Craig DeMarco is responsible for some of the Valley’s best restaurants, including Postino, Windsor and Federal Pizza. As founding partner of Upward Projects, he, along with founding members Kris DeMarco (Craig’s wife) and Wyatt and Lauren Bailey, have brought a dozen restaurant projects to the Valley. He’s also a founding partner of Chelsea’s Kitchen and Le Grande Orange, focusing on re-purposing classic Valley buildings and invigorating neighborhoods, such as North Central Phoenix, Arcadia and downtown Gilbert. This December, Upward Projects opens its Central Phoenix location of Joyride Taco House. Keep reading for the philosophy behind Upward Project’s eateries, as well as to watch a video of DeMarco talking about his favorite reasons for living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born in Connecticut and lived there until I was 6 years old, then moved to the Bay area until I was 12. In 1982, my dad was in the software business and moved his whole company to Tempe because it was less expensive. I went to Marcos de Niza, then ASU and got my business degree. That’s where I met my wife Kris and Lauren. She and her husband Wyatt are both ASU alumni, so we all four care deeply about ASU.
When did you first think you wanted to get involved in the restaurant industry?
I was 15 years old and delivering the local newspaper. I wanted a car, and my dad said to get a job. You’re only qualified to do a few things when you’re 15. I already delivered the paper, so I got a job washing dishes at Village Inn.
I don’t know at 15 I had any real perspective, but I always knew I was driven and wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I paid for college serving tables and bartending, and I really loved this business. I probably figured out in my earlier 20’s I had a knack for this industry, but I didn’t know it when I first started.
What do you attribute your entrepreneurial spirit to?
My dad was an entrepreneur and instilled that in my brother and I — follow your dreams, do what you want to do, and don’t work for anybody.
What makes a good entrepreneur, and what makes you a good one?
My dad always told me, if you’re not going to die or go to jail, what’s the big deal? Failing doesn’t enter my brain very much. I’ve lost money plenty of times and made bad decisions, but I don’t look at it as failing. I always learn from those experiences.
Treat people well. It’s the lens you look through every day. I don’t think being an entrepreneur has anything to do with business — I think it’s a lifestyle.
What’s it like working with your wife?
She’s super-talented. She has a different skill set than I do. She’s very analytical, she’s very thorough. She’s got a great eye. We don’t work directly together — we’ll take a project and work on different parts of it.
My partners are also ridiculously talented. My dad always told me, “Surround yourself with people who are smarter, faster, more talented than you — it’ll make you better, stronger, faster, smarter.” I’ve never sandbagged or surrounded myself with people who just say “yes” — I’ve always challenged myself.
What are the challenges of working with your spouse?
I think probably one of the biggest challenges is that it’s hard to turn off. When we get home at night, it’s hard not to talk about work and separate it from family and relaxation. I haven’t mastered downtime yet.
How did you first restaurant, Postino in Arcadia, originate?
For my 30th birthday, my wife and I went to Italy with my parents, and our whole goal was not to go into any of the major cities. We had been there, done that, and we wanted to stay in some small town, and explore what the locals do.
We rented a farmhouse and rented a car and drove around for a couple weeks. Every little town had a little wine bar that was super-casual not pretentious. We came back to Phoenix, and we tried to find that experience, but it didn’t exist. We were going out to Royal Palms and Tarbell’s, which are great places but a little more formal.
We had been walking our dogs by the old post office building in Arcadia, saw the opportunity, came up with the idea, went for it, got it done, opened in April 2001, and we were very fortunate it worked out well. The rest is history.
You now have three Postino locations. What do you attribute to its success, as well as all the Upward Projects brands?
A key to our success is the location — it’s a 1959 post office building, it’s adaptive reuse, something that has become our niche in town and something we’ve always done. We take an old project and re-purpose it.
I only surround myself with amazing people, and that goes for all the team members we have here, too. We have a rigorous, arduous screening process. Over the years, sticking to that discipline has really helped us grow and build business and add value to the customers and the guests. We have great products, which I believe in, but it’s really the connection to the guests, which I think we do better than anybody else.
