Downtown Phoenix

David Cameron Wants the New Lost Leaf to Drive a Phoenix Cultural Renaissance

The Lost Leaf near Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix.
The Lost Leaf near Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix. The Lost Leaf
click to enlarge The Lost Leaf near Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix. - THE LOST LEAF
The Lost Leaf near Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix.
The Lost Leaf
The charm of the Lost Leaf has always been its sense of proximity. In a town of so many varied bar formats, its downhome, hipster-esque take on Cheers has made Lost Leaf a local treasure since 2006.

But all that great music and tasty beer hasn't protected the venue from hardships in recent years. Like many other clubs, Lost Leaf closed down amid COVID between January and July 2021. And while it's maintained a presence ever since, it's clear that the little venue that could was still struggling. Which is why it was shocking, but not entirely surprising, when owners Eric and Lauren Dahl announced recently that the venue was set to close (via The Arizona Republic).

But, perhaps in a singular example of the venue's staying power, fate was averted as the club was sold to another party in late March. While that means there's still life left in this quaint little dive, the future of Lost Leaf nonetheless remains in flux.

A lot of that has to do with the venue's new owner, local real estate developer David Cameron, who just recently bought and overhauled Char's Live. As Cameron told Phoenix New Times, his experience is in real estate acquisition and disposition, and he's still fairly new to food and beverage enterprises.

"I'm a new kid on the block," he says. "I'm a rookie. I maybe don't know what I'm doing. But I'm smart enough to figure it out."

In fact, he was only a recent convert to Lost Leaf itself.

"When I walked into Lost Leaf for the first time six months ago, I was enamored by how cool this little house felt and the vibe behind it," he says. "It was amazing, but what could this be one day?"

His young-blood status hasn't stopped Cameron from seeing the value of a Lost Leaf (and by extension Char's) for both his bottom line and the shape of Phoenix at-large.

"They're either iconic businesses that are either threatened to close or they're in historical types of situations or their locations are just sort of epic," he says of his acquisitions.
click to enlarge The interior of The Lost Leaf during busier times. - THE LOST LEAF
The interior of The Lost Leaf during busier times.
The Lost Leaf
He's not entirely unprepared, though, as Cameron also owns an unnamed bar in Tempe (as well as a startup and local advertising group). But he's taken to the food and beverage sector in what he called a natural development for his larger real estate portfolio. He's recognized that inexperience, and has spent time developing his skills as owner/operator.

"I went through the motions of learning everything that I needed to learn about operating a food and beverage and hospitality property," he says. "And I learned the business aspects of it and I hired consultants to come in and train me and teach me and learn how to build SOPs and a hospitality platform."

So, what does all of this mean for the bigger picture at Lost Leaf? As Cameron tells it, he wanted to hit the ground running with a series of what he deemed improvements.

"We've already done a ton of tweaks in just 10 days or so," he says. "We're getting a new P.O.S. system and a bunch of things that are going to upgrade that overall experience dramatically for the end user and for the operator itself. And that is something that's important."

He adds, "Visually, when you walk to the threshold of the door, it's this kind of dusty old house that you can play music from and drink beer and wine. When you walk in, in the future, you may see the elevated lighting package on the inside, and you might see that we have things fitted on the tables, candles or a menu potentially with QR codes."

For Cameron, these shifts aren't about doing away with what Lost Leaf did right, but trying to take it all one step further.

"The things that are for sale are going to be displayed in a higher quality fashion rather than scribbled on a chalkboard, which was okay for that for that period of time," he says. "It will just feel like an elevated experience when you walk in, and it'll still feel like Lost Leaf because that's never going to change. That energy has been, like, injected into that property. But you will walk in and have a slightly elevated experience."
click to enlarge Jerusafunk at Lost Leaf. - MICHELLE SASONOV
Jerusafunk at Lost Leaf.
Michelle Sasonov
But elevated doesn't mean that Cameron's changed everything. Much of the staff at Lost Leaf, including long-time booker Tato Caraveo, have remained on payroll. (Cameron says Caraveo will help him with expanding the artists Lost Leaf sells and features.) He also wants to take a more hands-on approach with Lost Leaf.

"I want to run it differently," he says. "[The Dahls] are great; they're just sort of absentee owners. There's nothing wrong with the operation. It was 100 percent clear to me that I had to save that business from closing and inject the resources and capital to grow it into something that one day wasn't the same but still the same overall. Maybe graduate it along a path of longevity."

Cameron says he's the kind of owner who "puts my kids out at night at 8 p.m. and then [goes] back out till 2 in the morning, driving around making sure that everything's good." Lost Leaf, then, is another opportunity for a long-term objective for Cameron: reinvigorating the arts and culture scene in metro Phoenix.

"I think that what happened to the food and beverage industry and the music industry since COVID has decimated a lot of morale and the community in general," he says. "I feel like people are totally frightened and disenfranchised. I believe they've been forgotten and they deserve a voice. I watched these people, who are musicians and bartenders, lose all of their jobs. These are guys that are my friends."

He adds, "So my plan is to build, organically, several different hospitality concepts throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area, and connect them all together with similarly like-minded people who are wanting something more long-term, people that who are what I call lifers.

