The portrait of Rogelio Fonseca painted by a longtime customer of La Abeja hangs high over a wall filled with the rest of the gifts collected over the years by his iconic restaurant’s loyal patrons. It’s mostly a mix of “Three Stooges”-inspired trinkets and Aztec art, all centered around a framed photo of Fonseca’s parents and original owners, Gloria and Jose Fonseca, who came to Los Angeles from Mexico City in 1955 and opened the bakery-turned-restaurant on the corner of Figueroa Street and Pasadena Avenue in 1969.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment my entire life,” Rogelio tells me as he shares just a little bit of the sentimental value behind his favorite items on the wall. “I think it’s time for me to probably hang up the tennis shoes and you know, call it a wrap.” The moment that he is talking about is turning 65, the age he always told himself he was going to retire. He is 64 now and his birthday is this month.
“If you let your body go too long, it becomes like running a car without oil. Yeah, it’ll keep going for a little bit, then pop! It’ll snap.”
Rogelio is sharing bits and pieces of wisdom with me that he’s collected over the years while he gets ready for the big morning where he won’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to start preparing the beef for his juicy beef machaca or the beloved salsa passed down from his mother in his famous huevos rancheros any longer.
In a career that venerates an unrelenting work ethic and a food media landscape that loves to tout lifers in the industry who refuse to retire, Rogelio is doing his own thing. “I’m just looking forward to enjoying time with my wife again and making up for all those years we haven’t been together now that we’re older. When you have a restaurant, you give up a lot: time, relationships, social life, it makes you go ‘damn’ when you realize it all.”
Rogelio’s has known his wife Julia since middle school and up until last year when her health got in the way, she worked the front of the house alongside Rogelio. He admits that her absence has also been a factor in his decision to let go of La Abeja. “It’s been kind of lonely without my wife here. I always grew up with someone in my family here, whether it was my wife, my mom, my dad, my aunt, my kids, my grandkids. They all made working fun. They’re all gone. I miss them all and the reality is that the older you get, the more affection you need by loved ones.”