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Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson: 2013 Big Brain Awards Finalists, Culinary

Welcome Diner
Welcome Diner
Photos by Lauren Saria

You submitted nominations for awards given to the Valley's emerging creatives and the results are in. Introducing our Big Brain 2013 Finalists.

Leading up to the Big Brain Award awards announcement and celebration on April 27, Chow Bella and Jackalope Ranch will introduce the finalists.

Up today: Welcome Diner

See also: 2012 Big Brain Awards Winners Announced Meet New Times' 2013 Big Brain Finalists and Celebrate the Winners at Artopia on April 27

The Welcome Diner
The Welcome Diner
Lauren Saria

Ask most any food truck owner and they'll tell you moving to a brick-and-mortar location is the ultimate dream. They'll tell you though that it takes money. And time -- lots of time.

Unless you're Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson.

The pair hit the streets as Old Dixie's Southern Kitchen food truck just last fall and, by January 31, had found themselves a permanent home. It may have been a step up -- and a fast one -- but they had done the seemingly impossible and settled into what's got to be one of the few restaurant spaces in town with a kitchen smaller than the one on their truck.

In exchange for the lack of space, however, they took the chance to be the next faces in what's becoming the rich culinary history of the Welcome Diner.

The tiny red and white Valentine diner came to Phoenix by way of Wichita, Kansas, in 1980. Since opening in 2004, the kitchen's served as a stage for chefs including Payton Curry, MF Tasty's Eric Gitenstein, and even Matt's Big Breakfast.

Though they say they love the historic structure, Babcock and Robinson say it's not always easy operating in a 68-year-old building.

"The diner is old [and] beat-up," Babcock says matter of factly. "She requires a lot of attention."

Babcock and Robinson graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with degrees in environmental science, and they met while she was working at the Phoenix Public Market.

"She was the cute girl behind the counter and I had to know her name," says Babcock, who worked for 10 years at local restaurants including Gallo Blanco and The Duce. He also traveled in search of inspiration, eventually settling on New Orleans cuisine.

When Robinson got a job as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in northern California, they left Arizona and stumbled into an experience that would change their ideas about food forever.

 

Welcome Diner's buffalo chicken sandwich
Welcome Diner's buffalo chicken sandwich
Wayne Coats

To save money -- because finding affordable housing on a sous chef's and hydrologist's pay isn't easy in Santa Cruz, California -- they ended up living at Food Not Lawns, a farming and housing cooperative that also serves as a venue for music, workshops, and art shows.

It was while living there with a dozen other people that they learned firsthand about farming, gardening, animal husbandry, and more. Babcock got a job working in the slaughtering section of an organic farm where he learned to appreciate clean eating. They lived for a time with their "hands in the dirt, every day," as Robinson says.

That was great, but they wanted to be business owners, and life brought them back to the Valley, where Robinson says the dry desert landscape means one can really appreciate what it takes to make things grow. (She still keeps her green thumb in the soil with the two plots of land she's had donated to turn into gardens for the diner.)

Old Dixie's Southern Kitchen food truck was an instant hit, and just months after hitting the road, Welcome Diner beckoned. Babcock and Robinson serve a limited menu (on a limited schedule - go to facebook.com/olddixies for details) out of the space.

Babcock's quick to point out that Old Dixie's presence at Welcome Diner is not really about putting their own stamp on things.

"I think Jenn and I were really people who understood what the diner was about -- it's history," he says. "I don't think we really wanted to change it. We wanted to elevate it. We wanted to perpetuate it."

Buy a $10 ticket to enjoy an evening of food, drink and entertainment April 27 at the Monarch Theatre in downtown Phoenix. Meet the finalists and learn who won during our Big Brain celebration, Artopia.

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