Pecking on his computer keyboard and sipping an iced tea at his wine bar in downtown Tempe, Julian Wright doesn’t look like a zeitgeisty entrepreneur, exactly. But this cool cat—composed, pushing-fortysomething, graying at the temples—currently owns and operates three upscale, award-winning restaurants on Mill (a strip of bars, shops and eateries near ASU), and plans to open another on the street in, like, minutes. He’s also working up a Tempe spinoff for a north-Phoenix audience.
Wright began turning Mill Avenue’s soulless corporate tide in 2008 when he opened the sophisticated La Bocca urban pizzeria + wine bar, a date-night destination offering trendy pizzas, bruschetta planks and house-made limoncello.
Two years later, he launched Canteen Modern Tequila Bar, a handsomely designed enclave whose glass tile, natural wood and huge back patio drew young urban professionals as well as college kids with a hankering for the good life. Here, they could eat modern, central-Mexico-inspired street tacos, sip premium tequila and party in a sleek setting.
In the fall of 2012, Wright introduced The Handlebar Tempe, a casual, bike-and dog-friendly beer garden featuring a long, looping, indoor-outdoor bar. With 24 beers on tap and 24 by the bottle, grass-fed burgers and locally made brats, this relaxed and inviting place appeals to just about everyone, including craft-brew buffs and businessmen ready to loosen their ties at the end of the day.
Now the antsy empire-builder has a fourth Mill Avenue project in the works, this one a hip (and slightly kitschy) back-to-the-future concept involving street art, an interior food truck and 1980s video games, slated for a spring 2013 opening.
A fifth restaurant, loosely patterned after Tempe’s Canteen, is also slated for a spring opening clear across the Valley of the Sun, at north Phoenix’s High Street (formerly CityCenter of CityNorth), a mixed-use development that has limped along since its inception. But is Wright worried? Not in the slightest. He sees an under-served audience of nearby office and hotel workers, all of them thirsty for an after-work margarita. Do we see a pattern here?
Ironically, Wright majored in broadcasting during his own college days at Arizona State University and never considered the restaurant industry a viable career path. He worked in restaurants to pay the bills. Period. But after a few corporate restaurant management gigs that afforded him good-looking sport coats and classy cars, he had a change of heart, suddenly viewing the work he was naturally good at as a possible profession.
He likes to say that jumping out of airplanes has been a career theme, and he doesn’t seem prone to exaggeration. After three years of working his butt off for others, he decided to work his butt off for himself. He wrote an impressive business plan (which earned him family funding), then took $40,000 out of savings (at this point, he was in his mid 20s) and sank it all into Jax Thai Bar, his first Mill Avenue restaurant, which debuted in 2000.
“I made a lot of rookie mistakes,” he says, admitting he gave away drinks and turned the restaurant into his own personal playhouse. But that got old quickly and after selling Jax in 2002, he turned right around and opened The Library Bar & Grill (also on Mill), which Wright describes as a “rowdy, coyote-ugly bar” built on beer and rock ’n’ roll.
“But this time, I didn’t sit back and wait for it to come,” he says, “I wrangled it,” referring to the branding, marketing, promotions and innovative music format he handled almost exclusively himself.
Until very recently, Wright has taken the same hands-on approach to almost every aspect of his business, dealing with financing, licensing, construction management, day-to-day operations, booze programs, even drape selection without benefit of a right-hand man.
Lately, though, he’s loosened up and learned to collaborate and delegate, giving one of his employees (a certified cicerone) free rein on the beer list at Handlebar, letting his GM choose the wines at La Bocca, turning to a particular mixologist at Canteen for cocktails, and working with one of his DJs on the music, an area that’s clearly near and dear to his heart.
“I used to pick every single track,” he says, “always drawing from a wide, wide range.” Each of his customized, meticulously groomed playlists features six different genres of music in the span of an hour, exposing guests to songs and styles they’ve probably never heard before.
In fact, it may have been The Library’s stellar music (well, that and the great party vibe) that put Wright on the map, earning him national attention and enough money to pay off his investors in four months.
When a retired businessman (and huge partier) from New Mexico pressed Wright to open a second Library in Albuquerque as a joint project, he accepted. And from that venture, which reputedly drew the longest lines a New Mexico bar has ever seen, came a handful more: a steak restaurant called Whiskque in Albuquerque, Sgt Pepper’s Dueling Pianos in Long Beach, Calif., and eventually La Bocca in Tempe.
When the economy went south in 2008 and Wright started bleeding money, he sold Whiskque (losing a cool $2 million on the deal) and turned his laser beams on La Bocca, which was struggling. He went in every day and made pizza until he got a product that satisfied him. Sales are now triple what they were then.
“You’ve earned your chops as a restaurateur,” he maintains, “when you get knocked down flat and get up and rebuild.”
What’s the next big thing for a guy who can smell the next big thing? “Small footprints and multiple units,” Wright says. He plans to move away from “the nightclubby stuff” to create adult restaurants built upon good times and gathering together. Watch for ’em.