Everybody knows Gloria Tamai. She's the friendly face and familial force behind Tamai Family Farms. If you frequent any of the local farmers markets between Santa Barbara and the South Bay, you've likely bought some of her produce. Dedicated weekly customers include the Lucques group of restaurants, Jon & Vinny's stable of eateries, Kismet, the Little Door and the RC Family, which includes Rustic Canyon, Milo & Olive and Cassia.
The Tamai family has been farming in the Southland for more than 75 years, starting four generations ago with Katsugoro Tamai, who grew melons in the Imperial Valley. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Tamai family was rounded up along with other Japanese families from L.A. and relocated to the Manzanar internment camp in the Owens Valley. Determination and hard work brought them back to the fields of Oxnard after the war, where they started over.
Gloria, her husband of 40 years, Steve Tamai, and their four children (sons Jason and Aaron and daughters Aja and Julia) now run the family business. At one point they were at 29 farmers markets six days a week across the Southland, including Pasadena, Santa Monica, Torrance, Culver City, Redondo Beach, Burbank and Mar Vista. They delivered to their first farmers market in Glendale in 1979.
"I never imagined this would become so successful or that anybody would even come," says Tamai, who is originally from Colombia and met her husband while she was working on the strawberry farm. "We sold everything so cheap at the market. We'd sell three baskets of strawberries for $1.49 back then. My husband always insisted that my name should be on all the tarps 'because people are attached to Gloria.' His motto was, 'Good produce at a good price.' And I don't know, they all just started to come. Thank God."
It's not just people like chef Rich Mead, from Farmhouse in Newport Beach, who has been making the drive to the Santa Monica Farmers Market and back every Wednesday for 20 years to buy Tamai Family Farms produce; it's also the local seniors in wheelchairs who are loyal strawberry customers. The Tamai matriarch greets them all with the same warm and welcoming smile.
Even though she still drives (and parallel parks) the enormous Nissan Diesel UD2600 from the family farms in Oxnard and Camarillo, Tamai has cut down to only three markets a week since her bout with colon cancer six years ago.
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The kids have happily taken the reins both on the farm and at the markets with the same familial charm as their mother.
So how do they see the future of the farm?
"We're so busy, it's a day-by-day situation," Julia Tamai says. "We don't own the land, just lease it. Jason's son adores the farm and wants to ranch. We just try to keep up with the demands of the day and never take it for granted."
"The chemo slowed me down for a while, and the family filled in for me for nine months," Tamai says. "I still have a little numbness in my hands, but I'm good. I really didn't eat many vegetables before, but I eat them every day now!"