26-4 Fall Issue
Entertaining the Bakersfield Way by Miles Johnson
For the recondite-wary cook, an egg souffle might sound too complicated. Trust me when I say: if you can slice, dice, and stir (or “fold”), you can make a souffle your friends will marvel over.
Written by Jessica Shillings
While some professionals are eagerly counting the days until they can swipe their time card for the last time, others say they can’t imagine ever leaving their work behind.
Harold “Robby” Robinson of Robby’s Nursery, Nancy Cristallo of Sorella Ristorante Italiano, and Tony Russo of Russo’s Books confirm that they have no plans to slow down in their golden years because their jobs keep them active, engaged, and fulfilled.
“Most people retire to work in their garden,” remarked Robinson, the original owner of Robby’s Nursery, “I already do.”
Robinson has had a passion for nurturing growing plants since 1941. He was in the seventh grade that year when he began working his first job at a nursery. He has cared for plants ever since. In fact, over the last seven decades, Robinson, now 84, has become something of an expert on the subject, not only acquiring a green thumb himself, but teaching others how to care for their own gardens.
“It’s a lot of work,” Robinson said, “I love growing the plants and seeing what I can create.”
After years of working for nurseries and as a nurseryman/tree surgeon for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Robinson and his family made the decision to move to Bakersfield. He shortly founded his own business, Robby’s Nursery, which has served the needs of the community since 1962. Robby’s Nursery is now located at 4002 Terracotta Ct.—a recent move from its former address of 13129 Hageman Rd. due to road reconstruction in that part of the city.
According to Robinson, many of his customers ask, “Is Robby still alive?”
“Yes,” Robinson responded. “Very much so.”
While Robinson and his wife, Joan, handed over management of the business to their daughter, Kathy, 20 years ago, they are still an active part of the day-to-day operations. Robinson is, in fact, still the talent that drives the nursery’s public course offerings on everything from tree pruning and care to creating “Bonsai” plants—miniature versions of all types of trees.
Learning to create Bonsai plants is a difficult skill set to master, according to Robinson, and requires specific knowledge of pruning techniques to encourage normally large trees to grow in miniature.
Robinson was originally introduced to Bonsai decades ago when a customer bought a plant from a nursery he was working at and promptly proceeded to break some of its branches off in front of him. Robinson said he was angry at first since it seemed as if his tree was being destroyed—until the man explained the art of Bonsai to him. Robinson learned from this customer and others for years. Now he is the expert, teaching classes in the subject to young and old alike.
The nursery business, “is a very challenging profession to get into,” Robinson said, since it requires that professionals know plants and products backward and forward. Yet it remains his passion.
“I’ve seen too many people that are sixty-five who can’t wait to quit and live off social security,” Robinson remarked, “A few years and they’re gone.”
That’s why Robinson said he prefers to keep his mind active by working.
Nancy Cristallo, owner of Sorella Ristorante Italiano, agreed that her business keeps her mind and body active. It also keeps her connected with those she loves most, her daughters who run her restaurant with her.
It was her daughters, Lilian and Laurel, in fact, who inspired her to open Sorella 19 years ago. Cristallo, an Italian who immigrated to the United States as a young child, had grown up in the restaurant business with her own family. She originally came to Bakersfield 40 years ago to help her sister found her own Italian restaurant, Rosa’s.
“We’ve always been a family that sticks together,” Cristallo said, “that helps each other out.”
So when her grown daughters revealed their interest in establishing a restaurant of their own, Cristallo embraced the opportunity to work alongside them.
According to Cristallo, “Without them I wouldn’t have done it.”
Out of consideration of her sister’s business, Cristallo made sure to choose a location on the opposite end of town, so that they wouldn’t compete with each other for customers. Yet the location wasn’t yet widely known, which presented a challenge.
“We worked hard,” said Cristallo of Sorella’s early years. “But the business has been so good to us.”
Especially its staff and loyal customers, who have become like family themselves, Cristallo said.
That’s why, “Giving this up would be very hard. My family is here,” she added. “This is my golf. My life is full.”
Cristallo wouldn’t reveal her true age, though, “Some of the customers know me as 59.” She described herself instead as simply, “nearing retirement age.”
Whatever her true age, Cristallo prides herself on being able to do it all—almost. She and her daughters make sure that they know how to manage each part of the restaurant in case they have to cover for staff. And, of course, it is up to Cristallo to make sure that her recipes are prepared the same way each time a customer orders them.
Cristallo also enjoys taking care of her employees, who are like family in their own right. As long as they are willing to work hard, Cristallo said, she is willing to teach them everything she knows and to support them in whatever ways she can. This includes mentorship, as well as the little things —allowing her cooks to have a television in the kitchen, for instance, so that they don’t miss the big game.
“How can I retire? What would I do in the morning?” Cristallo remarked, “Retiring means dying. When your mind is busy, it keeps people motivated, keeps you alive. And I plan to live for a long time.”
“You retire,” she continued, “and a year later you’re gone.”
To hear 70-year-old Tony Russo, owner of Russo’s Books, tell it, he retired 20 years ago.
“I like what I’m doing,” the former Montgomery Ward branch manager said of the business that he opened in 1994 after a long career in retail. “It’s like being retired...it keeps me active and going.”
Russo’s Books was actually the second business that Russo opened on his own. The first was a used bookstore, Bookmark, that he opened in Bakersfield in 1989 after observing a similar store-front in Santa Maria. When The Marketplace shopping center in Bakersfield began development in the early ‘90s, Russo saw a chance to take the idea of a community bookstore to the next level. The Marketplace has been home to Russo’s Books ever since.
Russo’s is now the largest independent bookstore in Kern County, and one of two such businesses in Bakersfield. Quite apart from its selection, based upon what Russo and his staff know about the local community’s interests as well as their own reading preferences and publisher’s lists, the store is home to a number of events every week—from children’s story time and teenage card game tournaments to big name book-signings.
In fact Russo, who worked closely with local congressman Kevin McCarthy, when McCarthy’s book Young Guns was published, recently had the opportunity to meet former Bush Administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she accompanied McCarthy to Bakersfield in March.
It’s this interaction with many different age groups that keeps him going, Russo said. They provide opportunities for him to learn new things every day, including the social media world. (Russo’s is on Facebook.)
Good employees and management means that he doesn’t have to be at the store every day, Russo said, even though it is his passion. This allows him time for his other hobbies, which include enjoying his time-shares in Ocean Side and Las Vegas as well as cheering for the San Franscisco 49’ers as a season ticket holder and, of course, spending time with his 12 grandchildren.
For some professionals, retirement simply represents a new phase in their lives which affords them greater freedom to explore their own interests. For others, especially those who identify closely with what they do for a living, the idea of leaving behind the job they love is a frightening thought.
“The research into retirement and mental health outcomes are mixed,” agreed marriage and family therapist Sarah Appleton, “but what is clear is that staying active is important to health, both physical and emotional.
Appleton continued, “Those who choose to continue to work [maintain a] sense of purpose, enjoy social interactions and mental stimulation, which some believe contributes to an increase in overall mental health. However, some studies indicate that retirement can contribute to a reduction in anxiety and distress. It appears that there is a significant difference in the effect of retirement on emotional well-being based on whether the retirement is a choice of the individual.”
Appleton’s suggestions for those considering retirement, “Think about what your job means to you, and the effect it currently has on your health, both physical and mental. Then, consider what activities you would like to engage in after retirement. I think the bottom line is that whether working or retired, the key to mental health is feeling a sense of purpose, staying active, socializing, and stimulating your mind.”
Article appeared in our 29-1 Issue - April 2012