There’s an old stereotype about sibling rivalry, but for three sets of Tucson siblings, family and food have only brought them closer. Whether it’s gluten-free baked goods, pizza, or craft beers, co-owning and operating local restaurants have become a way of life for Daphna and Eyal Ron, Aric and Joshua Mussman, and Zachary, Tyler and Courtney Fenton.
Daphna Ron, 34, was born in Tel Aviv and lived there until 1990. Her brother Eyal, 23, was born in Madison, Wis., where their father was teaching at the University of Wisconsin. The family returned to Israel for a year when Eyal was 5 years old and their father was on sabbatical. Two years after returning to Madison, Daphna was off to college and didn’t see her younger brother often.
Following college, says Daphna, “I was decorating cakes in Boston when I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I had to wear masks” to minimize her exposure to gluten. After their mother moved to Sun City four years ago, she decided to move to Tucson in 2011. Eyal, meanwhile was in his final semester at the University of Wisconsin in Madison last spring, and was wondering what to do next. He had studied chemistry, accounting and philosophy.
In July he came to Tucson, mostly to help Daphna renovate and set up the space to open CakeLab, a gluten-free bakery and restaurant on University Avenue. “Then we began talking about me staying here,” says Eyal, “pursuing my sister’s dream with her. With my mom and sister already here I could be close to family.” Plus, he had done some standard baking. To make gluten-free crepes, bread and do other baking, “you can’t just take the flour out. You have to experiment with other alternatives,” the former chemistry major told the AJP.
For Courtney Fenton, 25, the events coordinator and manager of Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink on Pennington Street, working daily with her brothers Zachary, 26, who’s the financial guy, and chef/owner Tyler, 23, “has been a real joy.”
“We were taught by our parents that family is the most important thing,” she says. After growing up in Tucson, “Zach and I both left for two years but came back” to open the restaurant in August 2012, says Courtney.
Brothers Aric, 33, and Joshua Mussman, 29, also Tucson natives, grew up cooking in their mother’s kitchen. The Mussmans opened their first restaurant, the original Vero Amore, at Swan Road and Camp Lowell Drive in 2006. They opened a second Vero Amore in Dove Mountain in 2008 and moved the mid-town restaurant to Plaza Palomino at Swan and Ft. Lowell. They opened Noble Hops, featuring craft beer and fine fare, in Oro Valley in 2011. The Mussman brothers also operate a Vero Amore pizza truck.
“We live together, travel together and work together,” writes Aric from Costa Rica where he and Josh have been vacationing. “We both worked in bars and restaurants in high school and college and liked the work.” While visiting “a real foodie” uncle in Seattle, the brothers ate an Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana Academy-certified restaurant. “We fell in love,” says Aric. They looked through the certification process and went through the training. Their mother, Suzanne Kaiser, helped them write a business plan and finance the endeavor, and she’s their third partner.
“She takes care of all the administrative stuff we don’t love,” says Aric. “When we were younger we saw a few good managers and a lot of not-so-good ones along the way. Josh was actually fired from every restaurant job he had, because he always thought he knew a better way of doing things. I guess he did!”
The chemistry between the sibling restaurateurs seems to work. “We think the same way,” says Courtney Fenton of herself and her brothers. “We want to do something wonderful. We really want to see the restaurant thrive. We all work extremely hard to get to that place.”
“I knew from a young age that I wanted to be my own boss and own restaurants,” says Tyler Fenton. There was no doubt he would go to his family for support: “My dad had a vacant building that I loved and wanted to turn into something great.”
“We never have fights,” jokes Eyal of CakeLab. “We have our spats as most siblings and co-workers do, but we work really well together. We have two different skill sets. We create one whole person. A lot of our conflict is that we’re each too hard on ourselves. That’s our main issue, not working together.”
“We never ask an employee to do something we wouldn’t do ourselves,” says Aric, adding that stems from “a Jewish influence of treating everyone with honesty and respect.” The brothers are the grandsons of the late Rabbi Bernard Mussman, who was affiliated with Congregation Anshei Israel before his death in 2007.
The Fenton siblings never expected to set out on a business venture together. “We all three had such different interests. I never would have imagined us working together,” says Zachary, who intended to focus on real estate and finance after graduating from the UA in 2009. “Tyler was the catalyst with his culinary background and passion for food. I was living in L.A. and came home for a holiday a few years ago” when Tyler brought up the idea, adding that his siblings jumped in to support him.
“We’ve had our moments as siblings,” says Zachary. “But we’re from a close family. Our grandparents, Norman and Margie Fenton, always taught us the Jewish values of family and community.”
That works for Tyler. “We treat each other kindly,” he says. A similar philosophy drives the Mussman brothers. “Sometimes we fight, but we always figure out a way to work it out,” says Aric. “We love each other.”