Pavle Milic has been a fervent force in the Valley’s dining scene, with more than 25 years of experience in Arizona’s restaurant industry. The Colombia-born, 42-year-old Chandler resident has worked at Phoenix’s Racho Pinot, Cowboy Ciao and Royal Palms, as well as restaurants in New York City and Napa Valley. He now co-owns FnB restaurant in Scottsdale, as well as next-door Bodega Market and Arizona Wine Merchants. He has his own wine label, Los Milics, and hosts brunches on Rabbit Island with Desert Splash Adventures.
You can hear Milic on the online radio station he founded, MyAzNowRadio.com, where he interviews notable professionals in the Valley. Read more to learn how Milic became a formidable player in Arizona dining, and keep reading to watch a video of Milic naming his top five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was 15 when I came to Arizona. My stepdad became partners with Franco Fazzouli, who owns Franco’s Italian Café in Scottsdale. We moved here in 1987 to open up Franco’s Trattoria in Scottsdale. I went to Saguaro High School and Scottsdale Community College, and got a degree from the Academy of Broadcasting in Phoenix in communications and broadcasting.
My dad defected communist Yugoslavia in 1962 and wound up in Colombia, where he met my mom, and I was born. We moved to Queens, New York when I was 11 because my mom wanted to live here.
What’s your earliest memory of being interested in the restaurant business?
It’s funny, because right when I graduated from the Academy of Broadcasting in Phoenix, I started putting out applications, and the first offer I got back was in Wichita, Kansas. It was for a one-man band, which means you shoot the story, you edit the story, and you bring it back to the studio, but it was for something crazy, like $28,000. As a waiter, even back in 1999, I was making close to $65,000 a year just waiting tables. Due to the circumstances in my life, I couldn’t take that pay cut.
I knew this business had always been very generous and giving to me, but like anybody who’s been in it for a long time, especially me, who was put into it, I didn’t get a chance to decide. I had been in various middleaged crises in the business. I’ve always loved the business but thought, “This is what I’m going to do until I figure out what I’m going to do.”
While I was in Napa was when the whole thing kind of clicked together. To see the whole circle of dining, where your wine and food comes from, especially in Napa, a place that was built with a pioneering spirit and a city where most of its income is based on tourism, the way everyone helped each other out was amazing. It was terribly romantic to serve food that came from so nearby, and when it comes to California, the bounty of produce was amazing. To serve wine that came from half a mile away, and to see that holistic thing work together, it all clicked.
What made you want to open your own restaurant?
I became the general manager at Prado at the Montelucia and was there for about a year-and-a-half. I got to a point where, though my tenure there was very enjoyable because I learned a lot, I did not like working in a corporate setting. By that, I mean, the culture of emails, and that in order to affect change, you had to go through all this red tape and so many layers of management to get something done.
I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I started looking to open up my own thing, but I had zero dollars, no money to open up a restaurant. I would go in and talk to landlords on spec, and they’d ask me if I had money, and I told them I did. That was my way of practicing and becoming somewhat familiar with the nomenclature of how you talk to a landlord.
I asked a bunch of people for money, and everyone said no, and one person said yes. I got so nervous when this one person said yes, because I was so used to everyone saying no, that I was scared to say how much money I needed. I said, “$20,000” – you don’t open up a restaurant with $20,000. We opened up the restaurant with $20,000 and a Home Depot credit card.
What makes a successful restaurant, and what do you attribute to FnB’s success?
Just to be profitable, you need three lowest denominators, and these are kind of ambiguous: really good food, really good service, and an ambiance whose conviviality makes people comfortable or is an engaging space.
That’s not enough, though. It’s enough to make you profitable and successful, but if you’re like me, you don’t want to just be profitable – you want to be known for something. You want to have a point of distinction in some capacity.
