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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Not long ago on a grayish day in a one-block-long town in California, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg studied the menu at a family restaurant and smelled a story.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Duarte's Tavern, where friends meet since 1894.

MONTAGNE: It was 115 years ago that a young couple from Portugal settled in Pescadero. That's a small town near the Pacific Coast, 45 miles south of San Francisco. The tavern they ran is still going strong. And as part of MORNING EDITION's occasional series, The Family Business, Mrs. Stamberg has the story of one business and four generations.

Mr. RON DUARTE (Owner, Duarte's Tavern): Hello, Dave.

DAVE: Morning.

Mr. DUARTE: Okay, you got anything else besides the crab? You got a boat out?

STAMBERG: Early each day, Ron Duarte phones his suppliers to ask what's fresh. Seventy-eight years old with a workman's face and faded jeans, Ron learned the art of ordering from his parents and grandparents.

Mr. DUARTE: Okay, then I'll see you in a little bit.

STAMBERG: In 1894, Ron Duarte's grandfather paid $12 in gold for this piece of Pescadero, a corner lot with a tavern on it and a handsome carved dark wooden bar.

Mr. DUARTE: You've got a barrel of whiskey from Santa Cruz. It used to be 10 cents a shot or three shots for two bits, and they'd set the barrel of whiskey here in the bar and people would bring their bottle in and fill it up, away you go.

STAMBERG: Three shots for a quarter can make you cheerful, but not rich. So Ron Duarte's grandfather and father were barbers too.

Mr. DUARTE: Thank God I missed the barber part.

STAMBERG: Well, you lost a little hair.

Mr. DUARTE: Oh, none of us had much hair. You know, you can't have hair and brains both, you know.

STAMBERG: By the time Ron came along, Duarte's Tavern was offering some food as well as whiskey. Shaves and haircuts went off the menu. And in the middle of what then was artichoke country, Ron made artichoke soup and artichoke omelets, the Crab Cioppino; $29 fish stew was a winner, the secret weapon human. The pies were to die. In 2003, Duarte's got the James Beard American Classic Award honoring family-owned restaurants.

Mr. TIM DUARTE (Manager, Duarte's Tavern): Hey Dad, when you get here…

STAMBERG: That's generation number four. Ron's son arrives almost as early as father. Well, to be fair, Dad lives right upstairs above the restaurant. The son has a commute.

Mr. TIM DUARTE: My name is Tim Duarte.

STAMBERG: Are you the owner of this restaurant?

Mr. TIM DUARTE: I'm only the owner until my dad comes around, then I'm the owner's son.

STAMBERG: In fact, Tim runs the daily operation. He's got a clipboard, a pen…

Mr. TIM DUARTE: Then I write down the fresh fish that we have, what our daily specials are going to be…

STAMBERG: Tim Duarte and his sister Kathy grew up over the soup pot. Tim's 49, Kathy's 46. She runs the office. Kathy has vivid memories of her father's mother, so generation number two, Emma Duarte.

Ms. KATHY DUARTE: She waited on tables until she was 76. She passed away when she was 77.

STAMBERG: But Grandma Emma was not just a waitress. Emma Duarte ruled the roost. She began baking pies in 1934, baked them every morning, and then waited tables all day, and closed the place at night. Emma took one day a week off to get her hair done in Santa Cruz. There's a framed black and white photo of her on a wall behind the counter.

Ms. DUARTE: She's holding a pie and a pen, and you can kind of see that she's smiling, but it's like a forced smile. She's probably a little bit irritated that they pulled her off the floor to hold a pie out in the back for the photo.

STAMBERG: And she's wearing her uniform, is she?

Ms. DUARTE: She's wearing the classic polyester uniform with an apron over the top. She's got the pockets there and I just always remember every step she took, there was coins jingling in the pockets inside. You know, on a busy weekend it got really full. It's like loading your whole apron down.

STAMBERG: Emma's granddaughter Kathy dresses smartly every day; sets the right tone, she says. Kathy has computerized the family business and is marketing Emma's famous pies, frozen for shipping. But she can't sell Emma's famous blue cheese salad dressing because Emma had her secrets.

Ms. DUARTE: She goes, yeah, there's a secret ingredient in it. And I go, well, what is it? And she goes, well, I'm not going to tell you. Well, how'd you come about with this secret ingredient? She goes, well, I made a mistake one day and it tasted so good that I just kept it in there.

STAMBERG: But even her own grandchild she wouldn't tell?

Ms. DUARTE: Yeah, probably thought she was going to live forever and didn't pass it on.

Unidentified Woman: Are you the party of eight?

STAMBERG: Kathy still misses that taste, but her customers, attacking platters of sea bass, oysters, and vegetables from Ron's garden, seem perfectly happy. Duarte's, with its paneled walls and no-nonsense wooden tables, has a homey buzz. It's looked like this for years, by the way. When the front door was moved ten feet to widen the entry way, some loyal customers were furious. They have been coming from all over for ages and wanted nothing to change.

Ms. DUARTE: You know, we're 45 minutes away from Silicon Valley, where things just change so quickly, and I think they do like that comfort.

STAMBERG: Thirteen thousand people a month come to Duarte's for comfort, or a slice of a lollyberry pie, it's like bittersweet blueberry but better. Some farmers show up every morning for coffee and conversation. It's a kind of third place where locals like to gather.

Ms. PATTY SARABIA: This is home. This is where I've been coming for a long time, my family, my grandfather.

STAMBERG: Patty Sarabia has lived in Pescadero all her life.

Ms. SARABIA: My brothers and I and my three sons have all spent our 21st birthdays here having our first legal drink.

STAMBERG: And what was it?

Ms. SARABIA: A screwdriver. I can remember that and that was a lot of years ago.

STAMBERG: For 115 years, in the hands of four generations, Duarte's Tavern has been a tradition. Business is good. They serve some 700 meals a day on weekends. But what about the future? Will a fifth generation of Duarte's take over? Well, Kathy's son is a real foody, but…

Ms. DUARTE: It's a very difficult business to be in. There's got to be an easier way to make a living.

STAMBERG: The Duarte kids, generation five, stopped by after school. They have never worked here, and get teased about it.

Unidentified Person: Grandpa will ask us when we're going to start working here.

Unidentified Male #1: He's always on my case about that.

STAMBERG: And what's the answer?

Unidentified Male #2: Not for a long time.

Mr. RON DUARTE: Yeah, you know when to take off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: All right. Thanks for coming today and I hope you enjoy your lollyberry pie.

Check paid, carry-out pie in hand, time to move on. For everyone, that is, but the Duarte family. They have fish to stew.

Mr. RON DUARTE: All right. Put 'er there, nice live crab.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

I guess it's fresh, huh?

Mr. RON DUARTE: Yup. Yeah, it is.

STAMBERG: And he's in his countdown period, may we say, when he doesn't have too much longer to be that nasty.

Mr. RON DUART: They're nobody to fool with.

STAMBERT: Okay, you can't smell the Crab Cioppino, but the recipe is at NPR.org. And there are photos of Duarte's through the ages.

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