Cooking with Fire

How Paul Moir Brought Culinary Depth to Flagstaff’s Downtown

Mtn Living Mag June 2013

June 2013Restaurateur Paul Moir has worked to bring both Brix and Criollo to the downtown scene. While these restaurants were not the first to provide haute cuisine to the Flagstaff market, they did create a deep bench of fine dining options and a sharper focus toward local and seasonal foods. Moir’s recipe for establishing a restaurant also lent a helping hand to the success of Diablo Burger. Moir is also expanding his range with three new establishments in Tucson’s downtown—including Diablo Burger’s second location.

Taking a risk is both exciting and scary. Those two words emerged consistently when Paul Moir spoke about creating a restaurant and his subsequent strides forward. The naysayers seem to have the loudest voices at those moments. And as Moir positioned himself to open a high end restaurant in Flagstaff, they said to him, “Local people don’t care.” But the owner of Brix and Criollo has since proven them wrong and will do so again with the May opening of his third restaurant, Proper, in Tucson.

Paul met his wife Laura while working at a restaurant in Phoenix. They left the state and swore off of the restaurant industry. But after a few years in corporate America in Colorado, Paul turned back to what he knew by attending Johnson and Wales. Then, the couple doubled down and both acquired first-level sommelier certification. They moved to Flagstaff to be near family, and Moir said, “We thought we’d move to a little mountain town, cook some food and raise some kids, but we got the itch.” That itch created Brix.

Moir opened Brix Casual Fine Dining and Wine Bar in May 2006 just above downtown. It was a leap of faith and funds. When Moir saw the empty Flagstaff streets on a Friday night back then, he saw an opportunity. He set his sights on the horizon, and he said of the result, “People embraced Brix.” His feat has gone global with press in Conde Nast Traveler’s listing among the 95 Hottest Restaurants in the World, plus regional reads Sunset and Arizona Highways. Moir’s concept of a food forward, seasonally superior menu of stylish dishes became a winner—and a winning combination from which to advance.

“Brix laid the groundwork for systems and processes that we used with Criollo, and the third step, adding another restaurant,” Moir said. This explains the successful opening of Criollo Latin Kitchen on North San Francisco Street in the midst of a recession, when rent was discounted, yet so were pocketbooks. Placed in the heart of downtown, Criollo serves handcrafted Latin-inspired cuisine like blue corn pancakes and fish tacos with local sourcing. This dynamic sustained both Moir operations, as Criollo, too, earned its way into Arizona Highways as a local love.

With more than 20 years of experience in the restaurant industry, a degree in entrepreneurship and culinary training, Moir is a product of his own advice. “Know what you’re doing,” he said. “In any business, pick your cliché—fail to plan and plan to fail—it’s all in the preparation. With so many moving parts and thin margins, mistakes cost money.” And Moir admits he has made some, but these learning investments have helped him prevent or prevail the next time.

Perhaps, all of this caused Moir to extend a helping hand when someone else felt that same inspiration and itch. Derrick Widmark moved to Flagstaff in 2006 to manage Diablo Trust and enjoyed a meal at Brix as often as he could afford. When Widmark came up with the concept for Diablo Burger to bring local beef to the community, he was steered to Moir who’d had an effective business plan. Moir was very supportive and said to Widmark, “Whatever I can do to help, count on me.”

Opening a business was a gamble, as Widmark saw it. Still, he wanted to do something, not just for himself, but for the ranches and farms as well as the community. “So I put pressure on myself not to fail,” he said. “I credit Paul with providing the support I needed to assure that failure didn’t happen.”

After two years of planning and positioning, Diablo Burger opened in Heritage Square during the recent downturn in March 2009. But Widmark was prepared to make adjustments quickly to run a restaurant under difficult circumstances. He finds the challenges of ownership are never ending, but inspire creativity.

Diablo Burger has succeeded “in the circle on the square.” It was named Arizona’s Best Burger in USA Today, and Arizona Daily Sun readers voted the burger joint as the Best Burger and Fries for three years running. Widmark wanted to involve Moir in his business long term. They have a common goal with their niche places in the restaurant industry. Widmark said, “We want to move the ball forward about how people think about and talk about food. This is an opportunity to advance the quality of the local food systems in Flagstaff.” Both looked to the slow food movement of sustainability, family farms and quality products.

It was natural to retain that relationship as the two considered expansion. Their eyes soon turned to downtown Tucson where the timing was right for another urban resurgence. Between the two owners, three businesses will open in downtown’s Rialto block: Proper, Diablo Burger and Good Oak Bar. “Restaurants take the first risk to come into a new location, and soon, the retail and foot traffic follow,” Moir said.

As Moir’s experience contributed to Widmark’s goals, so has Widmark lent his advice to Caleb Schiff, owner of Pizzicletta on West Phoenix Avenue. Schiff is continuing the Flagstaff restaurant revival on the south side of the tracks with his wood-fired Neapolitan pizza in a corner location with spare, but resourceful, use of space. Voted Best New Restaurant in 2011, his passion for pizza reaped the rewards of Widmark’s counsel. Schiff said, “Derrick was an immense help with the business plan and support. He was instrumental on an emotional and practical level.”

The three restaurant owners count it a joint triumph, building downtown Flagstaff into a foodie destination. In Moir’s original business plan for Brix, he hoped for another restaurant to come behind it. And so it did, plus more, in the form of Diablo Burger, Criollo and Pizzicletta. Investment drove more investment, and support passed on from one restaurateur to another, creating a climate of success. NAMLM  Gail G. Collins

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