MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Palm trees, the smell of coconut oil and a nice loose fitting, comfy shirt. You must be talking about Tommy Bahama.
While the company may have a tropical sounding name, its roots are deep here in the tundra of Minnesota. Bob Emfield, who lives in Orono, is a founding partner of the company. It’s how he got us all to relax and extend our weekend wardrobe that makes him a Minnesotan to Meet.
It’s sometimes hard to tell where the legend of Tommy Bahama ends and Bob Emfield’s real life begins.
“I know what he drank, where he ate, what he drove, who he’s dated … this can go on for hours,” Emfield said.
Tommy Bahama lived in Emfield’s head until 1990.
“I have a lifelong friend in the clothing business,” Emfield said.
Tony Margolis and Emfield had worked in apparel together for decades. When it came to turning fantasy into reality this time, they needed a designer. Enter Lucio Gasperina.
“When the three of us are together you would swear this guy is in the room,” Emfield said.
The group originally wanted to launch three clothing lines. They quickly realized two needed to be trimmed and started building onto Tommy’s fictional background.
“We started with a mess,” he said. “The story kept the product relevant.”
They made up their own demographics.
“We went after Naples, we went after San Diego, we went after Palm Desert, we went after Sarasota,” Emfield said. “Our demographic was about a guy that was much different than most companies were using.”
The team shored up a garment supplier in China who used silks and what the group called “vanity sizing.” In other words, as Emfield said, “a medium wasn’t a medium, really.” When money started coming in, they found traditional advertising to be challenging. So, Emfield suggested a restaurant.
After much “lively” discussion among the team and local restaurateur, Richard D’Amico, they decided to open a revolutionary concept.
“We decided we were going to do a retail and restaurant together for eater-tainment,” Emfield said.
They opened in Naples in 1992 and it was a hit.
Eater-tainment meant candles and lifestyle items on top of apparel. When deciding what to sell, or how to lay out stores, Tommy was never far away.
“When we hold meetings in Seattle, which was our home office, we used to put four chairs at the table,” Emfield said.”“He wasn’t there yet, but he gets a vote.”
What started as just a few employees in the early ’90s turned into 4,000 by 2004. That’s when the partners decided to sell to Georgia based Oxford industries.
Now, Emfield is living the lifestyle he could only imagine more than 20 years ago.
“Life is one long weekend,” he said.
Emfield stays close to the owners of the company. He quail hunts with them every year. His son Greg has also worked for the company since day one.
Emfield met his current wife Laurie at his son’s wedding, of all places. Bob and Laurie got married just down the street from the original Tommy Bahama restaurant in Naples, Fla. They split their time between Naples and Orono.