Tommaso’s: Growing Up in a Restaurant

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“I was born and raised into it,” Margi Ochoa says of her family’s Italian restaurant. “If I wasn’t at school, I was at the restaurant.” In 1973, the former owner sold Tommaso’s to Margi’s grandparents. The restaurant has been run by her family ever since — first by her grandparents, then her mother and uncle, and now members of the third generation.

Margi speaks in an organized manner, rarely backtracking, one sentence after another at a pace slow enough to write down every word she says. I get the sense that her restaurant is as organized as the way she speaks.

“My mom brought me there when I was seven days old,” Margi’s mother has told her. “She went straight back to work because she was bored.” The restaurant became her daycare. When Margi got older, she would help clean string beans. By 11 she was making many of the desserts, and as a teenager, Margi became a waitress.

Four years out of college, Margi is now the manager and helps with accounting. “I have always known that the restaurant was what I wanted to do in my life,” Margi says. “I like math.” she adds, and with a clear sense of what she wanted as her career, Margi picked an accounting major to develop skills for the restaurant.

Margi talks to customers dining at Tommaso’s

Family First

Margi comes from a tight-knit family of four older sisters and many cousins. “They’ve all worked here at some point,” she says, but Margi and one cousin — Giorgio Crotti — were the two from the third generation who decided to turn the restaurant into their career. Her sisters decided on other things — one became a software engineer, another a therapist, one doesn’t work anymore, and another works in government. “There was never a pressure to keep with the restaurant. Our parents only wanted us to do it if we wanted.”

A typical day in the restaurant for Margi and her family varies. Tuesdays are the big day to get stuff done. Some of their largest orders arrive and Margi works on taking inventory. The chefs get started on the week’s prep — making the marinara, filleting meat, and cutting vegetables. “We’re just running all day,” Margi explains.

After the prep work is done, all of the employees sit down and have lunch before the Tuesday crowd arrives. “Everyone who works at the restaurant, we feel like they are our family too,” says Margi. “Two years ago we had one of our bussers retire. He was here for 36 years.”

One of their pizza chefs has been at Tommaso’s for 30 years, the other 20. Although the pizza chefs aren’t related to Margi’s family, they are themselves uncle and nephew. Hiring is not something Margi’s family has to do often, but when they do they like to consult current employees for recommendations they can trust. Most of the employees at the restaurant were at Margi’s wedding last year.

“Family is so important to us,” Margi emphasizes. Her favorite part of working at Tommaso’s is helping other families create moments of togetherness, too. She loves knowing that, “Every week, for a lot of our customers, it’s their family meal.” In addition to serving families, Tommaso’s also has individual customers who are the sons and daughters, or grandsons and granddaughters, of patrons from decades ago.

Mondays the restaurant is closed. Although every day in the restaurant is a day with family, Monday is the dedicated family day. Everyone in Margi’s family drives to someone’s house, “hangs out, and takes a deep breath after a long week.” Of course, food is involved, too — except that during their private family feasts Margi’s family cooks Northern Italian food, which consists of lots of potatoes and cheese. It isn’t as popular with American diners, but they think it is delicious.

Margi comes from a large Italian family, pictured here outside of the restaurant

An Expert’s Opinion

If Margi was dining at Tommaso’s though, she knows exactly what she would have. “First, we make really good garlic bread, so you got to munch on that while looking at the menu.”

“I’d start with Caesar salad, and fresh-baked clams, which are baked in a wood fire oven. The next course would be lasagna.”

“The best way to do Tommaso’s is family-style,” she explains, “going with people you like, ordering a bunch of stuff, and sharing it, especially because portions are quite big and family-sized.”

Along with the lasagna, Margi would get the Fettuccine Tutto Mare, which has clams, scallops, prawns, and a spicy tomato sauce.

She’d also get the Chicken Parmigiana, a pizza to share — half cherry tomato and half Carbonara. “And when that’s all done,” she finishes, “tiramisu, creme brûlée, and espresso.”

“Oh, and wine the whole time,” she adds.

Confronting the Coronavirus

When COVID-19 hit, Tommaso’s did not close for a day. “We had a feeling it was going to happen for a while,” Margi admits. “There was no question we were going to stay open.” Tommaso’s was already on Caviar and Postmates, but when the pandemic hit they signed up for DoorDash as well. Tommaso’s kept its whole menu available. Although at the end of May they were doing only about 30% of their regular business, “We find ourselves lucky,” Margi says. “We’re still busy every night and have a job to go to.”

COVID-19 belongs to the category of things that Margi says make running a restaurant difficult — unpredictability. “A lot of us are type-A personalities. We have plan A, B, and C. That’s part of the reason we’ve done well over time — we are on our toes.

“Things can be unpredictable though,” she adds. “That’s the hardest part for me.” When a produce shipment does not come in as planned, Margi ends up at Trader Joe’s, filling a cart with 15 bags of string beans and five gallons of milk.

If there is anything that Margi has learned throughout her time at the restaurant, it’s something simple: Keep track of everything. “Every little thing, you need to keep track of: inventory, bills, expenses. Keep close track.”

When Margi learned accounting in college, it was mostly Excel. Margi’s mother, who does much of the accounting, likes the old school way though. “At the restaurant, we still do things the old-fashioned way using a general ledger that you write in. I appreciate it because you need to show your work and know what you’re doing for it to be correct.”

Besides perhaps switching to Excel at some point for the sake of efficiency, Margi says her goal in taking over operations is to keep things in the restaurant as they are. “Things change all the time in San Francisco,” she adds, noting that a building on a nearby corner has housed three different restaurants in the past two years. Tommaso’s has been open for 85, and she thinks it’s because of the consistency and high quality.

“I’m proud of the impact we’ve had in our community. I’m proud of having regular customers and our history. It came through hard work. I am so proud to be from the family I am from — very, very lucky. It’s tough at the moment but we’re in it together and going to keep trucking.”

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