Love: It’s What’s For Dinner

From Bentley’s to La Cocina, Jo Schneider has been nurturing a cared-for community in Tucson for more than 30 years.

May 9, 2015

FeaturesIssue 12: May/June 2015

Jo Schneider does not sleep much. At La Cocina, the restaurant she owns in the El Presidio Historic District of downtown Tucson, she is everywhere. She wears her graying hair smartly cropped. She’s effusive with praise for her employees. She somehow manages to look both amused and deadly serious at the same time. When she is hungry, she asks for smaller versions of menu items—a tiny GLBT on a ciabatta roll, a Mediterranean salad in a small white cup. Schneider is funny, emphatic, occasionally self-deprecating, with big, clear, blue eyes. In the summer, when temperatures climb past 100 degrees, she doesn’t turn on the air conditioning in her office out of solidarity for her servers. She works seven days a week, often up to 14 hours a day. She has never worked in someone else’s restaurant—with the exception of half a day at Burger King, which she loves to talk about with a smirk: “I put on the uniform and then quit.” On Wednesdays during the school year, she runs a supper club for the children of her employees, feeding them, taking them to the park, launching dance parties to music videos. Around her neck, she wears a slender ball chain. It holds a small silver square, a pendant of Arizona with a heart in the downtown of Tucson.


La Cocina boasts live music almost every day of the week, including Sunday’s “funky brunch” with local musician Scott Kerr (pictured) and Mik Garrison.

Schneider is the owner and manager of La Cocina. She’s also the co-founder of 30-year-old Bentley’s House of Coffee & Tea, which she now owns with her sons. She credits the success of her businesses to the support of her community and an exceptional crew of employees. Her employees credit the success to her. “She’s probably the most caring person I’ve ever met,” says Jackie Lyle, who works with Schneider on a number of new La Cocina partnerships, including the recently acquired Art House Centro. “She’s like your boss, your mom, and a superhero wrapped into one. She’s community-oriented. There’s no one who works harder than her. And she doesn’t begrudge it. She doesn’t carry a chip on her shoulder. It’s the life she built.”

Today, it takes more than low prices and tasty food to keep people coming through a restaurant’s door. What’s scarce now is trust and meaning, places we become our best selves, where we feel folded into the connection of a tribe. Trust, meaning, connection—these values can’t be schemed or forced or sold, only cultivated honestly, person to person.

“She’s like your boss, your mom, and a superhero wrapped into one.”

The magic of La Cocina and Bentley’s isn’t so much the food and coffee—although they are good, too—so much as this connection, visible everywhere. The most radical act of a Schneider family business, it seems, is love.

In 1978, in Cleveland, Ohio, a 25-year-old Jo Schneider pulled a map onto her bed, closed her eyes, and put down her pointer finger. She was tired of winter. She was tired of moving her car for the snowplow, which she’d forgotten to do that morning, meaning it was now buried outside in a steely drift. She pledged to move wherever her finger landed. She opened her eyes: Casa Grande, Arizona.

She headed west on a scouting trip, and when she got to Tucson, she fell in love with it. Within the year, she’d moved. She worked for a camp, taught special education, and took a job in a state psychiatric hospital (“which is why I’m so good with people,” Schneider says). After three and a half years, she moved back to Cleveland to be closer to family, but the place had left its mark.

Schneider sits with her sons, Eli (left) and Ben Schneider (right), at Bentley’s, the place where it all began. Eli Scheider is now the coffee shop’s manager.

Schneider sits with her sons, Eli (left) and Ben Schneider (right), at Bentley’s, the place where it all began. Eli Scheider is now the coffee shop’s manager.

Not long after, she and then-partner Willow Bentley began scheming about opening a coffee shop in Tucson, San Diego, or North Carolina. These seemed to Schneider like places she could raise kids as an already-out lesbian. Since both Bentley and Schneider had lived in Tucson before—and Bentley still had family there—they felt like they’d have a leg up. Tucson won out.

