Just like you can’t disguise a pig simply by gussying it up with lipstick, you can’t hide an old Taco Bell. What you can do, however, is move in and provide cozy digs, and eats so good that people soon forget about wanting to chomp into a Chalupa.
That’s what Welfy Youkhana and his wife, Awriana, did 23 years ago, when they took over the Best of Philly restaurant on Central Avenue, just shy of Thomas Road — next to the Honey Bear’s BBQ joint that used to be an IHOP. Fueled by the desire to create something of their own, the two created the long-sustaining mom-and-pop restaurant. Like any independent business owner knows, that idealist dream is the foundation’s sweet spot; the rest is layers of consistently hard work.
And the Youkhanas’ story has been repeated hundreds, maybe thousands of times, in the Phoenix area.
Fast-food joints like Taco Bell may drive convenience culture, but it’s the mom-and-pop establishments that define neighborhoods and give a city its distinctive flavor. When Best of Philly opened in the mid-’90s, Central Avenue from McDowell to Camelback roads was not a destination for much other than work, let alone a food haven.
It’s the repeat visits made to restaurants like Best of Philly that get people familiar with a place in town they might not normally visit and cause them to start to linger and look around, either soaking in the benefits or dreaming of what could be.
Long before hotspots like the tasty Welcome Chicken + Donuts opened on 16th Street and Buckeye Road a few years back, there were well-worn roads to a few places that were immediate conversational go-to’s anytime that general area was mentioned: The original Carolina’s Mexican Food, Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Café, and Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles — all family-operated establishments that have continuously pulled in people from all over the Valley to get food prepared and delivered with heart and soul.
Inspired by those stalwarts, new crops of mom-and-pop eateries are on the rise in Phoenix and around the nation. Bloomberg reported earlier this year that indie spots are surging. In November of last year, it published a piece that highlighted how independent businesses were giving the malls a run for their money, literally, during the holiday season.
Brick-and-mortar shoppers are more interested in personal touches, like obtaining unique items, and are embracing locally made products.
Mom-and-pop restaurants — whose ownership is well past an era of being defined by an actual man/woman couple — just exemplify those personal touches, in both the food you’re eating and the experience you’re having. These places are the breeding grounds for memories and traditions.
And these are some of the people who are providing those moments for you in the Valley.
The story of how Welfy and Awriana Youkhana became a mom-and-pop team reads like it was ripped from a romance-flick script. Both are Armenians whose ancestors were displaced by the Armenian genocide — many to northern Iraq. Both grew up in the same neighborhood overseas. (Welfy won’t elaborate on which country they lived — it’s obviously still hard for him to speak about, decades later.)
Life moved the way it does, and these pals from around the block found themselves in different countries. Welfy moved to Boston in 1980 and Awriana to Germany, before finding her way to the United States. Neither gave much thought to the other beyond their childhood memories.
Later in the ’80s, Awriana landed in Los Angeles, where she was working at a K-Mart. During one of her shifts, she saw a woman that reminded her of one of her childhood neighbors. She called out to the woman, told her who she was, and they reconnected immediately. Turns out, they were even living at opposite ends of the same L.A. street. Oh, and it just so happened that this shopper was also Welfy Youkhana’s sister.
The sister told Welfy about the chance meeting and when he came for a visit, he and Awriana got reacquainted, fell in love, and have been together since: proud parents of a daughter and proud owners of a shop that pumps out juicy, cheesy steak sandwiches six days a week.
They made their way to Phoenix in 1992. Awriana’s brother was living in Arizona and told them how it was growing and a great place to live, so they headed to the desert and with a desire to create a neighborhood go-to where their clientele could depend on quality service.
In 1995, they bought Best of Philly from its original owner and fell in love with the cheesesteak culture, a love that sprang from seeing how many people had such strong feelings about that sandwich.
“I try to make everyone happy here,” Youkhana says.
Everyone in the cheesesteak world means those who prefer melty American cheese on their sandwich, and Philly purists who can’t even think about taking a bite of the sandwich if it’s not “with Whiz.” Yep, Kraft’s good old, creamy, jarred-up, Cheez-Whiz.
