At the corner of Higley and Ray roads in Gilbert, you can dart into a convenience store for Twinkies, a lottery ticket, and a cold one to go. But while you’re there, you might also get a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers, a bag of organic kale chips, a cold kombucha and some European chocolates. And then there’s the building itself—a graceful glass pavilion, shaded by a broad, overhanging roof, surrounded by outdoor patios.
Welcome to Air Guitar (airguitar4life.com), a new kind of convenience store as imagined by partners Kris and Craig DeMarco of Upward Projects (Postino, Windsor, Federal Pizza) and Elissa and Eric Seitz of Bro Retail Group, which operates a collection of more traditional convenience stores in metro Phoenix. “A few years ago, the four of us partners started wishing for something we couldn’t find here,” explains Elissa Seitz. “We wanted something efficient and fast, but of high quality—something where we could get the usual chips and candy, but had good wine and things for health nuts, too.”
The partners turned to DeBartolo Architects (www.debartoloarchitects.com), an award-winning design firm whose previous hospitality projects include Barnone in the nearby Agritopia community and Provision Coffee in Phoenix. “I told them that I thought architecture could create a sense of place here and a new experience,” says principal Jack DeBartolo 3, FAIA. “The partners were engaged and ready for a new way of thinking when it came to the concept.”
Architect and clients took inspiration from New York’s ubiquitous bodegas, and highway rest stops along the autostrada of Italy that serve pastries and espresso. They also traveled to Los Angeles to tour sophisticated micro grocery stores serving immediate neighborhoods.
Additionally, the group considered the site—at the corner of two busy roads, adjacent to visionary/developer Joe Johnston’s Epicenter at Agritopia (epicenteratagritopia.com), a mixed-use development of several hundred apartments atop retail, designed with a pathway connecting the Agritopia community to the north. “This one- (con’t.) acre site was originally supposed to be a bank,” says DeBartolo. Although Johnston is not a financial partner in Air Guitar, he facilitated the sale of the land to the DeMarcos and Seitzes when the bank decided not to build.
Working with the clients and builder Robert E. Porter Construction (roberteporterconstruction.com), DeBartolo Architects developed a 5,000-square-foot floor plan, placing products and food-service counters in the center, enclosed by north- and south-facing glass walls. Two solid masses—wrapped in standing-seam metal cladding—are offset from one another on the east and west sides, accommodating cooking areas, storage, refrigeration mechanics and the office from view. The overhanging corrugated, perforated metal roof shades an additional 3,000 square feet of outdoor patio seating, as well as a restroom volume.
The plans were already conceptualized by early 2020, notes DeBartolo, when the COVID shutdown hit. The project went forward, breaking ground in late 2020, with several elements to soothe a health- and safety-conscious world. Sliding doors are automatic, for example, and the bathrooms—placed judiciously outside of the main store—feature all touchless plumbing. Two self-checkout kiosks were added for those who wanted to avoid a traditional cashier. Additionally, except for 12-person stand-up bar indoors, all of the seating for the pizza service, ice cream stand, coffee and grab-and-go meals is located outdoors, where, native grasses, concrete planters filled with aloes and a virtual forest of ash and Chinese pistache trees provide a green background.
Air Guitar is filled with numerous design ideas that set things apart from a traditional convenience store, DeBartolo points out. Custom shelving throughout is low, so that customers can see both the carefully curated products and the views out the glass walls. The coolers on the west wall have no doors, creating a long stretch of colorful patterns with displays of cold beers, soft drinks, wines and other beverages. The flooring is simple, rugged ground concrete. On the east side, the gourmet ice cream stand has a patio window for outdoor service and a tube-like chute to send out packaged ice cream novelties. “It’s on the east side because it’s shaded in the afternoon,” says DeBartolo. “Nobody eats ice cream in the morning for breakfast, right?”
The one element conspicuously absent is any direct reference to the name of the store, Air Guitar. “The name is not about literal guitars,” says Elissa Seitz. “It’s about a happy, in-the-mode feeling.” A state-of-the-art sound system does play a mix of great music, and DeBartolo Architects did include a you-have-to-look-for-it nod to guitars in the exterior metal cladding.
Opened in September, Air Guitar has become a local hangout, as intended. People gather for coffee in the morning, grab lunches to go, shop for grocery necessities and come with dogs, strollers, scooters and kids to have pizza, wine and ice cream on the patios in the evenings.