I think in the restaurant business, not only should you be able to execute those three lowest common denominators, you should have an opinion. For example, on menus, a lot of people say they source locally, especially when it comes to the food. What we did here that was different about five years ago was to showcase local wine and bridge the gap between food and wine. That was one of the things that sort of set us apart from everyone else, back in 2009, because no one had ever done a wine list showcasing Arizona wine.
About six months after the fact, a fellow restauranteur, who’s a really good friend of mine, called me up and said, “Congratulations on the marketing coup de’ tat of the year.” There’s something to be said for marketing, because you do want to pedal your message and let people know what you’re doing, but I told him, if the wines were not good, somebody would have come into the restaurant and said, “This is the emperor’s new clothes – what are you doing? This is all slapstick.” The fact of the matter is, the wines are really good.
We opened up in December 2009. When I first started selling Arizona wine, I was going home and reading self-esteem books, because everybody was looking at me like, “You’ve made a horrible mistake, and you’re going to fail miserably.” On Valentine’s Day of 2010, a Sunday, the front cover of the business section of The New York Times was my ugly mug, where they talked about the likelihood of a sustainable movement, meaning, not only doing wine, but doing food and everything locally.
It was so incredible to experience the power of that publication. I’ve been in the business for 27 years here locally, and I had people calling from Chile and Europe congratulating me. The automatic interest nationwide of people calling into the restaurant and making a reservation was amazing, because nowhere in the article did it say Arizona wine was good or that FnB restaurant was a great restaurant. It just talked about what we were doing, without rendering any positive or negative judgment.
In terms of an operating standpoint, what makes us a little different is the point of view of my business partner and chef, Charleen Badman. She has a lot of relationships here locally with farmers, in terms of what’s on your plate.
In terms of the beverage selection and wine, I know so many people here. I can’t call up a winemaker in France and ask why a certain one tastes the way it does. It’s really cool to have access to all these people two hours away.
What stands out to you about Arizona wine?
I think what makes every wine stand out from any region is the level of distinction. It’s not supposed to taste like everything else. What’s really cool for me with Arizona wine is the pioneering spirit. This is not temperate weather. It’s extreme weather. Arizona wine is a new conversation, and there are a lot of new people getting into the game.
What makes it stand out are the elements where it is grown. Any time I get on the road to Sonoita, it’s like bricks fall off my shoulders. Then, you’re in Sonoita, and you look around, and it’s these gorgeous, expansive views, where you can see a weather system a week in advance, and it’s like a rolling grassland savannah. I love Arizona wine country because of what it looks like, which is unlike anything else in the world.
I think the most important part, aside from what’s in the bottle and the fact I’m from here and this community and get a chance to showcase what we do by what I curate, is the people. It’s the relationship. It’s so cool for me to know these people personally and be a part of this story. Even if it’s a little grain of sand, we’re an extension of their dreams, failures and successes. To be able to be involved in it, for me, is amazing.
How would you characterize the Valley’s dining scene?
I arrived here in 1987, and when we first arrived, there was Vincent’s and some restaurant at the Phoenician – there was really nothing. It’s so exciting what’s going on right now, not only in terms of selection, but in terms of how many dining options there are right now. I think we’re a thriving community and have a big-enough selection that can go elbow to elbow with anybody else in the market.
We have a lot of ethnic options, but in terms of how the city is built, you sometimes have to go far away. I love a Korean restaurant in Glendale, but when you live in Chandler, it’s like you need to eat a sandwich on a rest stop on your way to go have dinner. It’d be great to have more of a selection of ethnic foods in more concentrated pockets.
What makes you passionate about being in the hospitality business?
Anyone who’s been in this business knows that behind the scenes, it’s a lot of minutia and a lot of work. Between 5 and 10 p.m., when the curtain goes up, that’s my favorite part of the dining experience, because you’re on. We live life always so concerned with paying bills, folding laundry, all the stuff you have to do – our minds are always filled with chatter. I think what excites me is when someone comes in the restaurant, and we allow someone to experience a little suspension of reality. If they can forget a little bit about what’s happening and live in the here and now, feeding our soul is one of the most enjoyable things we can do.