The coffee shop wasn’t Schneider’s first business. In Cleveland, she’d opened a vintage clothing shop. The shop didn’t work out, she says, but the arrangement did. “I was not very good at retail,” Schneider says, “but I loved being my own boss.”

Schneider and Bentley based their coffee shop on a spot called Arabica where they hung out in Cleveland. “I was like, oh, this looks easy.” Schneider shakes her head. “Little did I know!”

On February 3, 1984, Bentley’s opened in its current location on Speedway, the first espresso bar of its kind in Tucson.

“We were going over a million names,” Bentley says. “Finally we just decided. I was a little hesitant about it because it seemed kind of weird to have it be my name. But we didn’t think it could be Schneider’s—that would be a deli.” She laughs, hard.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Schneider says. On the day Bentley’s opened, she ordered a hundred croissants from a local bakery called Ilsa’s. “In case a hundred people walked in and wanted croissants! Day one, like three people walked in, and no one ordered croissants.”

“We went into it blind, thinking—how hard can it be?” Bentley says. The answer, it turned out, was pretty hard. “We wound up working nonstop, pretty much 80-hour weeks until we hired our first employee,” Bentley says. “We were just always open. We probably should have closed at midnight, and eventually we did, but we were open at 3 in the morning for a lot of years. We would get the after-bar crowd.” She laughs. “What did we know? We were just staying open for the people.”

By the end of the first year, Bentley says, they had six employees. “Everyone told us we wouldn’t make it, but we did. It was pretty fun. It was exhausting and exhilarating.” Though the two began the coffee shop as romantic partners, they quickly transitioned to business partners only.

From the beginning, Bentley says, Schneider managed with love: “Constant attention to detail. Constant customer service, just loving what she’s doing, and wanting to always make it better, wanting to make it be more beautiful. Employees hung around forever until we made them leave. One guy worked at Bentley’s through his Ph.D., and when he graduated we had to say—come on! Time to go!”

In the early years, Bentley’s went through a number of incarnations. In 1988, the shop moved to the Geronimo Plaza on University. Just a year later, Bentley’s opened a second location downtown on Congress—but by April of 1991, when Schneider was pregnant with her youngest son, Eli, this second location closed, and the remaining shop moved back to its original site on Speedway, where it remains today.

These were hard times, both say. “More places were opening up. Business wasn’t as good,” says Bentley. “It couldn’t really support both of us.”

“We decided we couldn’t run it anymore. We were sick of it. I felt like I wasn’t making a difference,” Schneider says. In 1999, Bentley and Schneider made the difficult decision to put the coffee shop on the market, and secured a buyer. But with the new owners sitting across the table and the contract waiting, Schneider froze. “I thought, I can’t do this,” she said. “I can’t turn this thing over that we created and loved. This was our baby.” And by then, she couldn’t imagine doing anything else, either.

So she bought Bentley out.

There’s another story beginning here, with Schneider’s first foray into sole proprietorship. It’s the story of a woman growing vup; it is Schneider learning that she works best when she is in charge. She’s the first to say it, and repeats it regularly: “It’s me! I’m a terrible partner. I’ve accepted that about myself.”

“I work with 43 very hardworking human beings,” Schneider says now. “They’re amazing.” She pauses for a moment, tilts her head. “I used to try to make everyone happy. If there was somebody that worked with me that didn’t like the way I did something, I tried to change. And I realized after a million years that really the truth is—if somebody isn’t happy with what I’m doing, they have to go.”

Her restaurants work not just because of who’s involved, but because of who’s not. Acts of streamlining are what make her staff so functional. Those who are present are nurtured, cultivated, given space to grow and become. Those who do not fit are released to find where they do fit, where they will better connect.

Willow Bentley, it turns out, was an important part of that picture. After a hiatus, she returned to work with Schneider—but this time to do the books. Schneider thrived with control of the reins.