Those people that want to show up and work their butts off and give 150% and know that they're going to be taken care. Folks that know they can take care of expenses like rent and putting food on the table. So they have an opportunity to weather any future storm that's coming, because we're all worried about what tomorrow may bring."
click to enlarge Spending Third Friday at The Lost Leaf. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Spending Third Friday at The Lost Leaf.
Benjamin Leatherman
And much of Cameron's subsequent plans for Lost Leaf extend around that very notion of emphasizing sustainability and giving his staff and collaborators more opportunities. That includes extending the shared musical talent between Lost Leaf and Char's.

"It's almost like the talent that you put out will also draw some future amount of talent," he says. "So if we're putting out a good curated set of physical entertainment through multiple venues, then we know that we're going to start drawing attraction and attention from not just other musicians but also from the community."

Cameron noted that he wants "relationships with all musical talents in the city." To help with that goal, he's playing around with a First Monday program, a kind of local talent competition, either at Char's or Lost Leaf, where the winner gets cash prizes and collects the door. Cameron adds, "So if I have three or four or five locations, then groups can book multiple days in a month and secure their ability to feed their families. That's, again, teaching a person how to fish, right?"

The art presence at Lost Leaf is also another significant element. Cameron sees both music and art together as vital parts of his portfolio's ability to shape the city.

"We have to expand mediums of cultural arts, and we have to teach children about music and writing and expressionism and artistic things," he says. "If we don't do that, culture will die and creativity will die. And I will not stand for that."

He adds, "But more importantly, we think it expands not just food and beverage, and not just entertainment, but just bohemian life and culturalism here in Phoenix, which is what we need. We need to be able to create culture for all of the millions of people that have settled and moved here."

The arts portion includes several, as-yet unrevealed programs that Cameron has cooked up.

And his others plans, while still mostly unrevealed, go even further still.

"We have really grandiose ideas for entertainment beyond live music," he says. "One day I'll share some of those details, but the production and entertainment aspects of some of the things that you might see come out of our camp will be things that will be wildly talked about in the future."
click to enlarge I Am Hologram performs at Lost Leaf. - I AM HOLOGRAM
I Am Hologram performs at Lost Leaf.
I Am Hologram

That mostly culture-centric approach isn't just about being good for business. Cameron seems to genuinely believe in the power of Phoenix's artistic contributions.

"I had this very weird premonition that one of the most amazing music talents ever would come out of Phoenix one day," he says. "Whether that's tomorrow or in 10 years or 20 years from now. Like, literally, the next Michael Jackson or the next Elvis Presley. And I've seen so many cool underground local talents that suggest that I'm exactly right."

They're not entirely pipe dreams, either, and Cameron thinks a prospect like that is another sign for the health of Phoenix at-large.

"This is a sign that the city is growing up culturally, and that is really great for me," he says. "As a person that's not leaving here, somebody who's built roots, we intend to live here forever. I want to make sure that this place grows...its population at the same pace as it grows culturally."

Still, it's not enough that Cameron guides his clubs to success. He's already looking forward to partnering with other venues and operators. He mentioned The Nash specifically as a place "with the success that I want," and thinks some mutual admiration can go a long way to help every venue flourish.

"So I can't disclose my big plans, but I have a very large plan," he says. "One that sort of galvanizes and, in a sense, unionizes musicians and bartenders to work in these locations that are all sort of tied together. I think that if we build it as a core unit, as opposed to disenfranchised operators that do one thing versus the other, then it's got a lot of value in the future."

Cameron doesn't "want to be the tip of the spear," but does hope he can help lead the charge.

"Maybe one day I would be a regional operator of small- to medium-sized media venues throughout the southwestern United States, with aspirations to go nationally and globally," he says. "But you've got to crawl then walk then run, right? I'm in my crawl phase."
click to enlarge The Lost Leaf exhibiting works by Michael David Little. - LYNN TRIMBLE
The Lost Leaf exhibiting works by Michael David Little.
Lynn Trimble
Cameron is already making progress toward that much larger goal, adding, "I have three other [properties] in escrow right now, all of which have a similar style and components to what you've seen as far as my other acquisitions." But one of the more positive developments is the level of support Cameron's earned among other stakeholders.

"There's been both the naysayers and the supporters," he says. "There's so much positive energy in the world right here, and that outweighs the negative. As a state, we're behind some of these other sort of metropolitan areas. There's no reason why we can't grow up to [their level] ... this is a much better place to live than most of the metro cities in the Southwestern region."

There are more changes and additions and the like to come at Lost Leaf. Cameron will also reveal his other properties and projects in the coming weeks. He's clearly a businessman, and all of the decisions emanate from that experience. Yet Cameron doesn't see why he can't make a difference in people's lives as an added bonus. In the case of Lost Leaf at least, his heart appears to be in the right place.

"Will we still have the same demographics of people that come into [Lost Leaf]? Absolutely," he says. "There's a whole myriad of different demographics of people now surrounding downtown — you have your hipsters, you have your college students, you have your business people, you have your local crew. You have a lot of different [groups] intermixing. We're just going to grow organically; one venue at a time, one experience at a time."
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan