Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.
It’s not even 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, and more than half of the tables on Postino’s sweeping patio are already taken over by a diverse group of diners. There’s the mother-daughter duo alternately bonding and bickering over charcuterie, some guys tapping away on their laptops, pockets of friends, and a couple grabbing some vino with their dog.
If you’ve been to a Postino — and surely you’ve been to at least one of the Valley’s eight outposts of the popular wine bar and cafe — then you recognize this scene. Except this Postino isn’t in Arizona; it’s perched on a sloping street in Denver’s food-competitive LoHi neighborhood.
Postino currently packs patios in four states, including in metros like Denver, Dallas, Atlanta and Irvine, California.
Lauren Bailey, ’02 BA in communication and fine arts, is co-founder and CEO of Upward Projects, a food and beverage-focused group that operates 25 Postino locations (and counting), along with Windsor, Churn, Federal Pizza and Joyride Taco House. Together with co-founders and fellow ASU alumni Craig DeMarco, ’02 BA in art, and Kris DeMarco, ’96 BA in communication, Bailey has helped energize Phoenix’s food scene — and taken it beyond Arizona.
Bailey’s team includes more than 15 ASU alumni in positions from finance to marketing to HR to design. A few include Rosana DeMar, ’17 BS in interdisciplinary studies, P and C manager; designer Sam Hendricks, ’19 BS in graphic design; and Aaron Kimberlin, ’06 BS in housing in urban development, director of art and restoration.
With more than two decades of dedication, Bailey and her team have helped the Valley create a unique food community and share it with others.
A rising food city
“I think the culinary landscape is just in its teenage years,” Bailey says of Phoenix’s restaurant scene. “We’re right on the precipice of these neighborhoods becoming clearly defined and emerging with clear identities. A ton of people have moved here that really love food, and there’s a growing demand from Phoenicians. Chris Bianco, the James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Pizzeria Bianco, set the stage, and then eyes turned toward Phoenix and we got more attention.”
As a testament to this, Kai Restaurant at the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, was once again named a Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star restaurant this last year. Other accolades come from nationwide food critics, like Miami-based writer Matt Meltzer, who in 2019, wrote a story for Thrillist declaring the Phoenix metro area’s food scene worthy of “America’s A-List.”
“Food and restaurant buzz helps attract people,” Meltzer says. “So much of travel is going to have experiences you can’t have at home, so obviously if there’s something you can eat or drink in a city that’s totally unique, then people will want to go there.”
And a notable food scene helps mark a city as a place with culture. This, in turn, fuels the city’s economic diversity and helps make a city a place where people want to live.
A champion for Phoenix restaurant culture
When a Postino opens up in a Denver or a Houston, the goal is to bring that welcoming, community feel that Phoenix does so well to a new market. That’s why Postino has been such a successful ambassador for Phoenix food culture — because it fits in so seamlessly into whatever neighborhood it joins.
“We wanted to be this spot that the community could gather in, however they wanted to,” Bailey says. “To some people we’re a bar, to some we’re a restaurant, and to some we’re a co-working space. There’s a high level of intention and thoughtful design that goes into creating that sort of space.”
Creating that space starts with the building, Bailey says. And Bailey’s design team loves to rehab mid-century buildings.
The first Postino opened inside an old post office, and Upward Projects has continued the trend of repurposing buildings of a certain age. Postino Central lived another life as the iconic Katz Deli; Denver’s LoHi Postino was a former bookbinding factory and now features a book wall to pay homage to the history; two have been former gay bars and feature their own unique art walls to celebrate the buildings’ pasts; and Postino Annex resides in an old ASU art building where Bailey attended classes. The restaurants are an extension of their abodes, telling the buildings’ stories.
Next comes the décor. There’s no set blueprint for the vintage furniture or eclectic light fixtures. Everything you see lives only there, because what works in Kierland doesn’t work in LA.
“Other companies prize efficiency. We take the opposite approach. We want to be thoughtful, which is the enemy of efficiency in some ways, and we’re OK with that,” Bailey says.
