The past, present & future of Tooley’s Cafe

October 19, 2022
By Jake O'Rourke
By Jake O'Rourke

"We’re cookin’ food like you would get at a grandma’s house."

Tooley’s Cafe has had an established reputation for its shredded turkey tacos and burritos, shady patio, walk-up window, and fluffed-up chocolate chip cookies since it opened in 1989 under Ron Schwabe’s ownership. Now, with Ron’s wife Patricia Schwabe at the helm, Tooley’s has sights set on expansion.

The history

Ron grew up in Portland and established reality offices in the city’s warehouse district. After opening offices in Tucson’s north side, he decided to bring the business closer to downtown. In 1989, he purchased the building that would become both Peach Properties and Tooley’s Cafe. Tooley’s is the namesake for Ron’s college dog, Tooley.

At the time, the cafe only served out of the walk-up window found on the western facade facing Park Avenue. As Tooley’s business grew, the cafe took over the space that now seats about a baker’s dozen inside and the outdoor patio, capable of seating around 20 under the shifting shade of a large eucalyptus tree.

Ron felt that having a turkey-focused menu would bring new flavors to the burrito game. With so many restaurants dishing out pollo or carne asada burritos, Tooley’s mixed it up with juicy, shredded turkey which surfaces in various ways throughout the breakfast and lunch menu.

The struggle

While Tooley’s had found its home in the Lost Barrio, in 1996, internal feuds between staff led to Ron no longer wanting ownership of Tooley’s. The two employees were a couple, and after squabbling one day, they decided to take the keys to the cafe and post signs stating that Tooley’s was closed. All this was done without a word being said to ownership.

“If you have good staff, you’re doing fantastic,” said Patricia. “As soon as the staff flips or leaves, any restaurant can have big changes, and it can make a big impact.”

With his focus set on growing his realty business, Ron felt as though the insubordination of his employees imposed enough of a burden for him to want to shut down the cafe entirely.

“You can’t close it, people really love it,” Patricia pleaded to her husband as he contemplated the cafe’s permanent closure.

“If you can go get the keys from them it’s your restaurant,” Ron responded.

Patricia found herself at the front door of the former employees, and ultimately had the keys to the cafe thrown in her face.

“And that was my start,” said Patricia.

Patricia continued growing business in the cafe. After Ron moved his office downtown, the empty warehouse space adjoining Tooley’s was rented out over the years to various vendors and artisans like Bohemia, Mast, and other local, artistic tenants.

Although Patricia aimed to keep the business running, fires on Park Avenue and road construction directly in front of the cafe made access to the building more convoluted for customers as parking became extremely limited, and traversing the construction became increasingly strenuous.

After 20 years of investing herself in Tooley’s, Patricia was starting to see it as a losing battle. Through the opening of Penca in 2013, and after the tragic loss of her sister in 2016, Patricia was unable to put any more effort into the struggling cafe.

The building was shut down in 2016, and Patricia and Ron occasionally stopped in for routine maintenance on the space. Once the road construction on Park Avenue subsided, and access to the Lost Barrio seemed to get easier again, Patricia decided in October 2021 that it was time to open Tooley’s for business once again.

“Your heart has to be in the right place, and I didn’t have that emotion like ‘okay, I can focus, I can do it with joy, and I’m not going to be regretting it.’ I didn’t have that feeling until now,” said Patricia.

With new staff driven to support their boss, things began looking up for Tooley’s. Amity Fisher has worked as general manager of Tooley’s since the reopening.

“It feels like a fresh start for a lot of people,” said Fisher. “We’re all taking a chance to learn through the habits that we have grown to have throughout working in the food service industry. As well as really trying to give Patricia what her vision of Tooley’s now is because it’s so nostalgic for her.”

From the menu to the tablecloths, the present form of Tooley’s is a snapshot of the Tooley’s from the past. Aside from minor tweaks and additions like fresh salsas, corn cakes with jalapeño syrup, and pulled pork, the menu remains the same with breakfast and lunch options served all day.

“It wouldn’t be the same if I wanted to change the menu,” said Patricia. “It wouldn’t be Tooley’s.”

The future

While the history and tradition of the cafe remain, Patricia wanted to make something out of the empty warehouse space.

“The thought is to incorporate Tooley’s into some kind of nice, well-curated, and simple bar,” said Patricia. “More of an espresso bar with alcohol. People will have the opportunity to get a glass of wine, get a cocktail, get a beer and then utilize the space for more things.”

Patricia looked around the empty space, reflecting on her plans. The new space will feature plenty of seating and lounging area on both the bottom floor and upper loft. Reading and quiet areas will also be created.

Patricia hopes to see the empty warehouse turned into a thriving community space with art, film nights, poetry readings, live music, and drinks and food to boot. Drink options, though not finalized, will most likely consist of local beers, natural wines, ciders, and cocktails with fresh garden flavors, according to Patricia.

Although the cafe is open Tuesday-Sunday from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m., the new bar space will remain open later into the evening. With hours yet to be determined, Patricia indicated it would most likely be closing around 9 p.m.

A smaller, appetizer-focused menu is being created to accommodate the later hours of operation. If all goes to plan, the expected opening for the new space will be in late October or early November.

Through changes in staff and ownership, through battles with construction, closure, and conflicting emotions, Tooley’s found a way to preserve and expand what has always been at the heart of the business, which according to Patricia, is providing honest chow for honest people.

“You don’t find a lot of places that feel like Tooley’s feels,” said Fisher. “We’re cookin’ food like you would get at a grandma’s house.”

Tooley’s Cafe is located at 299 S. Park Ave. For more information, call (520) 372-2190 or follow Tooley’s Cafe on Facebook

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Article By

Jake O’Rourke is a Tucson native, writer, editor, and musician. He enjoys tasting his way through Tucson’s copious food and craft beer options, listening to live music, and writing about the experiences he has within these endeavors.

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