What excites me is when people come in and leave really, really happy. To be able to make someone enjoy their lives for two hours through food, wine and humor, that excites me.
Why would you encourage people to dine at FnB?
I adore, admire, and have mad, huge respect for our chef, Charleen. I love what we do here, and I’ve known Charleen for 20 years, and she’s one of the nicest, most black-and-white, generous, giving, hard-working women I’ve ever met. I have huge respect for her, and every day I always give her a tip of the hat for her efforts and food. Charleen’s food is not pretty in the sense that it is squeeze bottle, exacting, haute cuisine food. There’s a lot of thought that goes behind everything she does, but she does it in a way that is pretty accessible.
The restaurant business is the perfecter of details when it comes to what you do to reach that point of a suspension of reality. But, for me, it would be to try Charleen’s food, because she’s an amazing cook.
How did MyAzNowRadio.com get started?
I’ve had an interest in microphones, and the bells and whistles and accouterment that goes with them since I was little. Charleen and I were in New York City doing research and development, and one of the restaurants she took me to in Brooklyn had a radio station called Heritage Radio Network, a network radio station all about food. This building above the Bodega Market has a room where a DJ would play in the old coffeehouse that was here. When I was in this room, I thought back to the restaurant in New York and thought I could do a radio station here.
I started doing research, got soundproofing donated, decorated the station, and started it two and a half years ago. It’s not for profit. It’s just a hobby. It doesn’t get censored, and we don’t edit. There’s no schedule – it’s just when we can do it, we put up content, upload it to the website, and spread it via social media.
There are hosts with different shows, and my show is called Stay True Radio. I interview someone from the local community and ask them how they did what they did, and if someone was interested in following that career path, how they did it. I’ve interviewed a pilot, an art gallery owner, winemakers and a beer sommelier. Other shows include beverage and wine shows.
How did Red Goat Wine come about?
AZ Wine Merchants is a very small wine shop and showcases a lot of local wine. It’s two shelves, and we opened about three and a half years ago as part of the Bodega Market. For about a year and a half, I’ve had a wine club called Red Goat Wine, which was very exclusive to guests of FnB. I knew I wanted to roll it out to the public in a way that was more plebeian and accessible in terms of price point, and I wanted to do something to help locally.
A sweet regular of ours for many years came in late in the day one day, and she looked a little ruffled. She had a bad day and just needed a bottle of wine and asked us to pick something for her. She works for Concerned Citizens for Community Health, an organization founded in 1975 in south Scottsdale, which does service programs for local kids, families and senior citizens, such as those who suffer from hunger, who can’t afford new clothes, or who need help paying for groceries or prescription medicine.
To me, it made sense by sheer serendipity she came to me that day. All the things she was doing resonated with me, and it’s in our community. Red Goat Wine is a $19-a-month membership that gets you access to an email distribution list that goes out two to three times a week, where we offer deals on wines – for example, we offered a bottle of wine for $8 that would normally be $20 on shelves.
The membership money that comes in allows me to not mark up the wines, and out of that $19, $3 from every membership goes directly to Concerned Citizens for Community Health. The rest of the money goes toward ensuring I can offer the wines for way cheaper than big box stores.
How did the Rabbit Island brunches come about?
When I was growing up in New York, I applied to go to an aviation high school, but didn’t get in because I’m blind in one of my eyes. About three years ago, a gentleman named Scott Currier, whom I’d been waiting on for years, came in. He told me had these planes he brought down from Alaska, where he has this fishing lodge, and does these Apache Trail tours in Arizona, where people take off from Scottsdale Airport. Out of a self-serving need, I said we should go up there and feed some people. It was just a whim, but sure enough, a couple days later, he called me to go.
