Echo inducts Elle Murtagh into Hall of Fame

By Ashley Naftule, November 2018 issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2018 here.

Elle Murtagh has worn many hats throughout her life: musician, business owner, activist, chef, husband, and father. But the latest hat she’s wearing might be the most comfortable fit yet: Being openly queer. “I’ve got this weight off me,” the soft-spoken Murtagh says over the phone. “I can be who I am.”

As one of the founders and owners of The Coronado and Dark Hall Coffee, Elle Murtagh (along with her wife and business partner Emily Spetrino) has been an active figure in the Valley’s cultural and culinary communities. Indeed, Elle and Emily are the rarest of creatures, a local power couple that goes the distance.

Along with their sons Iggy and Geno, the ubiquitous Spetrino-Murtagh clan is prime candidates for being crowned D.I.Y. Phoenix’s First Family (or a ska-friendly Brady Bunch). You couldn’t go to a Trunk Space show at the old Grand Avenue location without bumping into the pair and their brood, either offstage or on: Murtagh fronted ska group Liam and the Ladies, and was in The Dietrichs, while Spetrino played in outfits like Father’s Day and did performance art with Ryan Avery as The Best Friends.

While Elle made her presence felt in the Valley by skankin’ it up as a ska musician, she really made her presence felt with her skills in the kitchen. She cooked up creative and delicious weekly brunches at Jobot. Spetrino and Murtagh tried their hand at running local businesses when they weren’t cooking elsewhere. They owned and operated a candy shop/record store called Sweets & Beats on Grand Avenue and later opened Bragg’s Factory Diner. While both businesses would close, it didn’t deter them from continuing to make their mark on the Valley’s scene. After years of hustling, they finally dropped the needle on their perfect groove: vegan eatery The Coronado.

“This time our attitude was ‘”Fuck it, let’s not hold back, let’s do everything we can,” Murtagh says about their approach to opening The Coronado. Taking a page from their years in bands, they would send out their employees to flyer the neighborhood on slow days. The grassroots networking ethos of punk rock translated well to running a community restaurant. The Coronado quickly built up a following, thanks to the combination of tasty vegan food, coffee, and the restaurant’s events programming. In addition to offering eats, they also offered monthly treats like a Simpsons trivia event and their still-running storytelling showcase Vinyl Voices.

Murtagh and Spetrino’s shared passion for politics also helped The Coronado stand out as a “sanctuary restaurant,” a place that was open to supporting and signal-boosting sympathetic causes. Whether it’s denouncing Arpaio and Trump, partnering with the Satanic Temple to collect menstruation products, or in their role as a vocally progressive queer-friendly space, The Coronado has gotten its share of flak from angry conservative Yelpers and counter-protesters. “There have certainly been days where we’ve had to unplug the phone to keep people from calling,” Murtagh says with a sigh. “The stuff that people are willing to say when they don’t have to look you in the face—It’s amazing.”

Elle and Emily have recently expanded their operations by opening a new business: Dark Hall Coffee. And even while dealing with the strain of running two businesses and raising kids, Murtagh has still found time to focus on finding herself. After a lifetime of publicly identifying as a male, Murtagh has embraced a queer identity.

“I had a pretty religious upbringing, so I had all this internalized guilty…and so, then I take on this masculine husband role, and we had Iggy so now I’m a dad. I felt obligated to fulfill this masculine role. It just led to a lot of depression and anxiety.”

Since Murtagh’s come out, she’s adopted a more androgynous appearance and has felt more comfortable in her own skin. “The world is much easier to deal with, especially with my wife who loves and supports me,” Murtagh says. “She’s allowing me to explore what my identity is and who I am with an open mind.”

Echo: What inspired you all to open Dark Hall?

Murtagh: The Coronado is a tiny spot; it was out of necessity. Jen Porter was baking in the hallway and cutting through the kitchen to use the oven. People would ask us to do vegan birthday cakes and other shops would ask us if they could carry our pastries and we’d have to say no. So, there was a demand for it, on top of the functionality of working in a new location. And we were thinking, “What goes well with pastries? Coffee.”

We wanted to make sure it had its own distinct identity. If you’re gonna put that much work into something, you gotta do it full force. We decided to really focus on the pastries and on the craft of coffee, to really focus on what vegan coffee could be in Phoenix. We even do all the nut-milks in-house.

And it’s funny, the goth vibe was accidental. Everything we picked, it was, “Ooh, this looks good, this looks good.” It all ended up being black and goth-y. So, I guess that’s who we are now (laughs). We were like, “It’s so pretty in here” but as soon as we opened our doors and let people in they were like, “This place is so gothic!”

Echo: The Coronado has been outspoken and vocal about your political beliefs. Have you felt any blowback because of your activism?

Murtagh: We’ve definitely gotten some flak for being a progressive space, a progressive queer space inside Arizona. We’ve had some protesters show up at the restaurant, we’ve gotten hateful emails, there have certainly been days where we’ve had to unplug the phone to keep people from calling. The stuff that people are willing to say when they don’t have to look you in the face – it’s amazing.

Echo: What are you most proud of?

Murtagh: Being able to give back to the community. To be fortunate to have a restaurant where we can do everything our way and still make it work, as well as being able to reinvest into the community – that’s fucking wild. We’ve all worked a lot of restaurant jobs, so we’re trying to create the job we wish we had. A job that would be supportive if you needed a week off to go on tour, a job that helps enable the creativity of other folks.

Echo: Do you still cook on a regular basis at the restaurant?

Murtagh: Every single weekend, I do a different brunch. I think I’ve repeated a brunch five times total over the last few years. Part of that is just so I can challenge myself.  It slowed down a bit when we were opening Dark Hall because I was running back and forth and going to the City to get permits. But now it’s chilled out a bit and I’m cooking four to five days a week.

Echo: Are you still working as a musician?

Murtagh: I haven’t been doing much band stuff in a while, but I do DJ. And I DJ every month as part of our Vinyl Voices series.

Echo: Pivoting away from the restaurant: What spurred you to come out as queer?

Murtagh: When Emily and I were dating, I had told her I was gay. That was about fifteen years ago; I was 19 or so at the time. As soon as I said it to her, I thought ‘that’s not it’. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time.  I didn’t know how to handle it. That was a weird thing for a while in our relationship, but then we got married. So, then I take on this masculine husband role, and we had Iggy, so now I’m a dad. I felt obligated to fulfill this masculine role. It just led, to a lot of depression and anxiety.

We had a tough decade. We were on the brink of bankruptcy, had lots of family drama – it was easy to deflect that depression onto situational things, to blame it on the bad things going on in our lives. But then things started to mellow out over the last year- we moved to a nicer house, we were able to pay ourselves regularly which we hadn’t done for quite a while – so a lot of the factors I used to blame no longer existed. The depression was still there.

Emily and I went to the mall one day. I bought a shirt that was a man’s shirt but much more effeminate than what I would usually wear. I bought an androgynous shirt (if that’s a thing) and Em was like, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought you’d buy a shirt like that.” And I was like “Oh, yeah, I don’t know – I was thinking of dressing more androgynous.” Later on, we were doing laundry and she looked over at me and said, “Oh my god, are you trans?” We had friends coming over, so we put that aside. But when we were getting into bed afterward, she said, “You didn’t say no,” and I was like, “Yeah, I didn’t…” That was the beginning of it all.

Now I’ve got this weight off of me. I can be who I am. The world is much easier to deal with. Especially with my wife, who loves and supports me. She’s allowing me to explore what my identity is and who I am with an open mind.

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