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August 26, 2021

Patience Pays: Rustle Brethauer of Toscano Brothers and Dago Bagel

by Joe Bonadio

It could be the biggest little thing to happen in North Beach for years: when Toscano Brothers Bakery (and sibling Dago Bagel) opened in North Beach this May Day, no one could have expected the intensity of the response. Crowds thronged the place, with lines stretching all the way around the block to Bank of America. The press was immediate, and days passed before things calmed to a dull roar.

At that point, it was quite clear that Tony had a winner on his hands–and there was more coming down the pike. Last month, Tony and local baking legend Lisa Lu launched Antonio’s Pastries in the same Vallejo Street space, adding another dimension to the budding operation. Think sfogliatelle with blenheim apricots, Italian rainbow cookies, and a world-class budino that will change the way you see butterscotch. It’s a distinguished lineup, and no item is less than exceptional.

Not quite four months in, and the place already has the feel of a legacy business in the making. Locals crowd the parklet out front four mornings a week, enjoying their coffee and choice of goodies under the protective gaze of SFPD’s Central Station right next door. Walking by, you might guess the place has been here for 20 years.

One of the secrets behind the success of the bakery is the irrepressibly charming Rustle Brethauer. Having worked for the Tony’s organization for nearly four years, Rustle was Tony’s first choice to manage his flagship neighborhood bakery—though as you’ll see, it wasn’t quite that simple.

Naturally, Rustle has been extra-busy for the past few months, but she was kind enough to sit down with me last week—and our conversation is below.

Seasonal fruit tart

The seasonal fruit tart at Antonio’s Pastries is as delicious as it is photogenic. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Joe Bonadio: How long have you been in the food world?

Rustle Brethauer: Twenty years. It’s funny, my first job was in a bakery.

Actually, that’s a lie! My first job was at the renaissance fair. I sold giant pickles at the renaissance fair when I was eleven years old. A good friend of the family owns a fish & chips booth, so I would go to work there in the summer.

But anyway, fast forward three years, and I’m standing in line at a Longs Drugstore. A girl that I went to the fifth grade with was the checker, and I’m like ‘How did you get a job?’ And she whispered that she had lied about her age. And I replied, I should try that.

It just so happened that the woman behind me was the owner of the Bear Claw Bakery, in downtown Pinole. And she said she wouldn’t hear of me lying about my age—but she would give me a job.

They hired me full-time, 40 hours a week. I was in home studies at the time, so I had my workers permit and all that. I started work at 5:00 AM, and set up their whole bakery counter every day.

Rustle Brethauer in front of Toscano Brothers Bakery

Rustle Brethauer in front of Toscano Brothers Bakery in San Francisco’s North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: At fourteen.

RB: Yep, fourteen years old. I’m a workaholic.

JB: How long did you do that?

RB: For probably about a year, and then I went back to regular school. My dad made me move with him to Vallejo, and I didn’t work again until my senior year of high school.

JB: At the wizened age of 17…

RB: Yeah! Exactly. I got a job as a hostess at a fine dining restaurant in Astoria, Oregon, where my mom lived: Pier 11. They’re not open anymore, but it was a gorgeous restaurant. It sat out on the water on the Columbia River, just beautiful.

I left there when I graduated, and moved back to California. After that, I only had one job outside of the foodservice industry. I was a receptionist at a window company, and I only lasted four months, because I couldn’t sit still. I would dance with the fax machine.

I was already so used to the go-go of the restaurant world, that sitting at a desk and waiting for the phone to ring….it just wasn’t right.

So I was a server for close to sixteen years, on and off. Lots of front of the house, not much back of the house….but the back of house experience I did get, I learned a ton. I opened a sports bar once with just a head chef and three other people on the line. It was great. But it’s hard work.

JB: So how did you meet Tony?

RB: Craigslist! This was almost four years ago now, when I was working at Peet’s Coffee in Fairfield. And I was horribly unhappy with my job. I’ve been in coffee since my first job at the Bear Claw when I was 14, and there has always been an espresso machine—and I end up running it.

A little back story: in 1987, there was a hiring freeze on the island of Hawaii. That was our home at the time, and suddenly my father couldn’t get work anymore. One day he came home and threw a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle on the table, and said: I can get work in the city. My mom will watch the kids in Vallejo. We’ve got to go.

So we ended up here–and San Francisco saved my family. So when I was stuck in Fairfield and going nowhere, all I knew was to go to San Francisco. In my mind I knew: you’re never going to make it if you don’t work in San Francisco. So I got on Craigslist, and I would only search for jobs here in the city.

But man, it’s cutthroat. It’s tough out there. There’s no way I could ever serve out here, even though I’ve got all the experience in the world—because I don’t have experience in San Francisco. But I filled out a lot of applications, and sent out a lot of resumés, to any job that I thought I might somehow be able to handle.

And one day I got a call back from Natale. He was speaking so fast in the voicemail, all I heard was Tony’s Pizza and his email address. I came out for an interview, and I was hired on the spot.

Window at Toscano Brothers

The ever-tempting display window at Toscano Brothers Bakery, AKA Dago Bagel/Antonio’s Pastries. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Did you know anything about Tony then?

RB: I knew who Tony was. I didn’t know that this was his flagship restaurant. But I came in and thought: I really like it here. This could be good for me.

JB: What were you initially hired to do?

RB: I was hired as a cashier at the Slice House. And I loved it. It was so fast-paced, and so much fun. All the people were fun, and we always had good music playing.

It was also hard work—and it ended up being my showcase. After a while, people started to see that I worked a little harder. I cared a little more, my attention to detail was a little finer. Little by little, I started to get these perks. I would work shifts alone at Slice House, where it’s usually a two-man shift. But they said, You can handle it. Then they ended up needing help at Giovanni [Italian Specialties].

I went over there, and spent a good six or seven months there, while still working at the Slice House on the weekends. And almost exactly two years ago, I was having a real bad week personally, and Tony came to me and said I’ve got some good news. I’m going to open a bakery….and I think I want you to run it for me.

Well, that was the original location at the old Italian French Bakery, and that never ended up happening. So I sort of washed my hands of it, though I knew Tony was still working on something.

Then one day, someone was at the Slice House, and said: Yeah, Tony’s up at the bakery. And I said wait, what? So I went up there to take a look. I walked in and I told Tony I loved it. And that was kind of it.

And that was fine. I figured, it’s up to him. I’ve still got my job.

And then they opened, and went through their first day of business.

Rustle Brethauer charms the customers

Rustle Brethauer charms the customers at North Beach’s Toscano Brothers Bakery. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: And it was crazy.

RB: They couldn’t handle it. And it was Oscar [Venegas, pizza chef at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana] who spoke up for me. Oscar has worked with me through a lot of shifts, and he has seen how I can handle a crowd, and delegate tasks.

He looked at Tony and said, You’ve got to get Rustle up here. Tony called me that night, and I was here the next morning, ready to work. About a month after that, he asked me to run the place for him. And here I am: I work the majority of the shifts alone, and I run this thing. It’s my baby.

JB: So what has it been like working with Lisa?

RB: It has been so awesome. I don’t know if I’ve ever learned so much from someone, so pleasantly. I’ve had people make feel stupid, and undermine my confidence. Lisa is gentle in her teaching, and I love it. It has been really great. She’s brilliant at what she does.

Yeah, this place is little—but I love it.

JB: Small, but mighty.

RB: It truly is.

You can visit Rustle at Toscano Brothers Bakery, Dago Bagel and Antonio’s Pastries every Thursday through Sunday from 8:00 AM until 3:00 PM (or until they run out of bread). I’ll see you there!

Location Map for Dago Bagel