Big Brains

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

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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.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria