Bob Tusquellas, owner of Tusquellas Seafoods (opened 1966), Bob’s Coffee and Doughnuts (opened 1970) and Tusquellas Fish & Oyster Bar (opened 1982) practically grew up at The Original Farmers Market. He began working at The Market when he was 11, at his father’s store, Tusquellas Meat Market. After getting his MBA at Berkeley, he stunned his professors when he and his wife, Kathy, returned to LA to open a fish store.
He and Kathy met at church when they were in high school. They went through college at Berkeley, and have been married 48 years. They have worked together to grow all three of their Market stores and raised two daughters, one of whom owns and operates her own restaurant, the other is a successful psychologist. Kathy and Bob have two granddaughters. They still meet and talk with each other every day about new recipes, new merchandising ideas or they golf and play bridge together.
One of Kathy’s very special and most popular dishes is her famous tuna fish salad, sold at the seafood market, and her delicious coffee cake, sold at Bob’s Doughnuts. Other than Kathy’s coffee cake, Bob’s favorite doughnut is the raised glazed.
We recently chatted with Bob about his life and work at The Market.
We opened the fish market in 1966. I had been recruited out of Cal Berkeley to work for Ford Motor Company. Kathy and I were heading for Dearborn, Michigan when, at the last possible minute, I got a call from my Dad saying a store had come up for sale at The Farmers Market. Kathy and I jumped at the chance to own the store. Businesses at The Market didn’t open up very often. The Market was so much smaller and businesses just didn’t turn over. So that’s how I got the first store.
I had always wanted to own a store at The Market and be like my Dad. He first opened his butcher shop, Tusquellas Meats, in 1949. He hadn’t planned on being in the meat business. When he was in his 20s, he had worked for Tom May, Jr., at the May Company, he and Tom were very close friends. Tom wanted to expand the May Company at that time and he wanted my Dad, who worked in merchandising, to be part of that. But Tom was killed in an airplane accident and my Dad knew Tom’s plans weren’t going to happen.
Dad didn’t even have a high school diploma but he was the best merchandiser I ever knew. He had to leave school during the Great Depression, when he was very young, because he was the sole support for his family. So he didn’t get much of a formal education, but he was very smart. He eventually got work at a meat packing company and then opened his own butcher shop before coming to The Market.
I started working in the butcher shop, slicing bacon. I loved it, I loved being there with my Dad, I would’ve done anything to be with him. I had two sisters, one of them has since passed away, but I was the only son. In those days, you didn’t see women working in a meat market, in fact there aren’t many working in the business even today. So that’s why my sisters weren’t there and I think he just wanted to share this with me.
After I graduated from bacon slicing, I did the jobs no one else wanted to do. I was the low boy on the totem pole. I went into what they call offal case. That’s where the brains, tripe, oxtails, liver, sweet breads and odd stuff go. Then I graduated from that into breaking lambs, I started on the hind quarters. It was hard physical work, but I loved it. I did this every Saturday when I was at Loyola High School. The Market was closed on Sundays back then.
I hadn’t thought of coming back to work for my Dad, when you’re in business, there’s only one owner. He had one business, I liked working with him, but that was his business. When he called me that day about the seafood market, even though we were headed for Michigan, it took about a minute to switch plans and head back to LA and start the seafood business. Once I was here, he never came into my store. I’d go to his, but he wouldn’t come to mine. He strongly believed, and I now do as well, that you have to learn from your mistakes. When you make your own mistakes, you don’t make them twice. If someone else tells you what to do, you can blame them when you make a mistake, you don’t own it.
That’s true even for the people who work for you, when what they’re doing is obviously wrong, you have to let them figure it out. Don’t criticize them, they’ll feel bad enough as it is.
I bought the seafood store from the previous owner, but he didn’t train me, his staff did. I didn’t know anything about fish, nothing at all. I was excited about learning and doing this, it was the best time. And it still is. Because whether it’s fish, chicken or food, it’s the same. But the waiting on customers that I knew because I’d been doing it since I was 11. What I didn’t know was the product, but I was comfortable with it in about a year.
When we went into the doughnut shop, we didn’t hesitate about buying it. It took Kathy and I a week to figure out that it would be a good business. I knew nothing about doughnuts, I didn’t know how to make one and it’s very complicated. It’s like making bread. That’s the most difficult cooking challenge. Making cookies, a pie, a cake, that’s easy. Anything with yeast is difficult. When you use yeast, you have to know the ambient temperature, what the formula is, you have to change the temperature and amount of the water, it all matters when you’re dealing with yeast. No one taught me, I learned it the hard way, trial and error, because I couldn’t train with the previous owner, he had died.
Making doughnuts is definitely a craft, an art. It’s like being a chef. Being a baker is more artistic, it’s like painting, it’s different every day. A doughnut is never made in the same way every day because of all these variables. The feel of the flour. Flour is supposed to be milled the same, but when you touch it or roll it, it doesn’t feel the same. Bakers’ hands are very sensitive to the temperature and to touch, they can tell by the way it feels what they have to do to make it all work.
The raised glaze is my favorite although the buttermilk cake is also very good. We’re going to be making buttermilk cake doughnut holes with powdered sugar. At least we’re thinking about it, we’re still not sure how the powdered sugar will work. The doughnut hole is actually harder to make than the doughnut. It’s smaller, one third the size of a cake doughnut, yet it’s still more work.
We expand the baking staff to fill the demand on weekends. It’s a very small space but my staff makes it all work. It does require a special kind of person to work in front of the public all day without ever letting down. Those who can’t deal with that kind of pressure, they simply don’t last. I hired a young woman once, she lasted two days and went out to lunch and never came back. She didn’t even come back for her check, that’s how much she didn’t want to be here. Retail is tough.
The Market is my life, it’s meant everything to be here. The biggest reason I’m here is my Dad. And to be here as a man of 71 in the same place where I grew up is remarkable. This is my family.
What I love most about The Market is that it makes me happy, it’s that simple. My life is very simple and uncomplicated, same wife, same house, same job all my life. When I went to my 50th high school reunion, some of my high school friends have had three or more careers. My life is so much simpler, it’s good for me. Because food and family is what life is all about – they’re involved together, so it works.