Among local restaurateurs, one of the sweetest success stories is that of Michael Babcock. During a fortuitous road-trip, the Phoenix native discovered Southern comfort food, fell in love, and decided to break into the industry with Old Dixie’s Food Truck. He cultivated the business with his wife Jenn Robinson, and as the Phoenix food truck industry flourished, so did Old Dixie.
In 2013, Babcock and Robinson joined forces with Sloane McFarland, an artist and entrepreneur and owner of Welcome Diner. The pre-fab 1940s structure was located downtown and had precisely the down-home feel that Babcock and Robinson were looking for. Today, the diner specializes in greasy treats like Po-Boys, burgers, and pulled pork fries. Unlike a lot of diners, Welcome caters to the dinner and midnight crowd, and they pair gourmet farm-to-table ingredients with a range of craft beers. The business has opened a second location, Welcome Chicken and Donuts, which couples deep-fried, free-range chicken with O-shaped confections.
We caught up with Babcock after a well-deserved company picnic at Apache Lake.
You considered a number of cuisines before settling on Southern. How did you pick it?
I grew up in Phoenix, specifically West Phoenix. It was kind of devoid of culinary diversity. But my grandma was from Japan, and I spent the most time with her. My idea of food was Japanese comfort food and suburban Taco Bell. Then I took a road trip, as young people tend to do. I was gone for about three months. The original plan was to go to Pennsylvania and see the Mütter Museum. On the way, we stopped in Austin. Food trucks weren’t quite a thing in Phoenix yet. I had barbecue out of a food truck, and it was amazing. Then I got to Louisiana, and I had the food there. A friend told me to go to Baton Rouge and get the red beans and rice. And it was a groundbreaking moment for me. I was like, “Oh, soul food. I get it. There’s a lot of soul in there.” Up until then, I didn’t really understand the concept. That had a huge impact on me.
How did you get this started?
When the food truck [trend] happened, Jenn and I were in Santa Cruz [California]. But it was way too expensive, and we didn’t have the income to do it out there. Immediately, I was like, “If we go back to Phoenix, I’m going to do Southern food.” I knew that we would kill it. We focused on doing a couple of things really well, chicken and biscuits, etc., etc. It was a way dirtier kind of Southern food when we first opened. We had gumbo, we had red beans. And as we got busier, we just didn’t have time to do all that.
Now you have permanent locations. How have you adjusted?
It was kind of a blessing and a curse. I didn’t transition in the traditional way. I moved my food truck to the back of the [Welcome Diner] building. It was challenging. I’ve lived in downtown Phoenix for a long, long time, and I was always in love with the building. But I was tired of the food truck life. Those guys work so hard. I wanted to stay in just one place. The diner was perfect. I started a relationship with Sloane McFarland, and he just gave me a chance. We moved all the equipment and food in on a Wednesday, and then we opened up the next day. The first service, we didn’t even know where the salt was. We just said, “Let’s go for it.”
You have a strong network of local producers that supply ingredients. How did you find them?
I kind of grew up in the industry. Some of those relationships I had from being at the farmer’s markets a lot. As a chef, hoarding relationships is just what you do. You grab people left and right. My milk guy, we go have beers together. It’s a community of people. When you’re cooking in this way, you need a lot of people. It’s a tight-knit circle.
Welcome Diner specializes in comfort food, which is delicious but not particularly healthy. What are your thoughts on comfort food?
We let people come sin a little bit. I mean, I eat a pretty balanced diet. But a part of what the diner is is letting people party, have a good time. A lot of it is about indulging a little bit, and spoiling yourself. We’re really looking forward to getting another spot. We would like to have a full restaurant space. We want more diversity. We’d like a more well-rounded menu, but there’s only so much you can do with a deep fryer. It’s like cooking with two arms tied behind your back. We work with our limitations.
A lot of Welcome Diner’s menu seems like it would work for lunch, too. How come you open at 5?
Arizona weather definitely plays a factor in when we can be open. We only have nine seats. We actually tried doing lunch for a while, but it was really rough. We’re so busy that we can’t stay open all day. It’s not in the cards for us. When I first started doing the diner, I just wanted to go late night, because I live in the area. I thought, “That’s a niche.” We knew a lot of industry people like it there. We thought, “Fuck it, let’s just go till 2 o’clock.”
Comfort food is a pretty personal experience. Do you have a favorite item?
Definitely. For the diner, it’s the Welcome Burger. It’s simple. It’ll always treat me right. At the Donut shop, I just love a piece of the chicken. A chef has to taste such powerful food all the time, your palate’s tired. By the time you’re home, you just want to eat an apple, drink a beer.
How did the Chicken and Donuts idea come up?
I was originally approached by my business partner Sloane. He had a property he was interested in activating. It was an old KFC. We thought about what we could do there – maybe a smokehouse. But just seeing Chicken and Donut shops across the country, we thought, “I think we can do something like that.” And there was this punk-rock irony of the building being a [former] KFC. Now we do it our way. I hired a really good friend of mine, Casey [Hopkins-Johnson], who’s the head baker.
If you’ve never heard of it, chicken and donuts sounds like a weird combination. Why do you think it works so well?
We really thought about balance. It’s like chicken and waffles – sweet and meat. When you reduce it down to that, it works really well. Super delicious. Down there at the donut shop, we do Korean fried chicken. When we were thinking about the idea, seeing other people across the country doing it, it felt like something really familiar. It was really interesting to go back to something I grew up around. I didn’t eat Korean fried chicken all the time, but the Asian ingredients were always around. I think there was a lot of clarity as to why that would be really cool.