One of the things that I really believe makes a successful business is the same thing that I believe makes an amazing home…authenticity. I think we’re all dying for a little real-ness, a fresh perspective, a few unique ideas and just something truly special. I know the word gets thrown around a lot these days, but to me, it couldn’t be more true- especially with in our latest feature, which gives us a sneak peek into the home of Phoenix creatives, Olivia and John.
Olivia is best known for her prolific catering and baking company, theDinersaur, baking up some of the valley’s most coveted, pastries, cakes and cookies as well as catering for some really incredible events. John is a local artist, photographer, specializing in silver print photography, developing everything by hand and working in his studio/darkroom space in Central Phoenix. Both Olivia and John create for a living and have found success based on their ability to stand out by making special, authentic products.
It’s no surprise this creative couple also has a fantastic home- a 1947 historic red-brick ranch with a red tiled roof complete with backyard studio in Fairview Place, just West of Encanto Park in downtown Phoenix. The Neighborly crew spent an early morning with Olivia, John and their two dogs, Spec and Willie, chatting about their home, business plans and how downtown Phoenix has changed.
N: Where did you grow up? Go to school, college, etc.?
O: I grew up in Paradise Valley – before it was filled with oversized houses and non-native landscape. It sure has changed a lot since then. I went to Xavier for high school and then ASU for college – where I got an Urban Planning degree & then continued on to get a Printmaking degree.
J: I grew up in a small town West of Chicago called Freetort, Illinois, and moved to Chicago when I was finishing high school. I moved out to Phoenix in 1994, mostly as a break from the long grey winters in Chicago. I don’t mind the cold as much as the grey.
N: What was Phoenix like then vs. now?
O: Phoenix was.. or seemed.. a lot emptier then. There weren’t any trendy restaurants or even people walking around.. it kind of felt like a ghost town. Now, especially RIGHT now, there is so much building, infill, restaurants & bars popping up all over the place.
J: When I arrived in Phoenix, it felt like a ghost town. I lived/worked in an industrial space on 1st Ave across the street from the Westward Ho. Visually, it looked like a city, but at that time there wasn’t much going on downtown- no pedestrians, no honking horns, few options to eat and drink. It felt empty, unless it was game day. Now there is quite a bit going on down there, it’s nice to see people exploring the city.
N: When did you decide a culinary profession was for you?
O: I got my first job at 16, working in a kitchen at a retirement home. I don’t think I quite knew that the culinary profession was for me at that point, but it got me in the kitchen and I have never worked in a different space since. The retirement home was the only time I worked back of house until I started theDinersaur. It seems fair to say that I have always felt connected to restaurants and culinary life.
N: Where else have you worked prior to starting theDinersaur?
O: Right before I started theDinersaur, I was working at Ollie Vaughns. They have a very open kitchen and I never felt like my job was “strictly” front of house, so this was the first time since a kid that I was back working a bit in the kitchen.
N: How has living in Phoenix changed your art?
J: When I was living in Chicago, I was primarily doing advertising. When I came out to Phoenix I was able to spend more time on work that was more meaningful to me, the slower pace allowed me to really focus on my personal work.
N: How did Le Dinersaur start?
O: After getting my second BA in printmaking – I was on a set course (in my mind) to be a printmaker, specifically working in Photogravure. I ordered a super special handmade press that was supposed to be delivered to me in 4 months. Due to financial problems the press company was going through, this dream kind of fell through. Feeling a bit lost and not knowing what my plan was, I started baking bread. I think I was drawn to bread making because, like photogravure, it is a very involved process. Our house was full of bread. All of the time. So I thought.. on my day off from Ollie Vaughn’s, I can make sandwiches using my bread, start a group text thread with some close friends and deliver lunchboxes 1 day a week. 3 months later, I quit Ollie Vaughn’s and dove head first into sandwich delivery.
N: That’s about when we met, during the “sammie” delivery days, what a treat those were and such a great way to meet new people in Phoenix. How has theDinersaur grown and changed since you began?
O: Since theDinersaur began, I have moved the company a lot more into the pastry/sweet treats world. Jorge Torres of Palabra/Futuro had come by the house after I had done some baking and asked if I’d be interested in proving some treats for his coffee shop. And that’s where the sweets journey really began. Since theDinersaur’s first home.. and 3 in between, I am now comfortably baking in a commercial space with Restaurant Progress. And we have some pretty exciting collabs coming your way!
N: What made you decide to buy vs. rent?
J: Olivia and I had both wanted to buy a place. We both wanted the opportunity to make the space uniquely ours. For me, I’ve always enjoyed woodworking, so I have done things for our house, like Olivia’s work table and the build out in the library.
N: What was it like purchasing a home being independently employed?
