Visual Arts

The Duce Turns a Downtown Warehouse Into the Most Interesting Bar-Gym-Soda Fountain-Retro Clothing Shop Around

A few years ago, craving a more forgiving climate, Steve and Andi Rosenstein decided to move family, business, and employees from Chicago to the eternal sunshine of North Scottsdale. They later sold their very profitable business and rejoiced in retiring. For the moment. Steve reveled in the clear blue sky for a few days, then looked around and realized there was nothing to do.

He and Andi decided to single-handedly change that. Their latest endeavor can best be described as an entire city block under one historic roof — but you've really got to see it to believe it. And after months of delays and finishing touches, the Rosensteins say they should be up and running by Mother's Day, Sunday, May 9.

Capitalizing on the nostalgia trend, The Duce is billed as an innovative food and shopping experience set in a once-crusty warehouse in Phoenix's defunct produce district, a no man's land even to arts pioneers, who with some exception (Bentley Projects, The Icehouse) don't tend to venture south of Roosevelt Street. Mixing two associations — Jazz Age slang for nefarious grittiness (Prohibition-era cops called the speakeasy-heavy area "the Deuce") and fresh produce, food, and drink — the Rosensteins came up a name and have even trademarked it.

The Duce (pronounced "deuce") will be dedicated to serving the downtown office and events crowds. It will offer, among other amenities, a restaurant, full bar, gym, coffee bar, old-fashioned soda fountain, fresh organic produce stand, and retro clothing and collectibles that the Rosensteins have gathered from around the country and Europe.

Located at 525 South Central Avenue, the Duce is housed in a brick-and-corrugated-metal building constructed in 1928. It was the home of Anchor Manufacturing Company, which specialized in the manufacture of auto/bus bodies and ornamental structural iron. In 1954, it would house an Anheuser-Busch distributorship. Eventually, it would be used for storage by a moving company and, then, a vending machine firm.

Local artist and real estate entrepreneur Michael Levine — from whom the Rosensteins bought the building in 2007 — purchased the ramshackle structure in 2004 and reconditioned it, stripping its brick façade to reveal original signage: "Builders of Bus Bodies, Ornamental Iron and Forging."

The Rosensteins' anchor business at The Duce will be R and R Surplus, which will sell U.S. and European military surplus — including combat boots and naval CPO and Swiss backpack jackets — purchased by the owners on their travels, as well as retro athletic clothing and shoes by Champion and P.F. Flyer.

The focal point of The Duce will be its old wood-and-glass Art Deco bar, scored from The Black Orchid, Chicago's answer to New York's Copacabana in the 1950s.

The Duce Bar also features linoleum-covered communal tables and colorful, padded-vinyl benches fashioned out of clothing racks recycled from the Rosensteins' previous business, the retail chain Fitigues.

Next to the bar area is an open-air patio, whose roof was destroyed in a 1994 fire; now it will function as a restaurant, with tables and benches crafted from reclaimed, weathered Midwest barn wood. A sliding opening in the side of the building will offer unfettered urban views. Reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in the middle of all the iron, brick and mortar, a grapefruit tree the Rosensteins have planted adds an unexpected bit of nature to the restaurant's hard-edge industrial environment. Another unexpected touch is a flashy 1965 Streamline travel trailer ("a notch above an Airstream," says Steve) that's being converted into a full-service kitchen for the patio restaurant.

The Duce menu will be chock full of Chicago sliders and other "endangered recipes" (don't expect anything lo-cal in this place). "Egg and meatball sliders, maple-roasted spare ribs, pecan pie, apple crisp, S'mores cheese cake are in the lineup," Andi Rosenstein says.

To work off those sliders and cheesecake, Steve Rosenstein, a self-proclaimed fitness rat, has created a gym area in The Duce that's outfitted only with such genuine, pre-1960s exercise equipment as a medicine ball, jump rope, old climbing rope and punching bags. After paying five bucks per session, exercisers can check out their body-building progress in nearby funhouse mirrors.

On the market side of The Duce, there will be freshly brewed coffee at a 1920s mirrored Art Deco bar that used to be in the lobby of the reputedly haunted Emmitt House in Waverly, Ohio, built in 1861. Original bleachers from St. Mary's High School in downtown Phoenix will provide seating for people using the coffee bar and reading newspapers available at The Duce's Good Times newsstand.

On the other side of the bleachers, The Duce will feature a turn-of-the-century soda fountain, set off by a soon-to-be-antique wooden soda fountain mirror, dating back to 1915; the concession will be run by Scottsdale's Pop the Soda Shop and will carry 20 of Pop's most popular choices. Fountain creations will be made using organic (and kosher) ice cream and other milk products furnished by California's Straus Family Creamery. Nearby, a large Hamm's Beer bear will stand guard over the 99 Beers area, slated to sell six-packs of quaffs like Rust Belt and Old Style. And in the center of the building, an old-fashioned produce stand will sell organic fruits and vegetables, while an adjacent glass case will feature fresh bakery items.

As a finishing touch, a 1968 school bus (emblazoned with "Old School") will ferry visitors to and from to downtown events.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kathleen Vanesian