“I was raised with the idea that if you’re a boss you work harder than everyone else,” Schneider says. “You have to lead by example, otherwise it’s unfair. My talent is my community. My talent is knowing how to bring people together. I take this job personally. I think they would say I am neurotic, and that is true.” She looks over at the bar, and laughs.

The bar at La Cocina is colorful and casual, offering a changing array of local beers on tap.

The bar at La Cocina is colorful and casual, offering a changing array of local beers on tap.

“Make no mistake, she is the queen bee,” says Elizabeth Menke, who has worked the bar at La Cocina for four years. “She is in charge. This is her dream, her responsibility. The way she fosters us under her is remarkable.”

Back at Bentley’s in the aughts, the emergence of the Internet was changing everything for Schneider. It was the first coffee shop in the area to offer it to customers, and suddenly the Bentley’s “community that used to sit together and talk and share tables … became a study hall and an office.” Once people needed room for their laptops, “nobody was sharing anymore.”

Right about then, La Cocina appeared.

“Cocina sort of got placed on my lap. I wasn’t feeling happy, and I just wanted a new venture,” Schneider says. “The owners of La Cocina were getting older, and couldn’t keep up anymore. I started coming in every day in the afternoon, just sitting there, watching, paying attention. I wanted to do something else. I wanted to be outdoors. I wanted community. I wanted away from the computers. I wanted to do service again. I wanted to do music. I wanted to do all the things that brought us into the business.”

She bought the restaurant on Aug. 5, 2010, partnering with Lori Ryder, a former employee from Bentley’s. This time, it took just nine months for her to buy Ryder out. “We had different visions,” Schneider says. “But really, had it not been for Lori, I never would have done it. I was way too afraid to do it on my own. She gave me the courage. I’m deeply grateful.”

One of her first moves at La Cocina was to hire Allie Baron, who had been working as a manager at Hotel Congress. “The history is long,” Baron says. “My sister worked for her, my brother did. That was always my joke, that she finally sunk her claws into me too.”

Schneider, Ryder, and Baron set to work restoring the historic property, unfolding their new vision from a blank slate. But they needed help. Schneider reached out to her community, including many Bentley’s customers: “I needed somebody to show up, and just help me paint, and bring this place back to life. To trim the trees,” she says, and even five years later, her eyes shine. “A hundred and fifty people showed up. And I fed them and drank them and was humbled by the fact that they showed up.”

 Stop by La Cocina and you’ll probably see Jo Schneider, serving customers or busing tables.

Stop by La Cocina and you’ll probably see Jo Schneider, serving customers or busing tables.

These days, Bentley’s is experiencing something of a resurgence. When I arrive at 2:30 on a Tuesday, it’s quiet on the floor—most of the customers working on Macs, a few couples talking over mochas—but the line winds around the front of the counter. An auburn-haired man with a matching beard looks up cheerfully. “I’ll be right with you!” he says, nodding to the line. “In the meantime, would you like something to drink?”

This is Eli, Schneider’s youngest son, and the one everyone agrees has inherited her spirit. “He’s another little Jo,” Bentley says. “He’s really good.”

His mom’s style of business made a deep impression on Eli. He tries to know the names and orders of his regulars. He pays attention to when they come in and how long they stay. “What you need to run a successful business is love,” he says. “It’s not about you.”

He says his managerial style is deeply informed by her example, too. “When I was 16, I would get called in for an hour to do dishes,” he says. “I wanted more hours. Mom told me, ‘Once you start paying rent, I’ll give you more hours.’ [Now as a manager] when I see people ask for more hours … We need to make sure everyone’s o.k.”

“I’m super proud of Eli,” says his brother, Ben Schneider, who managed Bentley’s for several years after Jo Schneider moved on to La Cocina. He now works as a musician in town. “[Eli]’s 23, and he’s running a restaurant on his own. My heart’s not really in a coffee shop at this point, but his is. He’s totally enthralled by what he’s doing, and it makes me excited to see how the future will look.”