“With Whiz” makes Youkhana chuckle heartily. “Of course we have the Whiz; you have to have the Whiz,” he laughs. “I do have some Philly customers, though, that don’t like it.”
Of course, all 23 years haven’t been Whiz-tastic.
Light-rail construction that started in 2005 and went for three years was rough.
“It really hurt business at times and we thought the city was going to be more helpful during those years,” he says. “We thought they’d help promote the places being affected by the construction.”
He adds, “We also have had damage to our parking lot from the vibrations of the train. I reached out to the city for help but ended up having to fix it myself.”
The Youkhanas have seen a lot of businesses come and go — something they discuss at length with customers who have been coming in since they were 8 and 9 years old. “A lot of them have kids of their own now,” Welfy says.
Welfy is in his 60s, but he says not to be surprised if he’s still the main cook flipping that spatula when he’s 75.
“Somebody might have to hold my back upright, but I’ll still be happy to be cooking,” he says.
He’s not kidding. Try to find a time except Sundays when he’s not working up a sweat behind that grill, or when Awriana isn’t there to take your order. Both have complete mastery of all the tasks at Best of Philly and by now have gotten the communication between one another down to not much more than a look that explains what needs to get done and when.
But it’s more than hard work that makes Best of Philly special. Stop by, and either Awriana or Welfy will probably remind you of the last time you were in. They remember. And it’s that type of dedication, combined with a chatty and rigidly clean space to enjoy your meal, creates a destination, and does its thing while a neighborhood grows around it.
“Doing this,” Welfy says, “you can have everything, just not a life with lots of leisure.” And that is okay with him.
“I’m happy to do it; it’s in my heart."
Country and Sergio Velador’s Super Chunk Sweets & Treats and New Wave Market in Old Town Scottsdale has brought a different kind of flair to the walkable, western-themed streets there.
Country Velador has been the pastry chef at neighboring restaurant Cowboy Ciao for a decade. Her passion for sweet goods is big enough to successfully handle that job while developing the separate venture with her husband — Super Chunk Sweets and Treats, which turned four years old in December.
Last year was big for the couple — the space adjacent to their sweets shop became available and they grew their existing spot to accommodate New Wave Market. This ain’t your Scottsdale boots-and-belts store, that’s for sure, but the dynamic it adds to the neighborhood is exceptional.
If you can make it past the sweet treats without getting something, your willpower needs to be harnessed for mass distribution. The selection offers many compelling options. You might want a brownie with its gooey cocoa cookie crumbs, or is it the brookie you’d prefer? A brownie and cookie baked together, why not? We dare anyone to come up with a solid reason. House-made licorice, chocolate bacon caramel corn, and blue cheese and fig caramels are more ways you can see what Velador does with sweet things.
Then there’s that award-winning chocolate chip cookie. The one that National Geographic called the Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Worth Traveling For, and that Mental Floss named The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie in 50 States. Made with mesquite flour and high-end Couverture chocolate, this baby is a union of depth-of-flavor and pure decadence.
Before your eyes even make it to the bagels, you also have to contend with the cooler of semifreddo, displaying flavors like honeycomb, as well as a brown butter option that incorporates buttered brioche and chocolate bananas.
And about those bagels. They’re boiled and baked, in the New York traditional style and they are a lethal combination of light, airy, dense, chewy, and flavorful. Sergio tells us that they did a lot of research before venturing into the bagel-making biz, and that Country has worked hard to craft a delectable recipe.
Once you make it out of the dessert trap — other confinements in life should be so glorious — the visual stimulation keeps you busy even longer. The homey spot with its mixture of smells is warmed by the continuous soundtrack. The new wave of tunes they favor came in the form of indie rock on a few of our visits. Bands like Idaho stalwarts Built to Spill provide intricate guitar sounds and complex drumbeats that softly rock you as you ogle the products the Veladors have for sale.
It’s a thoughtfully curated selection of merch, or according to Sergio, “A selection of small-batch items from all over that are unique and that we believe in.” From cool mugs to curry sauces and fruity jams, plan on it being a shopping trip, in addition to one where food gets scarfed down.
