Branding Phoenix: 5 Winners

2018-06-13T17:27:42+00:00 June 13th, 2016|

Last week on my blog Branding Phoenix: 5 Losers, I singled out five places that need some love from designers.  This week, I want to give credit to the creative visionaries who have boosted the brand of our city.

I’m using the language of “branding” to summarize the overall appeal of the city. The brand of any city is defined by its livability, its beauty, its culture, and the experience from its streets and sidewalks.

Some of the winners that I highlight today are obvious (great Phoenix restaurateurs), while others do small things well, and they deserve some credit for lifting the spirits of all of us in the city.  In no particular order…

Skip to: 

  1. Creative Restaurateurs
  2. Everyone who is Rethinking the Canal System
  3. Berghoff Design Group
  4. Agritopia
  5. First Solar & ADOT


1. Creative Restaurateurs

We have seen a significant change in the dining scene in Phoenix over the last 1o years.

Not long ago, it seemed like there were two options: fine dining at a resort in Scottsdale or PV, or a chain restaurant on the corner closer to your house.

Today, there are many fun places to meet friends and family all around Phoenix.  Plus these restaurateurs have brought in great local talent on their way to the top: chefs, designers, and architects too.

Upward Projects

Where would we be if it weren’t for Postino wine bar?

We’d still be eating at Panera or Wildflower on a Friday night because at least it was better than Taco Bell.

The husband-and-wife visionaries Craig and Kris Demarco decided that Phoenix deserved a classy but casual destination for date night.

Year 2001: They took over an abandoned post office in a forgettable corner just west of Arcadia proper. Postino Day 1.

Over the next 10 years, the area became a real-time HGTV where every bland ranch house became an adorable home with a perfect yard from Berghoff Design Group.

Year 2005: Apparently the Upward Project team got bored with with success and found the next problem: Central Phoenix.

They opened up a few restaurants including Postino Central, Churn, The Windsor, Joyride Taco, and Federal Pizza.  They’ve essentially rebooted the entire area on Central Avenue above Camelback.


La Grande Orange

I feel like any homeowner within a 2-mile radius owes La Grande Orange and Postino a hug. 

They got this all started 15 years ago when they (along with Postino) dared to make 40th and Campbell cool. LGO is that perfect cafe for breakfast or lunch with friends. At night, the space converts to a legit pizzeria and bar.

More than that, the massive overhaul of 40th Street and 44th Street that is the “new normal” today traces its roots to the pioneering spirit of LGO and Postino.

The Mighty Joe Johnston

Without Joe Johnston, the town of Gilbert might have given up and become dis-incorporated and then annexed by Maricopa County.

Back in the day, Joe Johnston set up camp with Joe’s Real BBQ and then later Liberty Market when downtown Gilbert felt like the most abandoned 500 ft stretch of road in all of Arizona.

Today? Gilbert is a surprisingly cool date night, and they’re making national headlines and getting retweets from Justin Timberlake, which is adorable.  (And let’s be honest–that’s pretty dang cool.)

Fox Restaurant Concepts

Sam Fox and his squad at Fox Restaurant Concepts (FRC) are like a really good indy band with a dedicated fan base.

Then the band got big. Then really big. And now really really big.

How may restaurants do they have now? Like 100? 1000?

So, predictably, it’s become cool to opt out of a Fox restaurant on a Friday night.  Yeah I get all of that. I support the young and upcoming chefs too.  But Sam Fox has done more to rebuild this city than any hipster slinging falafels out of a food truck.

Show me a Sam Fox restaurant, and I’ll show you 200 neighbors who are poppin’ champaign as their home values go up.

I’m encouraged too to see how new FRC eateries built in more interesting locations too.:

  • Lest we forget, their North Italia in Arcadia is an infill project on a dusty lot next a U-Haul yard.
  • Until Culinary Dropout at the Yard went into uptown PHX, that intersection was only good for getting stabbed.
  • Then they put in another Culinary Dropout at Farmer Arts, on the other side of the tracks in Downtown Tempe.  Yeah, the dark space in between Mill Avenue and the airport.

While we’re on the subject of the airport.  Let’s give some credit to Fox for giving foodie travelers a legit experience when on a layover in Phoenix. I’ve crisscrossed the country 100s of times, and you will never find a more foodie-centric spot in Terminal 4 at SkyHarbor

Next gen chefs to watch:

  • Chef Jeff Kraus at Crepe Bar in South Tempe
  • Chef Charleen Badman at FnB in Scottsdale


2. Everyone who is Rethinking the Canal System

It’s a lot of fun to go running or biking along Arizona’s canals.  In Arcadia and Scottsdale, it’s almost perfect. You can ride your bike out of your driveway, hop on the canal, and then ride to the Scottsdale Waterfront to meet a friend for coffee at Olive & Ivy.