O: Purchasing a home being independently employed definitely felt like a lot more hoops to jump through. Just a lot more numbers to provide, and felt like a bit more work gaining trust and proving the viability of my company to lenders. I had just reached 3 years of solo employment which I think – in the end – made this purchase possible.
N: Did your new home provide you a space to work? How did that change your business?
O: When I first bought the house, I really envisioned working full time out of it. Initially, I thought I was going to transform the garage into a baking space. I ended up updating my home kitchen slightly commercial (oven and fridge) and John built a large work table for me to bake/prep/decorate on. At theDinersaur’s first home – my work space was about 200 square feet – and I had a tiny butcher block table to do all of my prep work on. So, the few months that I really worked out of my home, I was so much more efficient because I had so much more space to work and a much larger oven to bake in! Now, my home kitchen provides an amazing space to do some R&D, throw great dinner get togethers, and in the winter my large oven does a damn good job at warming up the house.
N: What are your favorite spots in your home?
J: The library and the garage. When we have people over, everyone gathers around Olivia’s work table, which functions perfectly in those situations, its’a really nice space for entertaining friends.
O: I really, really love our bedroom. I work weird hours – getting up at 1am and working until 1 or 2 pm. The bedroom has an east facing window & south facing window, so in the afternoon there isn’t any direct sunlight. The curtains are kind of a sheer white, and outside the north window we are lucky enough to look right at Encanto Park and the Rose Garden. It just feels like such a relaxing, clean, and comfortable space. The room in full of natural light – which I also love. My second favorite place would probably be the library – it feels like a dreamscape in comparison to the rest of the house. And who doesn’t like being surrounded my books and photographs?
N: What projects have you taken on at your house?
O: The biggest project we took on when I bought the house was re doing our wood floors. They were really yellow, very scuffed up – think old basketball gym floor – and the 3 bedrooms were SUPER dark – the floor just needed some love. It was a 4 day process sanding the floors of the whole house, filling the gaps and then staining. It made a HUGE difference in the whole feel of the place. We’re currently working on the backyard a bit – but with it being the middle of summer… that project is kind of on hold.
N: What are your future house plans?
O: Future house plans.. KITCHEN!! I want to get a deep concrete corner triple sink, which would help open the space a bit and as much as we are lucky the kitchen is original to 1947 when the house was built – it could use a little update. (Thank goodness it never got the terrible 80’s / 90’s update though).
N: What do you love about your neighborhood?
J: There are a couple of things I really like about the neighborhood. Encanto Park, we walk the dogs every morning, it’s a great way to start the day. Also the close proximity to the fairgrounds, it’s almost that time of year now. It’s an easy walk and we get to hear the shrieks and screams from the ride goers in the backyard. My daughter has an October birthday, so we always did the fair on her birthday.
O: I love Encanto Park. I love that when we look outside our bedroom windows, or living room windows we get to see green and trees. It’s my absolute favorite part of this neighborhood. And directly south of the Park is a Rose Garden, which, the longer we live here, we realize we can really tell the seasons via the Rose Garden.
N: Where are your favorite local spots to eat and drink?
O: Our favorite dining spots include- Restaurant Progress, Hillstone and Burger Shoppe. For drinks, we head to TMI (when the weather is nice – best patio in Phoenix). I do find myself at Thunderbird Lounge a lot (probably because it’s right next to my work).
J: I love being so close to McGurkees, which is a great local sandwich place. We spend a fair amount of time at TMI, Restaurant Progress and Thunderbird Lounge.
N: Where can people find your photos and info?
J: People are always welcome to come by the Darkroom to look at work which is where I do all my own film processing and printing. I have boxes of traditional silver prints that I have made over the years. There are also a group Bonneville prints at Lux on central. Find me on instagram @johnwagnerphoto, my website wagnerphotographs.com, or send me a message firstname.lastname@example.org.
I just put out a book of Photographs from the Bonneville Salt Flats. This was my tenth year photographing the land speed trials up at Bonneville, so I’m still going through the images and working on putting something together. I’ve been spending my days int he darkroom catching up on printing from recent trips to Wyoming and Colorado.
N: Where can people find your treats and what’s in the works for theDinersaur?
O: Treats! Currently they are at First Place Coffee and Futuro Coffee every day. There will be featured desserts at Restaurant Progress and I am always accepting special offers – www.thedinersaur.com
retail spot coming soon!
N: What is your favorite treat to eat and make?
O: My favorite dinersaur treat to make may be the churrovers. I just love their baking process, it’s like magic! The batter is super loose, thinner than pancake batter, and then pops in the heat of the oven. To eat… probably the c.c.cookie dipped in almond milk.
J: Hands down…the cookies.
We spent quite a few hours with Olivia and John on a particularly steamy August morning- but the time flew by so quickly, there was so much to see, to document to discuss. Thank you for making a beautiful home, inviting us in and sharing what you do.