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American Eat Co. — an 8-in-1 restaurant concept — set to open in South Tucson

  • 4 min to read

Southern Arizona’s first free-standing food court will open late next month in a former south-side meat market.

American Eat Co.’s opening comes 15 months after the developers, Common Group, announced plans to put eight restaurant concepts, a bar and a butcher shop in the former American Meat Co. The meat market closed in 2015 after 62 years in business.

Inside the sprawling 8,000-square-foot building at 1439 S. Fourth Ave., diners will be able to sample inventive sliders from longtime Tucson chef Larry Salina’s The Bite, reacquaint themselves with Greek fare from Andreas Andoniadis’ popular North Campbell Avenue restaurant Opa or take a dive into Chicano comfort food from Aaron Cornejo’s maiden restaurant venture, Avenues.

The project’s owners/developers will operate Market Bar, a wine-and-beer bar serving Tucson craft brews and Arizona wines; and a poke and rice bowl restaurant called Dumb Fish. Other concepts in the culinarily diverse lineup include the second outpost of Isabella’s Ice Cream sharing a stall with Sam Waters and Joseph Ontiveros’ Cafe con Leche coffee stand. American Eat Co. owner Jesus Bonillas said the coffee shop will serve traditional pan dulce pastries from a local baker.

“The No. 1 reason we’re down here is because we love to eat,” Bonillas’ partner Guillermo Gallegos said recently as the partners led a couple of neighbors on a tour.

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“It’s not your everyday restaurant that you envision,” says Jesus Bonillas, left, with partner Guillermo Gallegos.

The pair’s development company, Common Group, which over the past several years has bought and restored several distressed commercial and restaurant properties on the south side, has invested more than $1 million into the project since they bought the property in November 2016. The plan was to open by spring, then summer 2017. But drawing up the designs to create eight restaurant stalls complete with individual kitchens and counters, the bar and the butcher shop/market proved far more challenging than they had anticipated.

Getting liquor licenses and other permits required jumping through a few more hoops, and signing up the mix of restaurant concepts took a bit more persuading than they bargained for.

“It’s not your everyday restaurant that you envision” Bonillas said. “There were challenges and roadblocks we had to navigate. But I’m very excited. It was one heck of a process, but I’m happy with the result. The time doesn’t even matter to me. Now that I see how this thing came together I wouldn’t do anything different. The finished product is exactly what we envisioned.”

What they envisioned was a place where cuisines and cultures would come together under one roof, with customers sitting in a common dining room that can seat about 250; there’s also an outdoor patio.

Each fast-casual concept has its own fully-equipped kitchen and work space and each has a unique design, from corrugated industrial metals to brick and wood paneling. A hostess will greet customers near the front door; service is at the counter. American Eat Co. staff will be responsible for bussing tables and maintaining the dining areas.

General manager Daniel Gutierrez, whose AZ Rib House concept is next to Market Bar, will manage the dining room including overseeing the hiring of as many as 50 employees in the next few weeks for all the concepts and the dining room. (They are accepting applications at americaneatco.com)

“We can’t wait to start this amazing dream,” he said, noting that there will be a dozen TVs throughout the building, all of them tuned to sports when the University of Arizona football and basketball teams play.

Bonillas said they have a few finishing touches left, including finishing the counter tops and installing the kitchen equipment, before they can open, and Chris Pavlov and his partner Nicholas Heddings could not be more excited.

The pair signed onto the project in the early days to bring Heddings’ popular Grant Road pizzeria, Uppercrust Pizza, to the south side.

“We thought this was a super-cool idea,” said Pavlov, who has worked with Heddings for several years and is a partner in the South Fourth Avenue project, which is one block north of the city of South Tucson limits and a mile from downtown Tucson.

Across the building in a dark wood-paneled corner, Cafe con Leche owners Waters and Ontiveros excitedly ticked off plans to share their love of all things coffee while Kristel Johnson sized up the small space where she and her husband/business partner, Dominic, will open the second outpost of their popular Isabella’s Ice Cream.

“I love the feel and the enthusiasm,” Johnson said, explaining plans to include a machine that would allow them to create treats similar to Dairy Queen’s popular Blizzard. “I love the look. I love that they have this passion for the area and the vibrancy. It’s so cool. I’m really excited about it. I feel like it’s a privilege to be a part of this.”

Andy Arias is leaving real estate to open Dos Amigos market and butcher shop, modeled after the south-side meat market his father, Armondo, ran for 29 years at West Drexel Road and South Cardinal Avenue.

“I couldn’t pass it up,” said Arias, who worked with his father for years before Dos Amigos closed two years ago. “They have a good concept here.”

Arias said he will sell prime meats as well as his father’s popular chorizo. The market will offer a limited selection of grocery items, including sauces, tortillas and chiles.

The butcher shop was one of the first ideas that came to Bonilla and his partners when they were dreaming up plans for building, which was home to the Islas family’s American Meat Co. from 1953 until late 2015.

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A lounging area is one of the seating options at Great American Eat Company on 1439 S. Fourth Ave.

Filiberto Islas, the last of the Islas brothers who ran the butcher shop, said he planned to donate some old family photos when American Eat Co. opens.

Islas, 82, said Bonillas gave him a tour of the building, and he was pretty impressed by the makeover.

“They spent a lot of money renovating that building and it looks great to tell you the truth,” he said. “I think they may make a go of it.”

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Larry Salina, left, owner of The Bite, and Great American Eat Co. GM Daniel Gutierrez test menu placements.

Onf of Islas’ nephews, Robert, who was among the second generation of owners of the family market for years, is getting back into the family business. By March 1, Islas hopes to open Islas Meat Market at 702 W. Irvington Road in a plaza owned by Common Group.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch