Bob Oswaks

baker • restauranteur / bob's well bread bakery

Bob Oswaks always wanted to be in the entertainment business. Raised on New York’s Long Island, Bob immediately headed for the West Coast as soon as he graduated from Adelphi University. He found his first job in television marketing working for Norman Lear. Bob eventually became President of Worldwide Marketing at Sony Pictures Television, launching hit shows including Jeopardy and Seinfeld. He had worked his way to the top. Then the recession hit and by 2011, many executives had lost their jobs, including Bob whose 32 year career in entertainment seemed at an end.

Yet, Bob’s passion for food and wine was always a component of industry business meetings and entertaining. So he built a wood-fired oven in his Los Angeles backyard and found the hours spent making pizza therapeutic while contemplating his options. Then he discovered bread making. Baking daily, Bob’s bread got better and better and he came to the realization that he “liked making bread more than he liked wearing a suit and shaving every day.” Eventually, Bob became an artisan baker and began building a loyal following with his small batch, wholesale bread business and by 2013 he was ready to open his own place.

Since its inception, locals, travelers and journalists alike have embraced Bob’s Well Bread Bakery. The bakery has become a successful family business and integral part of the growing Los Alamos, California community. Bob’s Well Bread Bakery has been featured in numerous publications including Travel + Leisure “15 Amazing Small Town Bakeries;”, “Foodie’s 5 must see Wine Country Destinations;” Sunset Magazine, “The Best of Wine Country;” Condé Nast Traveler and Food & Wine.

The whirlwind success story of Bob’s Well Bread Bakery—since Bob reinvented himself—continues to grow exponentially. No one would have predicted that in just a short time, Bob and his wife Jane would be living happily in the Santa Ynez Valley as the proud owners of a critically acclaimed bakery and recognized nationally for some of the best bread in the Santa Ynez Valley and beyond.


Drew Kugler: Today's episode is a story about a rise and fall, and another rise; in this case the story of a career in entertainment taking a extremely interesting and telling turn in one man's life. But I'd like you to listen for as you hear the story today, is the high value when you are running a business or building relationships at work between not only the people you work with, but the idea of how much will you trust yourself and what you believe in. Also it will not be hard to hear today about the enormous role that genuine emotion plays in building a successful business. I'm Drew Kugler in conversation with Bob Oswaks and this is TELL ME WHAT TO SAY

This story about Bob is really what this podcast is about. So let me take you back a little bit and then Bob's going to pick up the stories—we get into where we are and why we're here. The last time I sat across the desk from Bob was I believe around 2008. Bob was an executive—very high-placed executive at Sony Television—and I was leaning on Bob to be able to help me try to understand one of his colleagues at Sony, because I was coaching, the process of helping him, Bob's colleague, become a better leader. I recall Bob spending a considerable amount of time with me giving thoughtful, candid Insights into the gentlemen's leadership style. So that was 2008. It is, as we know 2018— now ten years later—and I'm going to turn it over to Bob for a second to describe. I can tell you we're not in an office building in Culver City, California. I'll just let Bob pick it up for here for a few minutes to tell us where we are. Bob—

Robert Oswaks: Thank you, Drew, and happy to be here with you. We are in Los Alamos, California, which is the heart of the Central Coast wine country, about forty-five minutes north of Santa Barbara. And we are in my business, which is called Bob's Well Bread which is a bakery and cafe in Los Alamos, right in the wine country, in a town with twenty-five hundred people. And, you know just a couple wine tasting rooms, our bakeries— a couple little restaurants and a couple antique shops, but right in the center of the heart of the wine country. 

DK: So why here, Bob? What does this place offer you? Before we get into a little of your biography, what does this place in its present way offer you and your family that Sony—sitting across at Sony— didn't—right? What have you now been able to create?

