Big Brain 2012 Finalist: John Cavanagh

You submitted nominations for awards given to the Valley's emerging creatives and the results are in. Introducing our Big Brain 2012 Finalists.

Leading up to the Big Brain Award awards announcement and celebration on April 7Chow Bella and Jackalope Ranch will introduce the finalists.

Up today: John Cavanagh

John Cavanagh is busy.

The guy has a full-time job as general manager of the Tuck Shop in central Phoenix, and he's getting ready any day now to introduce Astor House, a breakfast/lunch/snack/wine shop opening next door to the super popular dinner spot. On the side, he does some consulting for other restaurateurs, and in his free time, he's rebuilding a motorcycle.

And on his day off, he -- single-handledly, from scratch -- brews tonic syrup for his own private label, "John's Premium."

On a sunny Monday afternoon in March, Cavanagh's alone in the Tuck Shop kitchen. He's chopping lemongrass and consulting a recipe he's made dozens (hundreds?) of times, but still pins on the wall in case he forgets something. Sounds stressful, tending to a giant pot of boiling lemongrass, citrus, a few secret ingredients, and, the most important one, Peruvian bark powder (the stuff that gives tonic its distinct, bitter taste and is used to make quinine, which cures malaria, among other maladies). Cavanagh insists it's his time to relax. "It's just me and the store....I chill a little," he says, watches the Discovery Channel or his favorite, reality shows about failed businesses. He loves "watching people make huge mistakes while they're trying to make a living." Making a living hasn't always been so easy (albeit busy) for Cavanagh. He moved to Phoenix in the '90s from Conrad, Montana (high school graduating class: 32 kids) to get a degree in drafting. He got a job and got impatient, knowing it would be years before he'd be more than a gopher in a profession that demands dues-paying. And then he got laid off. He switched careers, going into the food service business. At Blimpie's. "Yes, Blimpie's," he says, smiling, continuing to chop lemongrass til it fills the giant pot. It's a great story. Within four months, Cavanagh was a manager. Then he met a chaueffer for Geordie Hormel (the late heir to the canned beef fortune, who owned the Wrigley Mansion) and one thing led to another, which led to a job waiting tables at a now-defunct, fancy Italian restaurant in Scottsdale. Cavanagh spent the last of his money on a tuxedo and took the bus to work. He didn't know the difference between red and white wine and mixed up the chicken and the veal, but his customers loved him. That job led him to (also now-defunct) Roxsand at Biltmore Fashion Park, then next door to Bamboo Club, where he "went corporate" and learned some valuable lessons about running larger scale businesses. Eventually, he found himself in the front of the house at a new restaurant in CenPho, the Tuck Shop. The owner, an architect named D.J. Fernandes, didn't want soda guns in his restaurant. Cavanagh didn't have a place to store a lot of bottles. And so the idea of making tonic was born. He tinkered with a few recipes he found online, settled on ingredients, and made the first batch. When it was done, Cavanagh recalls, he poured himself a glass and tasted it. But he didn't know what to think. He realized he'd never tried plain tonic before. So he poured himself a G&T. "It was for a cause," he shrugs, laughing. These days Cavanagh makes about 120 bottles of syrup a week - just enough to keep the restaurant and his growing number of mail order customers happy, as long as he doesn't get a mention in, say, the Wall Street Journal. That week got a little crazy -- more than 25,000 hits on his web site, johnstonic.weebly.com. Cavanagh designed his own site, designed the elegant label on the bottle, and crafted the recipe, though he has no formal culinary training. The only place he needed professional help: trademarking the name "John's Premium." Luckily he has a cousin who's a trademark attorney. "John's Premium" hardly feels like a back-pocket business. The stuff tastes so good - rather, it'll make your gin or vodka taste so good - it's got a cult following. Cavanagh insists it's nothing fancy, explaining that he used Phoenix as his test market. But that doesn't mean it isn't something special.


Meet the finalists on April 7 during our Big Brain celebration, Artopia. And check out the other Big Brain Awards finalists we've profiled so far: 


Jon Ashcroft

Greg Kerr

Performing Art: 
The Torch Theatre

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