and, along with Gilbane Company out of Rhode Island, had a master plan of about 100 acres of mixed-use development. When the market crashed in 2008, those plans were postponed. Though they successfully finished building the shopping center and did fill some spots – currently about a dozen tenants make the center home, including a Fresh & Easy Market, Leidan Mitchell salon and spa, Ocotillo Dance Center, and S. Walker Dentistry at Ocotillo – the vicinity was dotted with mostly chains, he said.
“You had the people here … quality people that appreciate good stuff,” Lawrence said, “but there was no real nightlife, no real vibe.”
That’s where restaurateurs Patrick King and Tom Kauffman came in, Lawrence said. All three are co-owners of The Living Room – a self-described wine café and lounge with a menu emphasizing small plates, gourmet salads and more – as well as their latest addition, The Sushi Room. Though the restaurants are located in a relatively desolate area, Lawrence believes South Chandler is ahead of most regions in Arizona as far as its job growth. Intel, for example, has been a major boost for the area, and plans to hire 1,000 more engineers this year, he said.
James Smith, economic development specialist for the City of Chandler, agrees. In addition to a committed $13 billion towards expansion at Intel in the last 18 months, he believes the city’s former Motorola facility is another great opportunity for growth. With 500,000 square feet currently under redevelopment, Smith is optimistic that the facilities, across from Downtown Ocotillo, will attract companies and serve as a major job center in the future.
“Chandler’s workforce and the companies that are already there really make it a viable place for new companies and new technologies to locate,” Smith said. “We expect that that will continue to happen.”
An influx of younger generations of technology workers translates to greater demand for retail stores and restaurants in the area, Smith said. Creating more unique choices like The Living Room and The Sushi Room, he said, simply meets the needs of an increased workforce.
“It shows incredible faith that somebody would invest in two or three concepts right in that same area,” Smith said. “To me it just says that they really see a bright future.”
King, who has been involved in 33 restaurants in his career, said that for years, people in Ahwatukee, Chandler and Ocotillo have tended to travel to Scottsdale when they wanted a night out at a trendy, hot spot. This has already begun to change.
“We’re bringing things closer to where these people live,” King said. “That probably is the biggest No. 1 success reason.”
For Brandon Hess, who lives just up the road from Downtown Ocotillo, the convenience is great.
“It’s really the only place to go around here to hang out, at all,” Hess said. “I mean there’s not much on this side of town.” The ability to bounce from one place to another was also attractive, said Brandon, who was having a drink at The Sushi Room with a buddy after he had just grabbed lunch at The Living Room.
So while some may think opening multiple restaurants right beside one another poses a major risk for cannibalization of one’s own business, King said they actually play off of each other in a positive way.
“We felt right away that The Living Room would be a big help to The Sushi Room,” King said. “But in reality, when The Sushi Room opened, it brought sushi people, and those people were checking out The Living Room and saying, ‘Hey, this is cool.’”
In fact, according to Lawrence, The Sushi Room is off to a great start, already ahead of projections and the previous growth of The Living Room during its early stages.
The entrepreneurs are now working on a third restaurant concept, which would continue their monopolization of the strip mall with unique, quality dining. In addition to what’s currently in the works, Lawrence said his ultimate goal would be to do at least two more concepts in the Downtown Ocotillo development, including a steakhouse on the lake.
“There’s a lot of logic to the clustering and the synergy,” Lawrence said. The success of this concept, he said, can be seen at other locations, such as the Scottsdale Waterfront and the Kierland Commons in Scottsdale.