“We are not pretentious,” said Barbe, the restaurant’s owner. “We don’t take ourselves very seriously.”
In fact, the only thing they take seriously is their food.
Bistro style, it features tapas for everyone from hard core carnivores to vegans.
“What you are eating looks great. It puts people together in a fun atmosphere.”
Barbe suggests one to two tapas per person, which encourages sharing and conversation with other diners.
“It’s a great place to go if you’re from out of town,” he said.
The building itself resembles a whimsical house straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, but The Cat in the Hat does not live here. No. Benny, el gato azul, lives here as the mascot. Barbe describes him as “a cat of intrigue and mystery.” Benny appears on all marketing materials and even sponsors movie nights.
“People recognize our cat.”
El Gato Azul is a high-volume restaurant with 30 employees. There are 24 seats inside the restaurant a covered patio, with 30 seats and other outside seating for an additional 50. When all those seats are filled, it is really hopping.
“It’s insane. It is nuts,” he said. “The minute you walk through the door, it is on. The person who comes to the table the first time is the only person you are going to see. People just love our servers. By the time they are done with the meal, they know that person. It is not formal at all.”
Still, it embraces traditional dining.
“Every meal was at the table with my family and grandma’s on Sunday,” he said. “You passed the green beans and talked about what happened during the day,” he said.
Growing up in Ohio, Barbe experienced life in a small, typical northeastern town.
“There were 45 kids in my graduating class. I walked to school every day. We had a huge garden, which was necessary because of the large family of seven,” he said.
Not much into sports, Barbe says he was a “music geek.”
“I was in band, choir and drama,” he said.
In his junior year, he developed problems with polyps on his vocal cords, which had to be removed and changed his career path, although he still sings at the restaurant.
Barbe graduated from culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in South Carolina in 1990.
After graduation, he worked in the restaurant industry, managing bars, restaurants and a number of resort departments.
“I like working with people and having a vision.”
When Barbe and his wife, Lori, wanted to move west, they initially considered Colorado. But “it was cold and it snowed a lot,” he said.
Because Lori is from Mesa, they began looking at Arizona. They chose Prescott in 1998.
“In Prescott, we have the four seasons. You get some snow, but it only lasts a day or two,” he said. “The climate and the community are amazing.”
And it was a good place to raise their four kids: Audrey, 22; Jacob, 19; Hannah, 16; and Simon, 14.
Right away, he opened five restaurants and a management company to oversee them. Things were going fine until the economy crashed.
Barbe sold all the restaurants except for El Gato Azul.
“I think we all need a little place to go to relax and have fun,” he said. “Who cares if you have red wine with your fish?”
Besides the food, El Gato Azul features local musicians and artists.
Barbe says he enjoys serving the community in more ways than one. He is on the board of directors for the Coalition for Compassion and Justice, which strives to eradicate homelessness.
What advice would you give someone just starting out in your business?
“Be committed to your concept. Have adequate funding and an exit plan. If it does not work, have a time when you draw the line. It’s okay to walk away if it’s not working.”
What was the best advice you’ve ever been given and who gave it to you?
“When things were getting tough, I took it upon myself to reach out to five prominent business owners in this community. I was willing to ask and listen and take advantage of mentors.”
When was the last time you laughed hard?
“Like, all the time. There will be something stupid or silly at the restaurant or something my kids say. You have to laugh all the time; otherwise, what is the point?”
What is your favorite movie?
“’Benny & Joon’ is really funny. I saw it on the first date with my wife.”
What qualities do you look for in people who work for you?
“We don’t look at the résumé. We look for personality, a person who is genuine, good hearted and community minded. Everything else we can take of in-house. If you come in with those traits, we can take care of the rest.”
El Gato Azul is located at 316 W. Goodwin St., open at 11 a.m., Monday through Friday, and noon on the weekends. For more information, call 928-445-1070 or visit elgatoazulprescott.com. QCBN
By Patty McCormac