RO: I've been able to create something that's mine—my wife's and mine. We had a dream of a business, that we could leave Los Angeles. Open up—I mean it's a very romantic notion having a small bakery situated in the country and, you know, you're living on a two lane road and you don't have any stop lights or stop signs. I caution anybody who's thinking about that kind of a career shift that it's a very romantic notion. But we had a “failure is not an option” mantra. So we're sitting here in a quite bustling cafe right now.

DK: Which and I and my friends, and my wife Lisa is here, and obviously Ari's here. And we just had a spectacular—and I am not just saying that—a spectacular breakfast which will tide us over till dinner. So then let's go, let's begin to see how this came to be. And as you know the fairly traditional question of Tell Me What To Say, to get started, is to go back a bit. And to go back to your childhood with some some sense of what you wanted to be. Do you have a recollection of what that was?

RO: Yeah, I can go there. And it's interesting because as I listened to some of these podcasts before we got together to do this, one of them that struck me most personally was listening to Peter Principato, who also grew up on Long Island, who also grew up under very middle class, modest circumstances, and was figuring out what his path was. So I grew up also on Long Island. A middle class family, and, but I was, I was obsessed with the entertainment business. And wait for my mother to come home from the grocery store with a TV Guide every week, so I could read it and devour it. And I didn't know what I was ultimately going to do, but I knew that I wanted to work in the entertainment business; and therefore, I thought I wanted to be an actor for a period of time. So I was always doing school plays—however good or not good I was—that was what I had my my sights set on.

DK: Were you any good?

RO: I wasn't bad, but it wasn't something that I—it was something that I thought I was going to pursue up until I went to into college, 'cause I went to college on a drama scholarship, but I got cold feet just before school started. And I sat down with my father who was a very pragmatic man. You know, had the same job his entire life and was always very cautious, but he told me if I wanted to work in the industry I should consider it from a business point of view. And he talked about marketing and I didn't understand what marketing was yet, 'cause I was pretty young. But I switched my major over to business and took a major in marketing. And my dad used to bring me home—he worked in a building that they published Variety in, and this was New York so it was Weekly Variety. It was a newspaper and it was much different than the daily Hollywood trade paper, but he would bring it home to me and I would just devour it. So I got a sense over the time of my college years that I wanted to be in marketing in the television business. So I packed up my car when I graduated college and drove cross-country and never went back. And that's how I got to California.

DK: In pursuit of a marketing career.

RO: In pursuit of a marketing career. And I ultimately landed an interview at NBC, interviewing to be a page, which was the entry level—one of the entry level ways—to get into the business. I know Peter Principato talked about entry level getting into an agency in the mailroom. I was interviewing to be a page, which is a Studio tour guide and things like that. And the woman who was the head of the page department had recently been working at HR. And she took a look at my resume, which was pretty nonexistent. I'd worked at a movie theater and Jack LaLanne, and, you know, those kinds of things in college, but I didn't have any business experience. And she said, “But you've got a business degree and you've got a—you seem like smart kid. I want to send you up for something in the unit manager's training, to be a unit manager, which is a financial liaison between the network and the production itself.” So whether it was Days of Our Lives or Hollywood Squares or the Johnny Carson Show, shows that were produced and NBC, had somebody that was a liaison between the production and the network.

DK: Right. Now and do you remember when you were doing this work, in this phase of the pursuit of this career, do you remember a certain happiness or ambition? What kind of emotions were going on then? Obviously we'll get up to present day, but...

RO: Emotion's going on them are probably just a little anxiety. I mean, I was just out of college. I had moved out by myself. I'd saved all my money when I, you know, drove cross-country in order to do this. So I was a little anxious... I got an apartment, and I got a car, and now I got to get a job. But I did get that job. But I wasn't an accountant, or a financial person per se, so I was probably ill-suited for the job. But the guy that hired me liked me and trained me and took me along. And it was through networking while I was there, that I met somebody that worked for Norman Lear, and they were looking for an entry-level marketing person. And I got an interview with two people that I ended up working with for many years, who gave me this job to be the head of marketing for Tandem Productions— 

DK: Which—remind listeners the shows that you were—

RO: All in the Family. Sanford and Sons. Good Times. The Jeffersons. One Day at a Time. You know, the classic sitcoms created by Norman Lear.

DK: So you had made it from your childhood, waiting for mom to come home with the TV Guide; there you were, with the best of the best. And then that started you—a little bit I know, that started you want to a career path through various studios and you ended up at Sony. And at the very a—what is it—the pinnacle. Tell people what you were what you were doing and what was your purview and interest there. Remembering this all began as a kid.

RO: My entree into television marketing was in 1980, working for Norman. And so twenty years later in 2000 I was recruited by Sony to be head of domestic marketing for their TV division. Ultimately, it became Sony Pictures Television. And at the apex of that particular career, I was President of Worldwide Marketing.

DK: Right. So there you were, around the time we met. And then soon after and the whole spirit of this podcast is how conversations change things in our lives. Things changed, right? 

RO: Yes.

DK: Talk us through the conversations around then, and how they changed your life.

RO: Well, in 2011 I got laid off by Sony during a period of years where they were, in terms of watching the bottom line, they were eliminating layers of management. And—it didn't matter if you were president or EVP. or SVP, or wherever—they were looking to cut numbers and cut bodies and cut heads, and I became the victim of that. And I—one of the first conversations I had was with Norman Lear, who called me right after this happened, 'cause ironically I was still working with him, because Sony owned the Norman Lear library of television series, and I was working with him developing campaigns to launch these shows in home entertainment on DVD. And he called and, you know, we had a very frank discussion. And he said, “How long you been doing this?” And I said, “Thirty something years.” He said, “How long were you at Sony?” And I said, “Eleven years.” And he goes—you know his opinion was that life isn't about doing the same thing in a continuum throughout your entire life, and being at the same place and doing the same thing really stagnates you.

You know, if you look at him, he's done many different things, not just creating television shows, but creating a nonprofit People for the American Way that talks about people's liberties. And getting into the music business. And ironically, now at ninety-five, back producing television shows for Netflix—doing a Hispanic version of One Day at a Time, and a couple other new sitcoms, as well as inspiring multiple generations of creators of sitcoms along the way. You know, so I think at the time I listened to his words, I appreciated the advice, but my thought was no, I've got to get back in and do what I do, because that's what I do.

DK: So you respected the advice, but at that point, rejected it? I don't know how else—when you hung up the phone—

RO: I filed it away.

DK: Right. When you hung phone you—

RO: I put it in my parking lot in the back side of my brain, because I didn't know what else could I do. I didn't know what it was I was good at or—Sony did—you know they give you these exit counselors that put you through these tests. And they talk about, you know, lots of questions trying to see if there's another career path for you. What are you meant to be doing, if you're not doing. But really the turning point was my sending out dozens of letters to headhunters and job applications and trying to say, alright, I'm getting back into this business and I'm going to go to another studio, or another network or a cable company, or whatever ad agency; whatever it's going to be I've got to do what I've made my reputation doing. Or what I thought I was most passionate about doing.

DK: That's what you thought. I wanted to capture that. Your passion was in marketing.

RO: But along the way and my wife and I being food and wine enthusiasts, we had a wood fired oven in our backyard. And I was a little pizzaiolo on weekends and making pizzas, and so I thought well why don't I try my hand at making bread. It was really one of those things. I had had letters out, and phone calls out, and I was trying to you know keep my hands and my mind busy, while I was waiting. And I happened upon a successful formula for a loaf of sourdough bread, that I had someone try it and people would say, “This is the best bread I've ever eaten. Can you make me another loaf?” And so I thought well, let me try to make it different times a day, whether it's early or late or humid or dry or hot or cold. How do I make something consistently?

And you know while I'm going through this process, I start to get calls back from headhunters, and they're like, “Hey, Bob, you've got a great résumé. You've had a great career. You've done amazing things but, you're of an age where you're not going to get another job like that.” So, you know, that's the hard reality, and I was a little incredulous thinking that wow, I've got all this experience and I've done always things; how can I not get another job?

