When it was announced that The Lunchbox would close on August 1, Valley music fans commenced saying their goodbyes to an essential venue for DIY and experimental music. But for owner Danny Levie, he’s parting with a place he’s built his life around — literally and figuratively.
"I was actually living there at the old Lunchbox (near 16th Street and Catalina Drive)," says Levie. "I was working my other job as an environmental consultant for six years, and it was just a lot of travel and a lot of bullshit, so I just moved in there."
Levie occupied the former trophy shop beginning with Lunchbox’s grand opening in October 2016. He'd originally sought out a semi-professional space to record local bands, like Man Hands and his own group, Wax Castle, but immediately saw the potential for a venue.
"I just wanted to bring some creativeness," Levie says. "There was never any, like, boundaries or anything. At one point during the summer, I put a 15-foot pool in there, and I was gonna have a band play and we were gonna watch Jaws."
Safety violations aside, The Lunchbox also illegally operated as a BYOB, which drew the attention of angry neighbors. Levie says that the venue was shut down before he could make any meaningful changes.
"I was gonna make it just a dry space, and it was for, like, a weekend," he says. "And then the next Monday, the building department came and they're like, 'You don't have a permit for this.' So I was just going to stop this or just find something (new). I had found that first spot on Craigslist, and then found this spot on Craigslist the next day or the same day."
In December 2017, Levie reopened The Lunchbox at 4132 East McDowell Road, thanks in part to "low-key" investors. Around the same time, Levie began screen-printing "to make extra cash," teaching himself entirely from YouTube videos. And for the following year or so, the Lunchbox was successful, something Levie attributes to moving beyond the scope of traditional DIY spaces – by serving alcohol.
"I don't know if there's a lot of places like The Lunchbox," he says. "The mission was to bring good music, under-the-radar and underground stuff, to Phoenix. So it was very important to me to create a space where it feels like a DIY spot. Because, honestly, a bar is the only way to make this kind of thing work."
It’s more than $4 beers that helped The Lunchbox create an important cultural niche in record time. Levie says that he worked not only to curate the music, but the entire Lunchbox experience.
"There was a level of curation and there was a level of trying to make this spot have just that little bit of exclusivity," he says. "It makes a scene thrive because it forces bands to get better, and I think it creates a sense of (bands) moving up levels. It (also) helps me being a musician that I know what musicians want. All my bartenders are musicians, and they can talk shop with people."
That spirit resulted in a string of incredible shows, with off-kilter acts like Glue, Impalers, Lana Del Rabies, ADULT., and Pro Teens all performing. Levie says even with the raucous music and energy abounding, he's only ever kicked out one person, adding, "We're all friends here; it's that kind of spot."
Yet not even killer shows and indoor pools could help, and Levie admits that he's accumulated extensive debt in running the venue, adding, "You just need a lot of money for that first two years before you're making money." The Lunchbox held a series of benefit concerts in November 2018, which Levie says drummed up some support. However, the venue eventually became another victim of the dreaded summer slump.
"We were starting to switch things up, like we started doing happy hours and movie nights and other different things," Levie adds. "But none of it really took off."
Levie had found a new space near Jefferson Street and 11th Avenue, but he broke the lease after the landlord refused to split the costs for a sprinkler system. "It was maybe two blocks from The Pressroom and The Van Buren, so we'd have overflow from them. It would've been an amazing spot," he says.
Levie says that, in part, the closure goes beyond bureaucratic hiccups; Phoenix is still very much growing, and the city is thus sorting out its cultural institutions.
"It really feels like a huge part of it is people's expectations," he says. "What bums me out was that we don't have a strong scene that will come out to any show to just hang out. We're trying to create a space for people to just meet and be creative." He highlights Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., as cities with ample venues that draw sizable crowds every day of the week.
The experience hasn’t deterred Levie, and he may open another venue down the road with "more monetary support." In the meantime, he’ll continue to run Lunchbox Prints, and he hopes to further support local bands and businesses. Either way, he deems The Lunchbox a success, even if he wasn’t always sure where it was headed.
"I definitely am proud of what we did here," he says. "I would never take back anything here. It was the best experience of my life – it changed me 360 percent. I learned a lot. I'd never done any of this before, and I can't believe that it was so successful as it was."
The Lunchbox's remaining calendar for July features performances by Spirit Ghost, Mesquite, Bay Faction, and Holy Tunics, among others. For tickets and more info, head to lunchboxphx.com.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.