Sam Fox’s restaurant empire started humbly enough, with a single location at the corner of Ina and Oracle roads in northwest Tucson.

It was spring 1998 and folks on the northwest side of town embraced his youthful enthusiasm — Fox was not yet 30 — and inventiveness. Wildflower American Cuisine’s menu put French and Asian accents on classic American dishes like chops and meatloaf.

That simple start has blossomed into an emerging national restaurant career, with a portfolio of 13 boutique restaurant concepts including Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar, North Italia, True Food Kitchen, Blanco Tacos + Tequila, Flower Child and Sauce — some of which are finding homes as far flung as the East Coast and as close to home as Tucson.

After 17 years in the business, Sam Fox has found his niche: Developing interesting concepts and growing and cultivating them into brands that can find booming life far beyond Phoenix and Tucson.

Last week, Fox spun off Sauce — the Italian pizza and pasta concept that he launched in Tucson in 2003 — when he sold it to Ra Sushi founders Scott Kilpatrick and Todd Belfer.

He will do it again in about 2 and a half years, when True Food Kitchen, one of his newest brands, grows from its 10 locations to 20. The brand was launched in Phoenix in October 2008 and has since expanded to include a Scottsdale location as well as restaurants in Texas, Virginia, California, Colorado and Georgia. True Food restaurants are planned in Chicago, Miami, Washington, D.C., and Bethesda, Maryland, and Fox anticipates it could arrive in Tucson in two to three years.

By then, Scottsdale-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, which has more than 200 U.S. locations and nearly 60 franchised restaurants worldwide, will pick up the brand and send it into the stratosphere, Fox said.

“True Food is definitely something that we’re growing on a national level,” said Fox, the 46-year-old CEO and founder of Fox Restaurant Concepts, which is based in Scottsdale. “We have 10 open and I think we have 10 or 12 leases signed, so in the next two to three years we’ll probably get up to 25 stores. And at that point, we don’t own it anymore. We have a development partnership with P.F. Chang’s. At 20, Fox Restaurant Concepts exits the brand and P.F. Chang’s will own 100 percent of the brand.

“We’re nurturing and growing brands,” added the father of two, who grew up in Tucson and graduated from Sabino High School. “Brands need to grow. When you get to a certain size, to nine or 10, you really need to be growing at a little bit more of a pace than we were able to do for Sauce. We have so many different brands that the organization isn’t singularly focused on anything; we’re focused on a lot of things. I think Sauce will benefit from someone singularly focused on just Sauce.”

Ditto for True Food, which Fox launched in partnership with Tucson healthy foods guru Dr. Andrew Weil. The restaurant has taken off in ways that seemed unimaginable early on, outpacing Fox’s other restaurants in popularity and revenues.

“It’s well exceeded our expectations. It will turn out to be our most successful brand, and in the future it will be the most successful that we’ve done,” said Fox, who admitted that at first he wasn’t completely sold on the idea of healthful food translating into a thriving restaurant concept. But he changed his mind not long after having heart surgery in 2009 and took stock of his lifestyle, adopting eating habits more in line with Weil’s philosophies.

“If you come in the restaurant and you close your eyes, you really wouldn’t know you’re eating healthy food,” he said. “You would say, ‘Wow, what a great meal,’ and you wouldn’t know that you’re at a restaurant that’s healthy. We are kind of creating our own category with True Food. ... I just feel like we’re leading the trend and setting the trend in that category.”

Fox said he has never set out to create a brand with the idea of spinning it off into a national chain.

“Our goal is to open up one great restaurant,” he said. If a concept connects with the public, he opens more locations.

“Sam is one of the greatest restaurateurs in the country in my opinion. I’ve got a lot of respect for what he’s been able to accomplish,” said Kilpatrick, who launched Ra Sushi in Scottsdale in 1998 and four years later sold it to the national Japanese restaurant giant Benihana. With Kilpatrick’s help, Benihana grew Ra Sushi to 25 locations in nine states.

Tucson restaurateur Bob McMahon, who was partners with Fox at Firecracker in the early 1990s, said he doesn’t know of any other Arizona restaurant operator who has created as many brands as Fox. He said spinning brands off is smart.

“He’s a smart kid. Don’t worry about Sam,” said McMahon, whose restaurant holdings now include his namesake steakhouse on North Swan Road and Old Pueblo Grille on North Alvernon Way.

Once Fox has taken True Food to its fruition, he will turn his full attention to the newest brand in his stable, Flower Child. It’s a fast-casual take on True Food, following the same healthy, farm-to-table and organic ethos.

“It’s a new concept, we have just one,” he said. But “we’re going to open another one in Phoenix in the next 60 days and we will be opening in California and we’re looking in Washington, D.C.”

From his Wildflower maiden voyage, Fox has grown his Fox Restaurant Concepts to 52 restaurants around the country. The company employs 4,000 people and revenues will top $200 million this year, Fox said.

“It’s really big business. I still wake up every day and go, ‘I can’t believe we’re running this big company,’” he said with a nervous chuckle of convincing disbelief. “Basically we’re growing into a national restaurant company around the whole country. It’s crazy.”

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

I cover music for the Arizona Daily Star.