If there’s a common denominator to Upward Projects’ restaurants, it could be the patios, which Bailey describes as being “100 percent non-negotiable.”
When you’re eating and drinking alfresco, you’re going to want to nibble on snacky things, the little bits of this and that, which are fun to share and dig into. Things like sweet potato wedges with Calabrian chili tahini, meaty skewers primed for dunking into creamy garlic yogurt, and bruschetta boards gussied up with prosciutto and figs, smoked salmon and pesto, and peppers and goat cheese. You want to drink prickly pear lemonade and refreshing wines that make you feel like you’re on vacation somewhere you’ve never visited. Or sip a local beer or wine that your really fun aunt would love.
Beverage director Brent Karlicek is “the root of it all,” Bailey says.
Karlicek ensures Postino stays true to its mantra, and you’ll find glasses and bottles of wine on virtually every table, every day from open to close. The volume of wine Postino orders allows Karlicek to procure long-standing relationships with premium wine growers and producers that otherwise might be out of reach.
Once the physical location and menus are in place, the next step is hiring people to work there. “The staff brings life into the space and design,” Bailey says.
People certainly feel connected to their local Postino. Denver LoHi general manager Jen Gray-Beery says that COVID-19, in spite of the shutdowns, brought the staff and guests closer.
“The pure, raw humanity at that time was next level,” Gray-Beery says. “We saw a different side of people. We had a regular who’d come in four times a week before, and during the closure he came in every few weeks and dropped $500 to distribute to the staff. People don’t do that if they don’t feel connected to a place.”
Community and diversity through food
Patricia Escárcega has had a front row seat to Phoenix’s growing restaurant scene. After working as the dining critic for Phoenix New Times and for The Arizona Republic, she moved to the Los Angeles Times to be a restaurant critic from 2018 to 2021. She graduated from ASU in 2003 with BA degrees in English literature and political science.
“In the decade or so that I followed the city’s food scene closely, I watched Phoenix’s dining scene become more diverse, more attuned to native and regional ingredients, and generally become more assured of itself,” Escárcega says. “The number of restaurants devoted to northern Mexican regional cooking blossomed, as did the city’s Chinese and Korean dining scene. It’s been thrilling watching it grow.”
Escárcega was living in Phoenix when Postino was founded, and she likens the success of Upward Projects with another local restaurant group that’s expanded beyond Arizona: Fox Restaurant Concepts with Flower Child, Culinary Dropout and Blanco.
“Postino helped codify what I think of as the Phoenix millennial wine bar aesthetic — stylish but also casual, fancy but not too fancy. A sort of one-size-fits-all third space for dates, birthday parties and happy hours,” Escárcega says.
That’s why Upward Projects chose Postino as its expansion vehicle. It appeals to a variety of people, helping it resonate beyond city and state lines.
“It straddles sophistication and approachability,” Bailey says. “You can roll in with flip-flops or dressed to the nines and fit right in. Whether you know a lot about wine or not, you’re still going to feel comfortable here. And it was the most unique of the bunch (of the Upward Projects restaurants).”
That approachability attracted Los Angeles-based private equity firm Brentwood Associates, and with more investment behind the brand, Upward Projects is looking to take Postino even further. It’s got its sights set on moving into more new markets on the East Coast and expanding deeper into California, Texas and Colorado, too.
So yes, the packed patios of mother-daughter duos, groups of happy hour-going friends and telecommuters wanting a change of scenery might look familiar, but it’s because these sorts of eaters are most everywhere. And soon, Postino might be too.
“ASU fostered a unique sense of connectedness to other like-minded people, and exposed me to so many experiences that I couldn’t have duplicated,” Bailey says. “We really try to create the same environment within our restaurants.”
Story by Allyson Reedy, restaurant critic for 5280 and former food writer for The Denver Post whose work also appears in Bon Appétit, she is the author of “50 Things to Bake Before You Die” (Ulysses Press ’22). Top photo courtesy Upward Projects.
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