A steer skull now hangs prominently behind the coffee counter of Ocotillo Restaurant and Bar’s O to Go coffee bar, visually marking the beginning of a new era for this popular local establishment.

Steve McMillen

Steve McMillen

Steve McMillen has been a barista at O to Go for the past eight months. He has been seeking an opportunity to advance the coffee scene in Phoenix, and revamping this coffee bar is offering him just that.

Partnering with Ocotillo’s owner and head chef Walter Sterling, who originally purchased the property over five years ago, McMillen will transform the space into Muerte – a Southwestern-inspired coffee, beer and cocktail bar, opening in May.

Renovations are already underway with light and dark shades of gray being painted along the walls and skeleton motif artwork being hung. There are also plans to switch up the existing coffee counter by setting up a dual bar on either side of it. This will allow for a more minimalistic, yet warm-feeling and inviting space.

McMillen has also put together an all-star team of baristas with impressive coffee knowledge and experience acquired through working around the valley at places like be Coffee + Food + Stuff, Cartel Coffee Lab, Kream Coffee and Lux Central.

As for the coffee itself, Muerte will still be serving San Francisco’s Sightglass Coffee, now alongside Santa Cruz-based Verve Coffee. A third rotational coffee option will be available as well.

Seasonal beers and signature cocktails will also be available to enjoy. There are currently 16 canned beer offerings with flavor profiles ranging from light and citrusy to rich and coffee-like. Cocktails will be primarily Southwestern-themed, with similarly inspired folkloric names.

steer skull

In crafting Muerte’s breakfast menu, McMillen and fellow O to Go barista Lydon Lazzeri-LaJoie simply thought of what they would personally like to see offered. The answer: Tacos. The new menu will feature a la carte breakfast tacos made with Ropa Vieja beef, scrambled eggs, chipotle aioli, pickled veggies and cotija cheese ($3.50). Breakfast will only be served until the main restaurant opens at 11 a.m. After then, you can order off the main restaurant’s menu at the coffee bar as usual. Assorted pastries will still be offered all day.

Having been granted freedom to do something conceptually innovative through Muerte’s diverse offerings, McMillen looks forward to the many possibilities for incorporating creativity. In addition to being inventive with coffee, cocktails and food, McMillen plans to cultivate a space that the community can enjoy in a leisurely manner.

muerte interior“Five years ago, the coffee scene here was exploding,” McMillen said, adding, “Now it’s in a lull and we’re trying to get out of this rut.”

Through hosting events such as short film nights and performances by various musical acts, as well as continuing the monthly exhibits of local artists’ work this spot has always offered, McMillen feels such activities will provide the public an opportunity to experience something a bit more intimate.

“I don’t think this exists on this scale in Phoenix,” McMillen said.

He is also hoping the Muerte staff’s approach to customer service is more personal with regard to customer-server relationships, something he sees as vital to overall success. Rather than simply just grabbing a to-go coffee, many regulars and newcomers alike go to this coffee bar to sit back and relax, often finding themselves striking up impromptu conversations with complete strangers. McMillen wants to encourage and promote this type of environment even further by extending business hours into the evening on the weekends. 

The daytime vibe at Muerte is envisioned to be vibrant, with employees and patrons being socially engaged and interactive with one another, while the nighttime feel will be a bit more low-key, yet pleasingly intimate.

If You Go:

What: Muerte at Ocotillo – Opening May 2017

Where: 3243 N 3rd St, Phoenix, AZ 85012

When: Coffee | Everyday 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Breakfast | Everyday 7 a.m. – 11 a.m.
Extended Hours | Fri. & Sat. 7 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Find more info about Muerte on their website, Facebook or Instagram.

Photos by Mila Suzich.