It’s both shocking and delightful to find a late-hour weeknight throng anywhere in downtown Phoenix – anywhere that isn’t a dive bar or a parking lot tailgate party, anyhow. The Churchill is open, and crowds of ASU students and people old enough to be their grandparents are hanging out at picnic tables in its 9,000-square-foot food court right up until midnight – and after 2 in the morning later in the week and on weekends.
This latest shopping and dining project, named for the historic Evans Churchill district where it resides, has rehabbed a previously underused hunk of land and filled it with an unusually eco-friendly approach: Each of the Churchill’s 10 businesses is housed in a repurposed shipping container.
There’s more: The Churchill’s philanthropic business plan requires that its shops and restaurants fulfill both “marketing rent” as well as “social rent.” The former requires each tenant to participate in social media cross-promoting with another Churchill tenant, a tactic designed to promote collaboration and downplay competition. “Social rent” asks tenants to pledge four hours of community service per month to a charity of their choice.
“Our tenants can hire an at-risk youth or provide an internship at their business,” Churchill co-founder Hartley Rodie says. “Or they can just do community service, so long as it’s related to the business they’re operating. So a clothing store could do charity work that provides clothing to the homeless, or a restaurant could do charity work related to feeding the hungry.”
It’s a model that’s been used before. The social rent game was played by London’s Pop Brixton, a popular shipping container park there. Las Vegas has its own Container Park, made of more than three dozen shipping containers and also featuring mostly local businesses. And then there’s the online shoe store Zappos and its Soles4Souls project, which donates shoes to the needy.
The Churchill’s container-based enclave is home to eating and drinking spots wedged into spaces measuring just under 500 square feet. In a town fast filling up with chain stores, no one’s complaining about a venture made up entirely of local businesses, both established and new places to shop and eat. These include a pair of open-air bars: Pobrecito, a coastal Latin-themed bar from the owners of UnderTow cocktail lounge; and The Brill Line, which offers craft cocktails and two dozen draught beers.
Retailers are tucked into smaller, 200-square-foot containers: a home-goods shop called Gather; Cosas, with artisan goods from Guadalajara; and State Forty Eight, an Arizona-centric clothing boutique. Sauvage Bottle Shop winery has an impressive lineup of rare labels and more affordable whites and reds.
Early buzz about The Churchill has been mostly about its restaurant offerings, particularly its promise of the first brick-and-mortar joint from Freak Brothers Pizza, recent heroes of the food truck scene.
The Brothers’ signature pie, the La MiaBella, is certainly freaky. But its tangy mix of white cheeses, aged balsamic, Greek olives, and slivered almonds makes for a nice mix of sweet and savory. The sea salt brownie is best enjoyed by folks who like eating raw cookie dough; those who want their baked goods actually baked should wander across the way to Foxy Fruit, which sells “healing food and edible art,” for a Tropical Love cactus-fruit pitaya of mango, banana, and coconut milk.
A sandwich shop called Breadwinner (the latest project by Nick Neuman of EVO fame) makes some mighty fine bread-and-butter pickles, and each of their concoctions is piled onto slices baked by Noble Bread, so there’s a solid start. The best of these is the Cigar City, an unfortunately named pork sandwich layered with cured ham and Swiss on long, baguette-like Cuban white bread (thus the cigar reference). A crispy chicken breast sandwich called the Downtown is too soggy with al pastor sauce and pineapple bleu-cheese coleslaw, but the Jackrabbit salad of peppers, peanuts, and tomatoes is good enough to renew everyone’s waning interest in arugula.
Provecho owner Ryan Oberholtzer likes to schmooze Churchill customers waiting for dinner, even if it’s not coming from his Guadalajara-inspired menu. Provecho’s chips are perhaps a little too sturdy and a little too chunk-salted, but the pollo asado tacos are sublime, crammed with tender white meat chicken. The carne asada taco is better dunked into Provecho’s peppery guacamole, and its citrusy ceviche, big with hunks of shrimp and whitefish, might be The Churchill’s best offering of all.
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AC units and insulation in each former storage container will keep the desert heat at bay, Rodie promises. The courtyard and surrounding areas are canopied and cooled with evaporative coolers and fans. There are even flatscreen TVs and cornhole boards.
The containers, Rodie says, are part of the “vibe” of the Churchill. “They’re part of a bigger message,” he explains. “They’re letting people know we’re about more than just local retail and really great food. We’re about community, about giving back, and about putting something ahead of the bottom line.”
The Churchill. 901 North First Street.
Monday to Wednesday 10 a.m. to midnight; Thursday and Friday 10 to 2 a.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.