Sam Fox this month is celebrating the 20th anniversary of opening his modestly upscale new American restaurant Wildflower on North Oracle Road that gave birth to one of the state’s most successful restaurant empires.

“I really am so proud of where we came from. Tucson was a launching pad for my career and I am so thankful to the community,” said the Sabino High School alumnus whose company has 11 restaurant concepts spread over eight states. “So many amazing people have been part of our success, whether it was early investors or landlords or great employees and most importantly all the guests that came and supported us over the years. It’s been really so instrumental in the success of who we are and who I am.”

To say thanks to Tucson, Fox will donate $20,000 from his five Tucson concepts — Blanco Tacos + Tequila and North Italia in La Encantada, Culinary Dropout on East Grant Road, the two Zinburger locations (East River Road and East Grant Road) and Wildflower — to a charity selected by customers.

Fox is arguably one of the most successful restaurateurs to come out of Tucson, and his restaurant company, Fox Restaurant Concepts, ranks as one of the biggest and most successful in the state. He employs around 5,000 people and operates 50 restaurants around the country — six of them, including the flagship Wildflower, in Tucson. In addition to his 11 concepts, he also founded and later sold Sauce Pizza & Wine and True Food.

For Fox, these last 20 years have slipped by “in this blink of an eye. All of a sudden here you are 20 years later, and 20 years older, by the way,” he told the Star.

“You just kind of look back … how did this happen?’ It’s awesome,” said the father of two who turned 50 last month.

Fox isn’t finished yet. He has a few more ideas for restaurants and projects that will extend his reach to Nashville, Tennessee, and beyond, and bring him right back home to Tucson, where he worked in the kitchens of his father’s restaurants as a teen including Hungry Fox on East Broadway, which is still open today.

Among the ideas he’s considering is a hotel project in Phoenix where the on-site restaurants will be the focus, not the afterthought.

“It would be driven by food and beverage. Not a hotel that’s going to be an afterthought of a restaurant; the restaurants are going to be … equally as important as the hotel,” Fox said.

MORSELS

His favorite Fox restaurant: The healthful concept Flower Child, which has four Phoenix area locations and is located in five other states. It’s coming soon to the East Coast with several locations set to open in the Washington, D.C. area, Baltimore and Virginia. And what about Tucson? “Working on it. Working on it,” he said. “I would love to announce a location in the next 12 months.”

Of all the restaurants, this is his crown jewel: “I’m probably most proud of Flower Child and True Food, even though I don’t own True Food today. But the No. 1 restaurant I would go to and am proud of is Flower Child. It’s smart. It’s on trend and it gets used in so many different ways. It’s amazing. In Tucson, obviously Wildflower.”

The concept that went bust: “I would say Modern Steak, a steakhouse that we opened up (in the Phoenix area) that we closed (after) I think we ran it about three years. The concept was wrong. The location was wrong. And the timing was wrong. There were a lot of things wrong with that. And that was our most expensive failure, as well — a little over $5 million.”

The hardest thing he overcame in his career: “We opened Wildflower, and then we opened Bistro Zin on River. And the roughest period was when I opened a restaurant called Bloom in Broomfield, Colorado, (not long afterward). That was sort of the biggest hurdle I had in the last 20 years, moving out of Tucson, opening my first restaurant out of Tucson and it wasn’t in Phoenix, it was outside of Boulder, and making a big real estate mistake, over budget. I kind of got in way over my skis.”

Restaurants, eateries that have opened in Tucson in 2018 

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

Cathalena has covered music for the Star for the past 20 years. She's a graduate of Arizona State University has worked at Sedona Red Rock News, Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, New York; and USA Today.