The Downtown Coffee Shop Replaced by Arizona’s Tallest Building

by Douglas C. Towne
Food, Restaurants & Dining History Uncategorized Douglas C. Towne October 24, 2023

A restaurant entrepreneur arrived in Phoenix in 1953 and decided to take residents into the future, architecturally speaking.

Ovide. A. Helsing, a native of Mobile, Alabama, had operated a chain of 26 restaurants in Chicago and a coffee shop in Miami before relocating to the Southwest. Helsing would continue his successful business run in Phoenix, including developing the Ramada Inn chain, fine dining restaurants, cafeterias, and a half-dozen eponymous coffee shops.

His first venture in 1955, along with co-owner Earl R. Treulich, would be Helsing’s Coffee Shop, located Downtown at what could then be considered the crossroads of Phoenix, on the southeast corner of Central Avenue and Van Buren.

Helsing prided his restaurant, with its eye-catching mid-century orange façade, on having “…attractive surroundings, and that both food and service must be outstanding if the operation is to be a continued success,” according to an article in The Arizona Republic.

Helsing’s Coffee Shop, at Van Buren and Central Avenue. (Photo: Douglas C. Towne)

Customers still gush about the quintessential order of hamburger, fries, and a milkshake, as well as their ham-and-cheese sandwiches and, of course, pie and coffee. Others favored “One’s A Meal,” Helsing’s signature dish. This special changed daily and consisted of “a healthful, nutritious, and well-balanced lunch,” according to the Republic. Some just recall spinning around on stools at a coffee shop counter.

With the success of his Downtown Phoenix coffee shop, Helsing launched his piece de resistance in Uptown Plaza at one of the city’s busiest intersections, Central and Camelback Road, later that year. Phoenix architect Matthew E. Trudelle designed the futuristic Googie-style coffee shop with its bold geometric design, upswept roof, and huge plate glass windows.

Del E. Webb Construction Co. constructed the rectangular 4,200 square-foot building with a 112-person capacity, including 20 swiveling stools along a curved counter. Myers-Leiber Sign Co. fabricated the coffee shop’s inverted triangle neon sign, which did not rotate, contrary to local legend.

The coffee shops became a beacon to night owls as patrons flocked to enjoy its midcentury charm and comfort food. Some devotees cherished Helsing’s without ever stepping into the place. Teenagers cruising Central used its parking lot as the northern turnaround point; the Phoenix Public Library on McDowell Road served a similar function to the south.

Helsing’s Coffee Shop in Uptown Plaza. (Photo: Douglas C. Towne)

Helsing later opened two more coffee shops in Phoenix,  Downtown at Van Buren and Seventh Avenue’s southeast corner and the northwest corner of Central and Osborn Street. Local Chinese-American architect John Sing Tang designed the latter building.

By 1964, Helsing owned six coffee shops (including two in Tucson), three cafeterias, and seven food service outlets, which he and his partner sold that year to Davenport Enterprises for an undisclosed price. Helsing still retained his other restaurants, including the famed Neptune’s Table at Seventh Avenue and Camelback.

Helsing’s midcentury coffee shops in Phoenix have all been razed. The original Downtown Phoenix location would later be the site of Chase Tower, Arizona’s tallest building.