Though Country has a degree in photography from ASU, and Sergio’s studies have involved industrial and product design, food has been a part of both of their lives for quite some time.
Originally from San Diego, Sergio managed restaurants there, as well as in Chicago. Locally, he spent eight years at Roy’s in Scottsdale, and opened locations for the restaurant in La Jolla, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
He and Country were servers together at the now-closed Digestif, a block from Super Chunk. She was also doing some baking there before becoming Cowboy Ciao’s pastry chef.
But owning a place of their own was always part of their plan.
“Super Chunk,” Sergio tells us, “was a storage closet for Cowboy Ciao. When the owner offered us the opportunity to rent it, we took it.” They weren’t daunted by the small space. One person’s closet is another person’s candy shop. They also wanted to stay in the ’hood where they’d invested so much labor and emotion.
“We made the most of a really small space. We had some help from Country’s brother, who’s an architect,” Sergio says, adding, “it gave us a chance to explore and see what works. We have learned a lot.”
Currently, New Wave Market’s menu offers breakfast and lunch items, like airy egg sandwiches, or the Turkey Galantine, featuring a cranberry walnut pepita relish and black Russian fennel bread. There’s an array of salads, too.
Though neither partner is vegan, there are options for them on their menu. “We are aware of others that are vegan,” says Sergio,” and we always want to have options for them.”
Sergio says the reception has been great and that eventually they’d love to expand that menu to include dinner.
“We want to give everyone a great experience,” he says. “We are always researching and like to have food with light ingredients, complex flavors, and global highlights. When the time is right, we’ll move in the dinner direction.”
They’d love to open a bagel shop in the future. They may even explore a Phoenix neighborhood when they’re ready to make that happen. Right now, though, they’re enjoying the flow of customers, both new and regulars that includes everyone from locals to tourists to industry pals.
They’ll be focusing on giving visitors “a little of everything,” according to Sergio. “Food, coffee, provisions for your home, or a pathway to all of these things.”
In September 2015, married couple Laura Mulchay and Joel LaTondress jumped on a turnkey opportunity.
The owner of the Arcadia Premium retail liquor shop on Thomas Road near 56th Street mentioned he was going to either close or sell, so they pooled their resources and made a purchase happen, becoming owners of the beer and wine shop and adding some food items like interesting cheeses and charcuterie.
They also took a chance on a neighborhood that’s kind of a no-man’s land — south of Arcadia, north of Tempe, west of Scottsdale.
Arcadia Premium brings flair to a strip mall that includes the popular breakfast diner Ranch House Grille. And if you can’t get to them, they’ll come to you. They maintained the delivery service the store’s original owner had in place. And just like the owners at Best of Philly and New Wave Market, save for a skeleton staff, these two are doing most everything by themselves.
It’s not their first business together, but it’s the one that’s sticking in a way that will find it a fixture with permanence. Earlier efforts? Well, those certainly weren’t done with any less drive.
In 2005, Mulchay started a wholesale cheese business, “selling cheese, charcuterie, and other specialty food to Valley chefs.” In 2009 to 2010, she opened up Petit Fromage, a small retail cheese shop inside of D’Licious Dishes (now closed, the space houses French Grocery). It was a popular spot but opened shortly after the recession, which hit a lot of businesses hard, including restaurants. She stopped both of those endeavors in 2010 but said it didn’t take long to once again get cheesy.
“My old clients and chefs started asking me to bring more good cheese and goodies into the market for them again,” she says. “I’ve kept that end of my business up, but for the past few years our focus has been the store.”
At the start of this year, she’s been able to start taking on more cheese-oriented projects, including developing plans to launch some craft beer focused cheese classes and a cheese/charcuterie subscription box.
And just a few years ago, Mulchay and LaTondress won a contest offered by Marriott International to help get a startup food and beverage concept off the ground. Mulchay’s proposal for a cheese shop and eatery called Craft+Culture, where beer and wine would also be available, won that top prize from more than 100 submissions.
LaTondress says they worked on it for seven months, but when construction and other costs kept increasing, it was time to part ways. That was on September 15, 2015. They were open for business at Arcadia Premium exactly two weeks later.
