Wide Open Spaces

Patricia Schwabe on the future of Penca, putting Tooley’s on hold and developing downtown with food in mind

Patricia Schwabe freely admits that she never expected to go into the restaurant industry. Although her mother was an excellent cook with a great palate, Schwabe was working on getting her real estate license when her husband broke some news to her: He was going to close his restaurant, Tooley's Cafe (299 S. Park Ave.).

For Schwabe, losing this part of Tucson's culinary scene and her daily life was out of the question.

"He handed me the keys and said, 'You have the keys, it's yours if you want it,'" Schwabe says, and there it was.

Through the birth of her children and a few staff change-ups, Tooley's operated as Patricia's part-time office—the place she penned some of her first real estate deals after getting her license. The women who worked there would sometimes watch her young children, and, without them, she says she doesn't see how she could have done everything that she did.

Tooley's was a breakfast café, sure, but it had become a part of Patricia's family in many ways too. That's why, when asked about the current state of her first foray in the restaurant world, Schwabe's typically chatty style turns more quiet and introspective.

"I'm going to blame myself," Schwabe says in an impressive show of accountability for anyone, especially a restaurateur. "When Penca opened, I lost focus ... I haven't had the energy to go back and open it."

Through the death of her sister and the loss of a "really great manager," Schwabe's little well-loved café faded into the background, though running it 19 of the 27 years it was open is no small task. However, amid protests from her children, she assures that it isn't a closure per se, just a hiatus—something that happened 13 years ago for Tooley's after Schwabe's daughter was born prematurely.

"Tooley's takes breaks like we all have to take breaks," Schwabe says. "'You need to focus on one thing and do it well.' That's what my husband tells me."

While Tooley's might be taking a break, Schwabe herself certainly isn't.

When it comes to food, Penca (50 E. Broadway Blvd.) has Schwabe's full attention. Recently, she hired an Austin-by-way-of-Nogales chef, Marialine Bennen, to institute changes to the restaurant's current offerings.

"We needed to have somebody who could really run a professional kitchen," she says. "We wanted to maintain the flavors we have, while elevating the menu."

To do that, Schwabe says Bennan is looking to increase Penca's local sourcing, while also changing up the menu twice per year, if not seasonally. That creativity and ability to take the reins is what Schwabe thinks attracted Bennan to Penca over other Tucson eateries.

"It's almost like a mom and pop shop because I am still very hands on," Schwabe says. "I think she found it more challenging and interesting ... and it's great to work with another woman."

"You could say Austin and Portland are at the same caliber, and I think she sees Tucson going the way of Austin," Schwabe adds.

Penca celebrated its third year open on March 1, and the restaurant marked the occasion with live music, drink specials and more.

"It might not seem like a big thing, but it was meaningful for us," she says.

While Penca has Schwabe's attention, as a real estate developer (her and her husband Ron run Peach Properties), she's got her hands on many other upcoming Tucson dining spaces.

While she says her husband is separately handling the development and planning for the new Ronstadt Center, she knows he's interested in creating a pedestrian street with a permanent food hall-style farmers market with local produce vendors and grab-and-go eats in the Arizona Avenue alleyway between Congress and Toole.

"In order to make areas more vibrant, you need food and coffee and other things," she says. "I know he knows that."

Under her own watchful eye, the Benjamin Plumbing Supply building (440 N. Seventh Ave.) will become a multi-use space with a Sand-Reckoner Vineyards (Willcox) tasting room opening by May. She says she also left a space open for another restaurant in the building, but there has been some hesitation because of the impending Aviation Highway construction in the area.

"When I opened Penca on that first day, I had a chain fence right up against my window. People had to enter either on Scott or Stone to get into Penca," Schwabe says. "Sometimes you just have to be brave and open up."

Among her other spaces, she sees mostly retail going into the old Chicago Store building (130 E. Congress St.) and an old La Buena restaurant space off South Fourth Avenue and 22nd Street that she sees as a multi-use restaurant space for "someone adventurous."

If you're noticing a trend right now, you aren't imagining things. Schwabe has a penchant for developing spaces with multiple tenants that provide different services.

"I think [multi-use buildings] work well almost anywhere. It's nicer to have spaces with big windows so when people walk they can see in and there are spaces with activity," she says. "I would rather see the mix."

One of her most ambitious projects seeks to offer a space for Barrio Viejo and Armory Park residents to go, while also catering to the Arizona Theatre Company and symphony crowds. While she says it's early to talk about, the old Brings Funeral building is already being restored and updated to house that project, which she plans to include food and beverage offerings.

Overall, Schwabe operates with a "there's room for everyone" mentality, citing the building of two separate apartment and condo buildings going in downtown.

"We're growing. In a year from now, we're going to have more families and young professionals. So we need to make downtown more livable and walkable now," she says. "We need more smart development of restaurants."