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Tutor and Spunky’s Deli owner Tom Blake has retired, sold the business and looks forward to traveling the world
By Andrea Swayne
In every town there are places where locals gather and by the third visit are considered a regular. There are cafés, coffee shops, watering holes—and in southern California even surf breaks—where people meet to shoot the breeze, reminisce and simply enjoy each other’s company. In Dana Point, one of these places is the lunch time favorite, Tutor and Spunky’s Deli.
After 26 years, Tom Blake—the man who started it all and is just as much of a fixture in town as his restaurant—is retiring and has sold his beloved deli to travel with his life partner of over 16 years, Greta Cohn.
The deli officially changed hands on Jan. 30 and Blake has since remained on the job, training the new owners and working through what has seemed an impossibly long goodbye, to his restaurant and his employees—some of whom have been there since the start.
Twenty-seven years ago, while working in the corporate world as a national sales manager selling point-of-sale cash register systems to restaurant chains, Blake moved to Laguna Niguel and the idea of going into business for himself began to take shape.
“I wasn’t able to enjoy living in southern Orange County as much as I had hoped to because I was traveling nearly every week,” Blake said. “Since I had been in the restaurant industry for eight years working for a restaurant chain called Victoria Station, I thought that maybe I had enough restaurant knowledge to open a coffee shop or deli.”
In 1988, after noticing a storefront for rent at Pacific Coast Highway and Amber Lantern, across from Ruben’s Imports and next to a donut shop, Blake decided to make his move.
“I called the listing agent, Robert Prophet,” he said. “We met and I signed a five-year lease without knowing if I could even get a permit from the County of Orange to put a deli there.”
As opening day neared, Blake realized he was going to need some help and fate answered his call.
“A woman named Teresa Gonzalez, who was working at the nearby Taco Bell stopped by and said, ‘Do you need any help?’ I hired her on the spot,” Blake said.
Tutor and Spunky’s—Spunky was the nickname Blake had given his then-wife for her personality, and Tutor, her nickname for him because of the help he gave her boys with their homework—opened on Dec. 22, 1988.
The business grew quickly and three months later, he asked Gonzalez if she knew of anyone else who needed a job and would make a good third member of the team. Gonzalez recommended Rosalinda Ceballos (Rosa), and then there were three.
The deli continued to thrive at that location for 17 years until 2006 when the city began making plans to revitalize the Town Center area.
The landlord, believing in the potential for a huge profit from future investors, would not renew his lease, Blake said, and the deli would either have to relocate or close its doors.
Greta Cohn—the woman who entered Blake’s life on June 24, 1998, when she came into the deli and ordered a carrot juice and he asked her out, thus beginning a long-term relationship still going strong today—found the deli’s current space for rent in 2006 in the Blue Lantern Plaza, about 400 yards away. A year later he expanded, renting the adjacent space.
Through the Years
Blake says the thing he is most proud of is not all the awards, or the estimated four to five million sandwiches made in the deli over the years—although both of these are great—it’s the human relationships forged within its walls.
“Over 26 years we have employed nearly 300 people in our time and that is what I am most proud of,” Blake said. “We’ve had wonderful young people come to work for us, many from Dana Hills High School, spend a year or more, mature, grow up and move on with their lives. Every week, at least one or two former employees come back to say hello.”
Those who have worked for him are considered family, Blake said, especially Gonzalez and Ceballos, who have been with him since the start. The two even became U.S. citizens with his support.
“We never expected to become citizens,” Gonzalez said. “He helped us with the paperwork and sponsored us. I owe him a lot. He gave me the first opportunity for a job here when I couldn’t even speak English.”
Gonzalez recalled how Blake helped her learn the language as well, writing notes to help her learn the names of all the kinds of bread, meat, cheese and vegetables. She also said she is thankful for other support he’s lent in the past, such as helping the single mother out when her children were small and she found herself in need of extra money for rent.
“I am so happy for him, because 26 years, it’s a hard job running this deli. He had to make sure everyone got paid. In the beginning, sometimes he would take money from his pocket to pay us,” she said. “He built this deli on his shoulders, working really hard and has given so many kids the opportunity to learn how to work. I wish him the best, as always. I consider him a friend, my boss, my family.”
Blake was brought to tears as he listened to her and looked around at the business he’d built, the people he employed and the customers enjoying their lunches, many of whom only have to order “the usual” when they visit.
“That’s tough, but in a good way,” he said, wiping away a tear. “Just as you focus on leaving, you think about these things but kind of brush them aside a bit. But when I stop and really look at the human aspect of what I have here, that’s what I have to be most thankful for.”
Aside from being known as the gregarious owner of the award-winning deli—the shop has taken Best Sandwich honors in the Dana Point Times Best of Dana Point People’s Choice Lantern Awards for the last six years in a row—Blake has also become one of the city’s most well-known residents, as an authority on dating in middle age and beyond. He is the author of four books—three based on his column on middle-aged dating and the other a memoir of his time with the Victoria Station restaurant chain where he hired and became good friends with Johnny Cash—and has published a column, “On Life and Love After 50,” in local newspapers, the last four years for the DP Times.
Making the Decision
Blake said he had been seriously pondering retirement over the past five years but that he kept putting it off for “one more year,” until a trip to Palm Springs with Cohn in January 2014 when he decided it was finally time to move on. On March 21, 2014 he set the wheels in motion. By June he had hired local business broker Bob Baumgarten to handle the sale.
“I felt the only way to make a full break was to sell,” Blake said. “I didn’t want to be tied to the deli because if so, I wouldn’t be free to pursue the dreams that Greta (Cohn) and I have been planning for years. We love to travel and I don’t want to be in Austria or somewhere and have to worry about the business.”
Blake said his main concern was finding new owners who would treat the employees well and not make major changes to the deli. On Aug. 20, an agreement to sell was reached with the new owner, Jim Mouzakis, and the five-month escrow began.
“Letting go is very difficult. The employees are family to me. The customers are dear friends,” he said. “But, I know that it’s time. Your body tells you, your mind tells you. You want to go out on your own terms, standing upright, a bit proud, and not on someone else’s terms.”
Blake says he wants to do three things in retirement: travel, write books and columns and go stand-up paddling in the Harbor, four days a week.
“I’ve been doing it (SUP) since October and find it exhilarating,” he said. “It’s good exercise and it’s good for the head—looking up at the cliffs, seeing seabirds diving, sea lions swimming, oh, and the women going by in bikinis.” (He chuckled and winked.)
“When I handed over the keys to Jim (Mouzakis), the hauntingly beautiful song by Waylon Jennings, ‘Dreaming My Dreams’ entered my mind,” Blake said. “It goes like this: ‘Someday I’ll get over you. I’ll live to see it all through. But I’ll always miss, dreaming my dreams with you.’
“I have been fortunate to live the American dream, to have a Cheers-type sandwich shop in the most beautiful place to live in the world. Bless my employees; bless Tutor and Spunky’s and thank you Dana Point and all of its wonderful residents. It’s been a great ride.”