A former 1950s-era gas station near the University of Arizona is to become a beach-themed taco and burger restaurant this fall.
For passers-by, Jimmy Hula’s will vaguely remind them of the two-pump service station and auto shop that has sat on the corner of North Fourth Avenue and East University Boulevard since the early 1950s, an anchor of the north end of the business district. But inside the 1,900-square-foot building at 802 N. Fourth Ave., you’ll think you’re beachfront, with brightly painted walls, palm fronds draped above the bar, photos of Bob Marley and surfboards hanging on the walls.
The restaurant’s owners, David Blair of Tucson and Jim Onken of Phoenix, will keep the exterior intact, including the garage doors on the repair bays, according to plans approved on April 28 by the Tucson-Pima County Historic Commission. In an email interview, Blair said the old metal garage doors will be replaced by glass, and a sail-themed covered patio will be added.
“The only true modifications will be aesthetic in nature,” said Blair, a longtime homebuilder in Tucson.
The idea is to maintain the integrity of the building, whose first resident was Fourth Avenue Tire & Service Station from the early 1950s through the early ’70s, according to city directories from the time. The building also was home to Wendt West Auto Enterprises in the 1980s and, as late as 2009, the Fourth Avenue Service Station.
The building lies outside of the West University Historic Zone, which includes buildings built in the 1930s and earlier. The zone is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which establishes development standards and design guidelines for new construction and alterations of existing historic buildings, according to city officials.
Plans by Blair and Onken, who also is a homebuilder, call for remodeling the interior of the building and adding a bar, kitchen and dining areas.
“The interior will be completely remodeled and look like a restaurant, not like a service station,” Blair said. “It is a fun, casual, relaxed atmosphere; order at the counter, food delivered to your table in seven to eight minutes. Average cost probably $10 per person.”
Jimmy Hula’s is known for its array of fish tacos topped with everything from guacamole and street corn to pineapple mango salsa and coleslaw, and towering burgers including the popular Burnt Reynolds topped with bacon, egg and Lay’s potato chips. The restaurant chain also serves craft beers and cocktails at its nine Florida locations, including its Winter Park flagship that opened in 2011; a 10th Florida location is to open soon.
Tucson will have the second of the chain’s restaurants outside of the Sunshine State; an outpost opened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in February.
Blair said neither he nor Onken, whose two daughters attend the University of Arizona, have extensive restaurant experience. But “in another life” both worked for Intrawest Resorts, a Canadian resort management company whose properties include Colorado’s popular Steamboat Ski Resort. Blair also spent time years ago working for a restaurant, he said.
The Fourth Avenue Merchants Association says it’s too early to tell if Jimmy Hulu’s will fit in with the eclectic nature of the avenue, whose only other chain restaurant is a locally owned Dairy Queen. The avenue, known for its hipster chicness, is a mix of mostly independently owned shops and restaurants including Food Conspiracy Co-Op, The Hippie Gypsy, several of the city’s most popular night clubs including O’Malley’s, The Hut and Che’s Lounge, and one of the city’s oldest eateries, Caruso’s Italian Restaurant, which has been on North Fourth Avenue for more than 75 years.
“(I) can’t think of a better Tucson location and am confident it will fit in,” Blair said. “Tucson is becoming — or arguably has been — a good food town. Tucson likes Mexican dishes, people like fish, throw in a great location and good proximity to the UA, and Jimmy Hula’s felt Tucson was a natural fit.”
Only time will tell if Jimmy Hula’s is a fit, says Fred Ronstadt, executive director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association.
“We love the eclectic nature of this part of Tucson. Everything happens on Fourth Avenue,” he said. “I think over time the avenue has evolved. I don’t know if Jimmy Hula’s will succeed or not, or if the community will embrace it.”
But he said that after years of the building being vacant, “I think anybody would be excited to see a property that’s been underutilized, undervalued, to be utilized.”
“I certainly think revitalizing any part of Fourth Avenue that’s vacant or empty has a benefit for the whole avenue,” added Caruso’s general manager Salvatore Zagona Jr., the grandson of founder Nicasio Zagona.
Blair said he and Onken are completing the kitchen design and will soon submit their plans to the city. They hope to get the necessary city approvals in June so they can begin work. They hope to open in mid-September, he said.
“This time next year, I am confident (Jimmy Hula’s) will be a very popular Fourth Avenue destination,” Blair said.