“Getting started was relatively easy,” LaTondress says, “being a turnkey business.”
They increased the inventory early on, bringing in more products they have an affinity for. He says that original customers are still coming in, but one thing that’s shifted in the online and in-store purchase ratio.
“It was a place that did about 60 percent of its business online; now it’s more than 90 percent in-store,” he points out.
They liked the delivery aspect of the store, but with places like Amazon now delivering beer and wine, that solidified their decision to add other provisions to the mix, like tangy salamis, or carefully chosen cheeses, things that could make a night’s craft beer or wine delivery more robust. “Lots of local products — items that are good and not so readily available,” he says.
With that increase of in-store shoppers, LaTondress says it’s a great way to build relationships with customers. The pair make it a point to know their stuff. Besides personal favorites, they take time to listen to friends, distributors, and shoppers.
That’s the kind of communication that pays off. A bottle of wine sits on the desk near a stack of paperwork. It’s a gift from a customer who liked it and thought Mulchay and LaTondress might, too.
They also do tastings and samplings and one day wouldn’t mind having a small bar. “A place,” LaTondress says, “that would be great to stop at after work and have an interesting glass of beer or wine.” He would be happy to add a light food menu to that endeavor, if, and when, it occurs.
“Right now, we are focused on making thoughtful changes to our selections, frequently, and keeping up with new releases. We really like getting people to try new things — things they normally wouldn’t.”
Of course, like the others, they’ve been through rough patches.
Running their own business means “less time with family and friends,” Mulchay mentions, and “zero personal life outside of work, along with lots more work for less income. Paying for health insurance is our biggest challenge now, on the personal side of things.”
They’ve been so busy working since day one that they haven’t gone crazy with the advertising and promotions. That will come. Right now, they’re generating those trust-based relations with current shoppers and letting the positive experiences become word-of-mouth recommendations that inspire newbies to give them a try.
Part of generating that new business, Mulchay says, is “getting people to let go of the myths and misconceptions about small businesses like ours. There is still the impression that buying beer and wine from independents is more expensive when, in reality, we have some of the best deals.”
Kimber Lanning, founder and executive director of Local First Arizona, says those myths are indeed prevalent.
“In rural areas,” she says, “we do a series of blogs called Myth Busters where we go in and find cheaper prices at locals. The issue is the big boxes have pounded into our brains that they’re always the lowest — and they are sometimes — but not always.” She says the need to convince people to shop around is imperative. “That’s how we’ve lost our chance to find it cheaper — by not shopping around.”
Lanning adds some interesting facts to the mix, like people using Amazon Prime actually pay more than their regular pricing 56 percent of the time and pay the same price 26 percent of the time. “They pay for Amazon Prime because they’re told that’s the guaranteed best pricing, but it’s not. And people are so sure that it is less they don’t bother to check.”
Her group promotes awareness. For instance, in November, Recode.net reported on Amazon Canada being charged $1 million in fines for misleading pricing practices.
Mulchay and LaTondress maintain strong relationships with their vendors and regard each purchase someone makes in their shop as support for these colleagues, too. That line of thought is what buttresses the dynamic neighborhoods and prosperous communities so many say they want — and what should be making them explore the hell out of these hardworking indies.
“We can do everything right,” Mulchay says, “but if people don’t shift their spending to independent businesses, we’ll all struggle to stay afloat.”
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That’s the risk.
But whether it’s being a settler and opening shop in a place where others have yet to venture or giving an already trendy area something new to get jazzed about, it’s these independent eateries that often cause other businesses to follow suit.
Their mettle is our hot roast beef plate at places like My Mother’s in north central Phoenix, or our huevos rancheros at Harlow’s Café in Tempe, or our balls of falafel at Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli. These purveyors of sincere eats, who often wear multiple hats — cook, server, bookkeeper, and bathroom cleaner — chat us up while we’re eating, and we slurp up that kindness like a cup of chili from Texaz Grill, or a bowl of pozole from places like Barrio Café.
And sure, a drive-thru is convenient, and kids like shit like stripe-y, redheaded clowns, but these are the places where the true, fucking happy meals are found.