DK: You remember that—I often talk on these—

RO: I remember it vividly.

DK: —the things you were saying, you know, what you said to yourself when—and I always talk on these podcast about the conversations with ourselves being so determinative of how we sometimes act—when they called back and said, “No thanks.” You first took it, like, well they're wrong. Or, how could they say that? What was your reaction when you started to get into those conversations, because you've been on this path?

RO: Well, I never thought of myself at fifty-years old as out to pasture. Or invaluable. Considering that I'd had, you know, this track record of working for over thirty years, never being out of work and always going from successful position to positions. So it was—I didn't quite get it.

DK: Where there conversations around that time, do you remember, with your family? Or friends that were helping put some—other than the one that you would file away from Norman Lear—what were some of the other key conversations in this, really, what must have been a challenging and odd time in your life?

RO: Well, some of the conversations were, as I started to think about, can I do something else? Should I do something else? And I was really getting very—I found myself doing something that I was a bit passionate and obsessed about—making bread. And I was making it every day. And I had my starter and I was keeping it alive. And so it became this living, breathing thing that I had to take care of every day, and I made more bread every day. But my wife would see me just getting so caught up in this small, little world I was doing; thinking about opening a bakery. “Like, what do you know about opening a bakery? You've never worked in a restaurant. You've never worked in the food business. And, what, are you crazy?”

DK: What'd you say?

RO: I just said it was something I had to follow. But at the same time, I had parallel tracks. I was looking for work. I was doing consulting and looking for consulting assignments. And I was developing a plan in my head, starting in my head and then became a real full-fledged business plan, to think about opening a bakery. Didn't want to do this in L.A. L.A. wasn't a city I wanted to be an entrepreneur or have a small little bakery in. I needed to figure a way to keep my whole life going. But we'd had a house up in Los Alamos, in the wine country, that we used to come to on weekends. And I thought, what a great fantasy: You find the exit ramp, and you go to do something; again, it's that romantic notion—have a small little bakery in the country—and how great would life be? Don't have the same worries and situations that you have to worry about living in a city, and wearing a suit, and shaving, and going and fighting that warrior mode every day.

DK: Which Bob is not wearing today. And I don't know if he shaved or not...

RO: Not today.

DK: All right, so, you find the bakery site. Somewhere in that story and here you are. We did have a chance to talk last night a bit in preparation for this, and one of the more important or interesting things that I learned from talking to Bob was he has become a source of advice, encouragement, inspiration to a number of people—whether it was in the business entertainment business or not— and they write you for insights. They write you for advice. Can you characterize some of those conversations that your old world is having with you now? And, what comes of those conversations? It's an email, I'm sure. I just think this is so—this idea of people finding their exit ramp.

RO: Generally it started to they all start with an e-mail, because they'll hear about what I had been doing. They'll read something that may have been put out there in the press about what I'm doing. They may see something online or they may go to my website. And I think a lot of people are in the business and they've been in the business a long time, and they're looking for their exit ramp. And they just don't know how to steer off on to it. Again, I probably wouldn't have done that, had I not been in a forced position. But I was able, using that forced position, to figure it out. And when you're in those jobs, you don't walk away from it. But they write to me saying that I'm their hero, or I'm an inspiration, or all these things. And that was never my intention—it's flattering. It wasn't what I set out to do. I set out to pursue something that I became passionate with. The only thing I can tell them is, the exit ramp is yours. But you've got to find what's your passion to do something next. You've got to find what's your second act.

DK: Right. Do you ever—and this what I was thinking about last night after we talked—the name's not important, but do you have a sense of people who've gone for it as a result of a conversation, an email with you? Or is it like most people that I meet who talk about making change? Initially, it appeals to them. They get that that first blush of excitement. It can be their exit ramp and then it fades. You have a sense?

RO: I don't know anybody that's actually taken that the jump, the leap, yet. No.

DK: It would be a whole other podcast as to why that's true, but...