What do you think makes your staff stand out so much?
Strong character, high standards. We don’t want people who just want to come in, make money, and leave. We want people who are passionate, who care, and who really believe in what you’re doing on a daily basis. It’s like being on a winning team, and once you’re on a winning team and know what that feels like, we make sure to nurture that culture all the time.
Why are you passionate about adaptive reuse?
There’s definitely a style to it. You can’t recreate history. People try, but you can’t recreate something that’s original and authentic and genuine. We like being part of the community. Part of our site selection criteria is we only take a site if we can be part of that neighborhood and that community.
Central and Camelback is the only place in the Valley where four historic neighborhoods come together. These buildings get a second life, and that’s a big part of why we do this. Making money is a result, but it’s not why we jump out of bed in the morning. To get to come down here and be in a building like this and be connected to people who have been in this neighborhood a long time, and care about their street and their quality of life, is important.
How do you think one of your restaurants impacts a neighborhood?
Since we’ve opened in central Phoenix, crime has gone down, transients have left the area, graffiti has gone down. It’s neighborhood pride, and it drives pedestrian traffic.
Central used to have six lanes with very fast speeds, and since we’ve opened, it’s gone down to four lanes, and the city has put in bike paths.
It’s what I believe should happen to these great, old, character-driven neighborhoods, and then I think the home prices go up. We create a destination where people want to live an urban lifestyle — walk their dogs, ride their bikes, push their strollers — and it doesn’t happen a lot in Phoenix.
What can people expect from the new Phoenix Joyride Taco House?
We have a building next to Federal Pizza that was built in 1973 and was the Humpty Dumpty, an old breakfast concept. The building is architecturally interesting, it’s in a great location, and it has the same menu as our Gilbert location and same design theme. We did Mexican because we heard that was a need from this neighborhood.
What is your typical week like?
We post up at our corporate office next to Federal Pizza. We travel to new stores, and developing our leadership team takes up a lot of our time. I work really closely with my operations partner recruiting new talent, developing new talent, and improving our culture. We have about eight people on our corporate staff and are at about 500 employees.
What are your professional goals?
Operate an amazing business and create a culture that when people leave, they feel the time they spent with us was super-valuable for the rest of their lives.
Do you see yourself opening restaurants outside of Arizona?
Right now, no. We probably will end up going out of state at some point, but it’s not on the radar at the moment.
What are you looking for when you’re interviewing chefs?
Great character, passion and experience to a point, but I think that only gets people so far. Intellectual curiosity.
How are your menus created?
It’s a really big collaboration. We involve a lot of people in the creation process. For Joyride, we put together a whole design team for the menu — multiple chefs, multiple people on the leadership team, multiple partners — all in one room so you get all kinds of different perspectives. We also bring the customers in, so very few decisions are ever made in a vacuum.
What is your favorite meal at one of your restaurants?
Right now, I’m really high on the Ensalad Fila at Joyride. It’s an amazing salad. That and the Garden Variety Burrito at Joyride. The bruschetta at Postino has kind of been our staple. I’ve eaten more of that than anyone on the planet. I love it to death still to this day.
What’s your favorite kind?
Probably the brie and the apple and the fig jam.
What kind of experience do you hope people have when they go to one of your restaurants?
That they left in a better place than when they showed up and are vibrating at a higher frequency when they leave. We talk about connection to a guest and quality food and technically sound service.
What advice would you have for people looking into get into the restaurant industry?
Any industry, to take the entrepreneurial leap to do it, involves taking some risks. To get into restaurants, it’s labor-intensive, there are so many moving pieces, and you have to be able to build successful teams because no one person can do everything.
You have to be able to identify talent and get them on the team. What I love about this business is that it covers all aspects — real estate, design and manufacturing, recruiting, and development.
What’s your favorite Valley restaurant?
I eat at Hillstone a lot. I think it’s beautifully designed, and I can’t spend enough time eating in that room.