It wasn’t always this way.  Canals have a humble, utilitarian purpose: move water around a desert city. It took a collaboration between SRP (who runs the canals), cities officials, and private investors to unlock the potential of the canal as a place for recreation and leisure.

I want to give credit to the restaurant group LGO Hospitality for being the first venture to see the potential of the canal 10+ years ago.

When you sit on the patio at Chelsea’s Kitchen for dinner, you can soak up the colorful sunset and the reflection on the canal.  It’s a perfect atmosphere.

But it wasn’t always this way. Before Chelsea’s Kitchen, there was a previous restaurant on that same land.  In fact, where Chelsea’s Kitchen sits today was the old parking lot.  You would get out of your car, glance at the canal, and then walk away from it to the front door of the restaurant.

It took creative minds to see that this was all wrong. They fixed the problem by starting over. They flipped the parking lot and the restaurant.



3. Berghoff Design Group 

Here’s a secret that’s not a secret: the most gorgeous homes in Arizona all had Berghoff Design Group create their landscape.

They are, without a doubt, the most talented team of garden designers and craftsmen.

Their landscapes and gardens get national exposure for Phoenix. They’ve created the “new postcard” of what Phoenix living can be.

Have you ever been riding your bike through a neighborhood in Arcadia or PV and stopped to take a selfie for Instagram? I guarantee that perfect yard in the background is a Berghoff project.

Then there is this:

  • Have you seen the cool Berghoff trucks around town?
  • Have you seen the Berghoff crew in their fresh uniforms?
  • Have you seen their design studio and pop art gallery on McDowell Road near Papago Park?

Berghoff Design Group is winning on every level.

smithHOUSE is proud to call Berghoff Design Group our clients. Take the next 30 minutes and look at their pretty website


4. Agritopia in Gilbert 

Can we give some respect to Joe Johnston (@realjoe) and his vision?  

Back in the year 2000 when everyone was still brain dead from Y2k, Joe Johnston imagined a neighborhood that had urban amenities (walkable, a cool restaurant, a coffee shop) but with the good vibes of rural America.  And it was all built around a farm.

A farm, people.

Nobody thought like this in the year 2000. We were in a new millennium, and there was no time for modern inconveniences like “growing food” or “caring for chickens.”  So old fashioned!

Who would have guessed? Joe had the farming and gardening thing on lock down a full decade before hipsters in Portland and Austin first broke down wood pallets to create raised garden beds.  (Did I mention that he had a mustache too?)

Today, Agritopia is the most Instagrammed neighborhood in Phoenix.

Agritopia continues to grow and innovate. Did you hear about Barnone (@BarnoneAZ) next to The Coffee Shop? It’s an old shed that is upgraded to become hub for local craftsman, and maybe a microbrewery too.

5. First Solar & ADOT 

Now lets talk about the brand of Phoenix in a completely different way.  Let’s give some respect to people who do small things really well. 

First Solar

First Solar has a primo location just off the Loop 202 freeway close to Arizona State University and Tempe Town Lake.  It’s a pretty building, but it’s a magical building too.

They have a louvered wall on the south side of their office building.  Think of it as really big adjustable window shutters to keep out the harsh southern sun.

Magically, they can change the angles of these louvers to spell cute messages up for the rest of the city to smile about.  When it’s a football game, it’ll read “ASU.”  When it’s the season for Pat’s Run, they will display “42”.  Well played.

The Traffic Alert People at the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT)

Nobody likes sitting in traffic. It basically makes you hate the city. But the creative, clever people at the ADOT keep us entertained and alert at the same time.

You don’t need to like Stars Wars to enjoy these alerts:

  • “I am your father. Give me your keys, Drunk Jedi.”
  • “Aggressive driving is the path to the Dark Side.”
  • “Trust the Force, but always buckle up.”

We can all laugh along, and rest assured that there are fewer drunk drivers spilling out of Comic Con.


Phoenix is a better place because these people have invested in good design, great experiences, and a sense of community.  Well done!

(Also, thank you to everyone who worked together to create the Tempe Town Lake.  It’s one of my favorite spots in the city.)

About the Author:

Matt Smith, MBA
Matt Smith is the creative force behind smithHOUSE, a Phoenix-based creative agency that focuses on the intersection of business, design, and technology. About Matt Smith.