Santa Cruz County Stories, Tom Bruce: Capitola resident serves up real-life ‘Restaurant: Impossible’

Capitola resident serves up real-life ‘Restaurant: Impossible’
By Bonnie Horgos

Central Coast Food and Beverage founder Tom Bruce relaxes at Zizzo’s Coffee. Bruce consults with restaurant owners and helps them improve their bottom lines. (Kevin Johnson — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

CAPITOLA >> It takes more than two days to save a restaurant.

Just ask Tom Bruce, owner of Central Coast Food and Beverage. Since 1978, the Capitola resident has consulted with everything from small mom-and-pop eateries to chain restaurants, all with the same goal: Saving them from collapse. Just don’t call his work “Restaurant: Impossible,” the popular Food Network show hosted by Robert Irvine that looks to transforms eateries in a limited amount of time — even local venues.

“Sometimes it takes months, depending on the complexity,” said Bruce, 65. “I’ve counseled people after “Restaurant: Impossible.” They do a lot of great cosmetics and a quick patch-up, but I haven’t seen any that have had a real lasting impact.”

So how exactly does Bruce save all of these restaurants?

First of all, eateries need to reach out to him. Sometimes, this takes a few months after they’ve opened, and other times, it can take a year or more before restaurants see no other option, Bruce said.

“It’s not real often that the creative mind calls and says, ‘I have this part handled, can you handle this?'” he said. “Things that hurt them the most are oversaturation of many concepts. As soon as something becomes popular, it gets oversaturated. Food trucks are a great example.”

After the restaurants send out an SOS, Bruce comes in and inspects the venue. From food safety to staffing to decor, he and his team leave no spatula unturned, Bruce said.

“Two to three days, we’re onsite and get right in the trenches with people and assess their skill level,” he said. “Then we come away and within a week or so, give them a critical path.”

Bruce prescribes everything from redoing websites to complete interior overhauls. It’s up to Bruce’s clients to take his advice, but ultimately he aims to fix problems before they grow out of control, he said.

Bruce’s job fluctuates depending on the shape of the economy. If the economy is booming and everyone’s eating out, chances are, restaurant’s are looking to expand. If people are losing their jobs and eateries see a dip in business, Bruce is probably showing restaurant owners how to scale back on budget without compromising quality.

No matter what, though, people want to eat out, and Bruce wants to help.

“It kind of continues to morph, but I think we’ve settled into a niche that will continue to be what we deliver,” he said.

Getting to Know Tom Bruce

Born: April 24, 1949, in Yosemite

Family: Wife Sidney Bruce, who helps run the business

Education: Graduated from Soquel High School; studied hotel and restaurant operations at San Francisco City College

Early on: From the beginning, Bruce was involved in the restaurant business. ‘My first industry job was at 16, a night dishwasher at a 24-hour coffee shop.’

Capitola roots: While Bruce bounced around California, he always had a home base in Capitola; his family bought property in the Jewel Box neighborhood in 1962, and he settled there a few years ago. In fact, one of his first clients was Shadowbrook Restaurant. ‘I’ve been in and out of the area my entire adult life.’

Sharing knowledge: Bruce hosts seminars statewide, and is slated this fall to host a three-part series at Cabrillo College helping restaurant owners. To learn more, go to He is also hosting a seminar this week at Cabrillo through the Coast Small Business Development Center that aims to help home-based food businesses. That seminar is sold out, but others are planned. Visit for more information.

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