RO: You know what's interesting is it happened to me at an age where I had the time still to figure it out. I had to figure out how to recalibrate my whole life, too. When you're a senior executive, you have senior executive expenses. You have a lifestyle that is keeping up with what's coming in. And when that stops coming in, you've got to figure out how to recalibrate it. And I did it at a point where it was OK. I said OK, what are we changing in our life? And moving up [to the wine country] was one of them. I am glad that it happened when it did happen, because I found peace with what my life is, which wasn't about the things that I thought were important.

DK: I was going to ask you—and this is, as we begin to conclude here, because as we said at the top, we're at a live and active bakery, and Bob is, take it from me, quite active in making this stuff happen—so we'll let him go back, after he answers the last question. In this story from 2000—we met, right after that—from then to now—what's been the worst moment professionally? And what's been the best?

RO: The worst moment is going into a business you've never been in before. And again, I've got seventeen mouths to feed here. I've got about seventeen to twenty people that work in this bakery, between other bakers and chefs and line cooks and dishwashers and baristas and everything like that, and bookkeepers. And when you're new to a business you've never been in before, you probably have a little more trust in others that are part of the journey with you; that they are aligned with what your goals and how you want to operate. But very early on in the business, two seminal things happened that really crushed me to the core. One was a baker that I hired, who had my trust, and did something unmentionable, that almost caused me to lose the bakery overnight when we were two weeks in. And I had to recover from that quickly. And with tremendous fortitude of what I had to do in order to fix this problem, which I did.

And the second was again about trust. And it was someone that I brought on to be a bookkeeper/consiglieri, who someone who'd been in the business for her entire life. And told me, was teaching me, about the restaurant business and said, “You've got to trust people and empower people.”

And all along the way, by trusting her, what was happening was she was slowly stealing from me to the tune of about twenty thousand dollars in eight months. First eight months of the business I'd say, “Can I get a draw?”

And she'd say, “It's a little tight.”

“Can I get some money, I got expenses.”

She'd go, “Mmm, not this month.”

And meanwhile, she was going on vacations and spa trips and, you know, plastic surgery. And it was like, wow! And one day, I took a little more ownership of my ownership. And saw what was going on and set up a little sting operation, and caught her.

And through the generosity of the District Attorney of Santa Barbara County who was a customer, who decided to make make this an issue. She brought this woman to trial for felony embezzlement and got every cent back. But it took two years. So those were the real low points that I had. But those low points have really caused me to be very wary, and cautious about people and trusting them. I mean, they say to me in the back of the house that I've got eyes in the back of my head, and I do I hear everything, and I see everything; because you've got to as a small business owner.

And the best things that have happened are just the reactions that people have when they come here and they eat here, or they're just picking up something. And, you know, we're not, it's not just food, and we're not just feeding people, but we're feeding people's souls, I like to say. And I get people that buy a sandwich and they they leave and they take this sandwich to go. And they call the phone—they call the bakery—and they say, “I just bought the ham and cheese baguette sandwich from you and I have to tell you, it's the best thing I've ever had in my life.”

I had a woman yesterday who bought an oatmeal cookie and she was on the road with her husband, they came back and she said, “I need half a dozen of these cookies.”

Or, when the fires and the mudslides happened—a couple weeks, in the last couple of months, have been pretty hard on Santa Barbara County—but we were sending bread and sandwiches and pastries down to the firefighters and the evacuees. And I get notes back saying how much our giving back to them meant to them at a time when they didn't have anything. So I think it's the emotional connection with customers that makes what we do very much worth it.

DK: Well, thank you, Bob. This was everything I hoped for: The stories of what was going on in your mind, some of the conversations you got into. It fits very nicely within the theme that we're trying to create on the show. I've rekindled a friendship.

RO: Thank you.

DK: A great place to eat. I'm going to probably go eat some more.

RO: [Laughs] Can you really, at this hour?

DK: I don't know, I don't know. We'll come up with something. But most important, thank you for taking the time.

RO: My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.

DK: You're welcome.