What are your ties to this part of the country?
Rob: As military brats, we didn’t have one home, but home was always this area. We were born in Douglas. Our family has always been really tight; our parents are our best friends. My sister writes, Michael is an artist, and I’ve always loved food. I started in restaurants in Las Vegas before working for private cooks up in Jackson, Wyoming, on really small dude ranches, learning how to cook over an open fire.
You and Michael lived in Los Angeles and New York before moving to Bisbee; what was the transition like?
Rob: Michael had to deal with L.A. traffic for 15 years and I lived there long enough to know I never want to live there. Michael: When Rob first came here [in 1995], for the first 10 years he was in Bisbee, he advocated against the big chains coming into Bisbee. Having come from bigger cities, we’ve always wanted to retain a hometown feel here. Rob: And we finally got an ordinance passed saying you couldn’t have a chain business in downtown Bisbee.
Michael: You know, it took a really long time to grow into what we are today and sometimes we get people who are new to town and they think, “you own so many businesses you must be the evil people!” and we’re saying ,“no, we kept those people out, we’re just service people!” Rob has really done a lot to keep this place the same as it has been.
You seem to have an instinct for urban development. Where did you learn the business side of things?
Rob: After I got out of the Air Force, I worked as an airport management intern in the leasing and development office, and all we did there was open Starbucks. I had to structure the leases, but I also got to get into the businesses and watch them develop, the architectural systems they had, how they operated efficiently in tiny spaces, their business plans, and how it all depended on how many people would walk by. That’s when I got really interested in combining what I knew about food and business. The first thing I did when we were discussing this property was sit outside with a clicker and count how many people walked into the buildings across the street, did the math, and decided it would work.
When we opened in ’95, there were no coffee places in Bisbee and what people wanted was a meeting place. Once we figured that out we provided it by putting in more tables and expanding the space as much as we could. We learned and remembered everybody’s name. We would write their name on the bottom of their mug and hang it behind the counter for them. People were here everyday—if they didn’t show up we’d track them down and make sure they were all right. Now it’s been 21 years.
So then the next step, after Bisbee Coffee, was opening Bisbee’s Table?
Rob: The restaurant at the other end of the building was struggling, and we knew that if it went under we’d probably lose the building. We started Bisbee Table as a fine dining/Tex-Mex concept, and we struggled, especially after 9/11. We had another powwow and went to jeans and T shirts, burgers and pasta, and it took off.
What can you tell me about Santiago’s?
Michael: Santiago’s is in the building that used to be owned by my grandfather, who had a central pharmacy there in 1901.
Rob: We recently developed a 10-year plan for Santiago’s with the goal of being considered one of the best Mexican restaurants in the state, and we’re in the process of mapping out what that looks like. Our new chef, Glenn, is from Colombia (via Sinaloa), and he really understands southern Mexican cuisine—we’re happy to be bringing that into the picture. Defining a great Mexican restaurant is the hardest part. Our recipes are old family recipes. Half of our family is from Sonora and the other half is from Oklahoma.
How has Bisbee changed in the past decade?
Michael: When I used to come down here in the summer, I would wonder how we were going to make it. You could walk down the middle of the street and wouldn’t see a single car or person out.
Rob: And now Bisbee is experiencing huge growth. I think it’s social media and mobility for this generation, which is encouraging a lot of movement and interest in new places.
I had a similar conversation recently in which I was reminded of the days when kids, hanging out on the curb outside of Grill, could lie down across Congress Street at midnight and mostly be left undisturbed. If a car made you move, it was like, “Can’t you see I’m lying down here?”
Rob: That’s not far off from what Bisbee was like. My dad and I worked here when we first opened, and we would work from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and there would be a span of hours in the afternoon when we had zero customers. There was a store and an artist’s studio across the street, and they would come by and sit with us because they didn’t have anybody either and we would just trade each other, coffee for art, coffee for signage. Everything in here was traded it seems like.
How does your hospitality group fit into the broader southern Arizona food scene?
Rob: We tried really hard to capture the farm-to-table movement in both our restaurants. All of our chiles come from Ochoa Farms and our eggs from Francine’s, both local. Our tortillas are handmade in Naco. Twice a month I drive to Kansas Settlement for beans. I haul 700 pounds of beans in my truck back to Bisbee because we won’t work with canned beans at Santiago’s.
What are your challenges in sourcing?
Rob: When we tried to source ground beef in Sonoita, we were told that local ranchers couldn’t meet the demand. And tomatoes are hard, too: how do you supply 700 tomatoes every week locally? So our approach is take small steps. We do put a tremendous amount of effort into finding “that one guy” who can supply us with “that one thing,” and when we do we’ll break down all the barriers we can to make it a lasting and sustainable relationship. ✜
Luke Anable is a Tucson transplant, natural wine protagonist, and beverage consultant for independent restaurants.