Though she is still officially a partner in Bentley’s with her sons, the complexity of La Cocina—two patios ringed by shops; an indoor bar; a European pub; lunch, dinner, and late night hours; an art gallery and market now under Schneider’s tutelage; and new partnerships in El Presidio—has Schneider’s plate full. “It’s a very hard place to run. We seat about 250 people. There’s a lot of juggling,” Schneider says.

“Everyone here wants to help,” says Lyle, Schneider’s “Jackie of all trades” at La Cocina. “If someone has an issue, needs to go out of town, there’s someone else in the lineup to say, ‘How can I help? What do you need?” It’s a part of Schneider’s managerial style: she is in charge, delegating, but within that there is incredible room for autonomy and development. And she has hired the right kind of people to take advantage of this atmosphere.

“She basically gave [former employee Churchill Brauninger] and Allie the bar program to build as they saw fit,” Menke says. “She nurtured it that way and just stays out of it. Autonomy is one of the great offerings for all of us, who are adults and have ideas and skills.” Under the tutelage of Menke, Brauninger, and Baron, the bar has been able to move into serving Arizona liquors, using fresher ingredients, taking risks. “Our cocktail menu is really a collaborative effort of our bar staff, and I think that absolutely speaks to what Jo has given us, the opportunity to build something we can stand behind and can believe in,” says Baron.

“Autonomy equals creative license, freedom to explore our own ideas and try certain things, trusting in us,” Menke agrees.

Menke and Brauninger are in the beginning stages of opening their own bar on the south side of downtown, which Schneider has invested in. “So in addition to keeping me safe and well-employed here, she understands when we need to move on and stretch our wings and follow our own dreams, and helps facilitate that. It’s such a gift. It’s so rare.”

The ethic of care is apparent even in the kitchen. “The kitchen here is run a lot different than the average kitchen,” says kitchen manager Christian Bidegain. “There’s a mutual respect with everyone here. It’s a team-oriented kitchen.”

There’s no executive chef. “I’ve fired 11 executive chefs,” says Schneider. “And it’s not their fault. It’s all my fault. Because really, I don’t want an executive chef. I really want a team. I respect so much the amazing chefs in this community. But it’s just not the kind of restaurant that I am. I’m more like a … tavern. With amazing space.”

Bidegain says he and his friends—mostly also kitchen workers—usually hang out at La Cocina when they get off work. They love the place, even after a long day. “[Schneider] is totally willing to get her hands dirty,” Bidegain says. “That’s rare in an owner, in my experience. When a person above you is willing to step up to the plate, it makes you want to work harder, too.”

Schneider calls the menu at La Cocina “considerate.” The quinoa bowl comes with braised spinach, roasted vegetables, Thai peanut sauce, and tofu.

Schneider calls the menu at La Cocina “considerate.” The quinoa bowl comes with braised spinach, roasted vegetables, Thai peanut sauce, and tofu.

And so both Schneider and her employees are right. The source of La Cocina and Bentley’s success is Schneider’s oversight, but it’s also the community of people she has gathered around her. The success is the way love itself multiplies, moving from person to person, doubling, then tripling; the way those who are appreciated and mentored have more to give to customers, remembering their names, sending them cards when their mothers are sick. Those whose talents are honored grow. The success is that this kind of love and connection is so rare these days that we all arrive hungry for it. When Anthony Adams, who has been at Bentley’s since 1998, was estranged from his mother, “Jo got in contact with my mom and reconnected us,” he says.

“I just know how to bring people together,” she says. “The menu here … is considerate. We have something for everyone. Is it brilliant? No. Is it off the charts? No. But it’s good. And I think the reason that it’s good is that we do it with love and consideration for our clients.”

Every morning, Lyle comes into La Cocina first and sits on the stage with a cup of coffee, listening to the birds, watching the light change. In the slow cool of morning, Schneider arrives next, and sits beside her. “Jo says, ‘Do you know how lucky we are to get to do this each day?’” Lyle says. “And she’s right.”

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