Young entrepreneur finds a home—and family—in the restaurant business.
Michael Babcock has tried to get out of the restaurant business for years, but he hasn’t had much luck. Instead, the 30-year-old entrepreneur is busy expanding the Welcome Hospitality dining brand that celebrates fresh ingredients and home-style cooking in quirky, adaptive spaces.
Three years ago, after graduating from Arizona State University with a degree in environmental science, Babcock and his then-girlfriend Jenn Robinson set out for Santa Cruz, Calif., to pursue their professional careers. The job scene was tough, but Babcock did find employment—as a sous chef in an Italian restaurant. It wasn’t exactly part of his postcollege career plan.
“I was done working in kitchens,” says Babcock, who grew up in the foster care system and worked in restaurants to help pay bills. “My first job was working as a line cook at a diner.”
The California gig turned out to be an eye-opening inspiration for Babcock, who was exposed to farmer’s markets and using local ingredients while working at the restaurant. That triggered an idea, which led the couple to return to Phoenix in 2011. With the help of a small inheritance from Babcock’s biological grandmother, he launched Old Dixie, a food truck that featured Southern comfort food made with the best local ingredients.
“I always was interested in sustainability,” he says. “And I wanted to provide an aspect of hospitality I thought was lacking in Phoenix.”
While Old Dixie developed a strong following for its fresh menu and hospitable service, the 100-plus hours a week spent prepping food, making dishes from scratch, and working the counter were exhausting.
“No sleep. No money. A classic upstart,” says Babcock. “I loved the idea, but I hated the execution.”
Around the same time, Babcock started to wonder about a 200-square-foot, ’50s-style diner housed in an Airstream trailer in his neighborhood in the Garfield District in central Phoenix. He used Facebook to inquire about the non-operating restaurant and soon met the owner, Sloane McFarland, who closed the business during the recession.
Initially not for sale, Babcock and Robinson developed a relationship with McFarland and eventually struck a deal on New Year’s Eve over gin, toasting the revival of the Welcome Diner, which reopened in February 2013.
Realizing it was impossible to run the food truck business while trying to launch a startup, Babcock and Robinson shut down Old Dixie, which now serves as the prep station for the Welcome Diner.
“We opened up in a haze of confusion. No one even knew where the salt was the first day, but we were pretty busy, [especially] for not telling anyone we were opening,” says Babcock.
The team has since found their restaurant rhythm and in November 2014, opened Welcome Chicken + Donuts on 15th Street and Buckeye Road in a building formerly occupied by, interestingly enough, a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“The idea was to create a fast-food concept done with great craft and ingredients, and allow customers to get back to work in 10 minutes,” explains Babcock, who originally didn’t want to open another restaurant.
Now, it’s the part of the job Babcock enjoys the most. He gets restaurant design inspiration from everything. “I’m a cultural sponge,” he says.
Next up is a refurbished midcentury diner in downtown Tucson, a former Sambo’s restaurant with 4,000 square feet, expected to open the end of summer. The space is dramatically different than the Welcome Diner, which only seats nine inside.
“We’re mutating the blueprint and making it bigger. We’ll have 100-plus seats and 35 feet of line space with a fuller menu and an emphasis on smaller plates and vegetables,” he says. “We’re also digging deeper into our own personality and taking on local, fresh foods, as well as our regional Sonoran culture. It’s a whole new realm of possibilities.”
Plus, the group intends to expand the Welcome Diner concept with another downtown location potentially this fall.
In addition to overseeing development, design, personnel and team building, Babcock is focused on making sure the neighborhood spirit of Welcome Hospitality restaurants remains neighborly.
“We’re friends with everyone,” he says. In fact, Welcome Diner employees take their breaks on a neighbor’s porch. Babcock has also made certain that his employees are proud of their efforts.
“Our staff collectively participates in the development of our concepts. I’m motivated to create a nurturing work environment and help someone else build a ladder in work and life.”
Babcock, however, finds it difficult to maintain a balance between restaurant leadership and business autonomy since it’s the first real connection he’s ever had to anything permanent.
“The hardest part is living up to the notoriety of our success and making the best decisions for the family business. This business is my village, my baby,” he says. “I have found my chosen family in Welcome Hospitality.”
Story by Sally J. Clasen