We took off from Scottsdale Airport in his private plane and flew all over the Valley, then flew over Four Peaks, where as soon as you clear it, the state’s largest contiguous lake, Roosevelt Lake, is below you. We landed on the water then bellied up to Rabbit Island. The first year we hosted brunch there, we used to take everything up there – tables, tents and a Porta Potty. Now, we’re on our fourth season, and we have ground support, so everything is set up by the time we get there. The idea is, we take a local farmer and a local winemaker, and we can accommodate up to 12 guests for brunch.
It’s a huge Arizona celebration. We serve Arizona food, we serve Arizona wine, and we’re in this stunning setting. We do it the second Saturday of every month from October to May, and it’s always a fantastic experience.
How did Los Milics Wine come about?
Ten years ago, when I lived in Napa, I remember the aroma in the air is pervasive. I remember thinking it’d be great if I could have my own wine. Fast forward to three and a half years ago, and Todd Bostock, who owns Dos Cabezas WineWorks with his wife Kelly, came in for lunch, and I told him I wanted to make wine badly. I was very hands-on with the first vintage, from pruning to bottling. I’m involved whenever possible, and the design and name are mine.
We have three wines, each dedicated to each of my kids, Hannah, Oliver and Lorenzo. It’s a brand that is not something for just one year. I’ll continue to produce Los Milics as many years as I can. We’re on our second vintage right now.
What are your goals?
My goal is that FnB continues to be a part of the community for a very long time, hopefully when I’m no longer around.
In terms of wine, if I had one more thing to take off the checklist, it would be to have my own little tiny winery here locally, where I make all of Los Milics wines. It would be a winery where you could see the whole process and see all the equipment behind the bar, with an all-Arizona tab, and I’d do a tiny tapas, American appetizer joint in conjunction with the winery.
In terms of personal goals, one would be to do finish a marathon, and to get my private pilot license.
Why are you so passionate about wine?
The story of wine doesn’t just start with drinking it and whether it’s good or bad. You go into the vineyard where you see this vine that looked like it died, and you ready the vine for the next season of pruning. Then, you start seeing fruit, then you have to pay attention to the weather. This whole big courtship begins, and it’s almost two years before you see any results.
Then, you get to harvest, which is like a hurricane. It’s really exciting, because you had a whole season of growth. It’s like this waiting game where you see when you can actually go into labor with these babies. Then, harvest happens, and all the fruit comes in, and everything is pressed. Then, you bottle the wine, and the wine gets released.
To me, if wine is made with quality and balance in mind, everything else is what makes wine special. In this case, for me, it was a year and a half of history of the people who helped me bottle. To me, it’s everything that goes with the effort of making this one bottle of wine, and the conviviality you create by opening that bottle of wine.
What would your favorite meal consist of?
It would involve freshly sliced heirloom tomatoes from [farmer] Bob McClendon, with just a little sea salt on top and olive oil; very well-made Colombian rice with a good amount of raspao, the crispy part of the rice that gets stuck on the bottom of the pot; chimichurri made by Charleen, the Argentine sauce you put on steak; probably a high-end, great quality, aged ribeye; and a bottle of Los Milics. I would die happy.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to open their own restaurant?
Before someone wants to take the plunge in the restaurant business, I would highly encourage them to work in a lot of different restaurants, hopefully in different markets of the United States. Before you open up your own, make sure you have one or two management gigs under your belt. When you’re a server at the front of the house, you make a great deal of money, and once you manage, you take a huge pay cut and work a lot. It’s a necessary step you have to do.
My last piece of advice is that there’s never a perfect time to do it – just take the plunge. Try to do your homework, and have enough gumption and trust that whatever you’re going to do is going to be different than everyone else in town in some capacity.
Learn about other Valley restaurant owners:
Learn more about Salut co-owner Taso Tirkas here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Green New American Vegetarian owner Damon Brasch here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about EVO owner Nick Neuman here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Sumo Maya owner German Osio here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Postino owner Craig DeMarco here on Phoenix People.