Story | Sally J. Clasen
Photography | Mark Lipczynski
From day one, Michael Babcock’s mission has been to serve fine dining food, but without the fancy fanfare or buttoned-up environment. So it’s no surprise that he and his partners Jenn Robinson and Sloane McFarland—who make up the Welcome Hospitality Group—continue to stick to a simple formula: Serve fresh, home-cooked food in casual settings using the best local ingredients available.
“I’ve always been interested in sustainability,” says Babcock, who has worked most of his life in kitchens as a chef. “I became intrigued by Southern food and hospitality while traveling there. When I tasted gumbo for the first time, I knew Phoenix didn’t have anything like it.”
His former food truck Old Dixie provided the Southern-style inspiration for the lineup at Welcome Diner, the group’s flagship property housed in a 1940s Airstream travel trailer in downtown Phoenix that opened in 2013.
That formula—and conviction—led the group to develop its second concept, Welcome Chicken + Donuts, an Asian riff on an American standard with a sweet accompaniment operating in, interestingly enough, a former KFC building.
“The idea was to create a fast-food concept done with great craft and ingredients, and allow customers to get back to work in 10 minutes,” explains Babcock.
With the launch of Welcome Diner in Tucson slated to open this summer, and a second downtown location in Phoenix this winter, fans of the hospitable dining brand can expect more of the same scratch cooking…with a few kitchen twists.
While the nine-seat Welcome Diner on Roosevelt operates in close confines with Southern-influenced biscuits, burgers, sandwiches and cocktails, the Tucson diner—located in a landmark building that was once a Sambo’s—will cover more ground in menu direction and space.
“We’re mutating the blueprint and making it bigger. We’ll have 100-plus seats and 35 feet of line space with a fuller menu and an emphasis on smaller plates and vegetables, along with some of our greatest hits like the Big Jim and the Welcome burger too,” says Babcock. “We’re also digging deeper into our personalities by exploring our regional Sonoran cultural influences. It’s a collective thought process with a whole new realm of possibilities that will ‘unset” the menu and answer what it means to cook in the Southwest.”
The new Welcome Diner in Phoenix will borrow cues from the original restaurant, too, but will be a chance to explore different culinary options and components, according to Babcock.
“We’re moving our cooking ideas forward. With growth, we have better capitalization and more people to expand on those concepts,” he says.
For all menu development, Welcome relies heavily on Arizona purveyors such as Schreiner’s Fine Sausage, Hayden Flour Mills, Dos Cabezas Winery, and Superstition Farms to support and define their flavor profile.
“We use about 50 to 60 percent of local ingredients in our menus, including all our diary, pork and wine,” says Babcock. “As a chef, the most important relationship you build is the one with local purveyors. I take my cue from Chris Bianco in this regard. A chef has to know how to cook, obviously. But what makes a chef great is his ability to discover the great producers around him and develop those relationships.”
Babcock cites the products found in Sonora, which, he says, are unique. “I’m trying to be part of that cultural revolution. I want to find the Schreiner’s of Tucson, and so on.”
Regardless of location change or menu adaptations, Babcock guarantees Welcome’s restaurants will stay on course in one important regard: They will continue to offer high-level comfort food that leaves people feeling warm and cozy.