Professional Portrait: Robert Weinberg

Dating that hard-to-shop-for man/woman who has everything? With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, you are probably tied up in knots trying to figure out the perfect gift and how to celebrate that most special of nights.

Fear not. LGBT entrepreneurs Eric Matzke and Robert Weinberg have everything planned for you. The handsome couple own City Food Tours, a company offering specialized food tasting tours in New York and Philadelphia. This Saturday, they are offering a special Aphrodisiac Tasting Tour featuring samples of artisanal and handcrafted foods, interactive games and a cooking demonstration so you can learn the sexy science behind the foods you’ll be tasting. I took a little time to talk to the man behind the mocha, Robert Weinberg.

PGN: I know you do a Flavor of Philly Foods tour featuring cheesesteak, Tastykakes and other Philadelphia staples. Are you from around here? RW: I was born in Flushing, N.Y. But I grew up in a section of Long Island called Great Neck until I left to come to Philadelphia for college. Other than a few years overseas, I’ve lived here all my life.

PGN: But your parents lived here for a while? RW: My mother got her first job in Philly in the mid-’50s. She is a retired speech pathologist, and at the time she worked at CHOP [Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania] while my father was attending Wharton business school. They met in Brooklyn, N.Y. She later taught at Adelphi University, which was the first institution of higher education for the liberal arts and sciences on Long Island. She taught there for a while and then joined the Board of Trustees when she retired. My father was an investment banker — back when that was a good thing to be. He passed away in ’82. Wow, that was more then 25 years ago. She remarried a high-school biology teacher named Paul about four or five years after my father died. She met him in an anthropology class at NYU, and I’ll never forget, one of the first things that they did together was to assemble a skeleton on our billiard table. They still do all sorts of creepy things together. I have an older sister, Joyce. She’s also a Wharton grad. And a twin brother who went to undergrad at Penn with me while Joyce was in business school. It was a bizarre little concentration of Weinberg children in the Philadelphia area. My brother lives out in California. We’re identical twins, but he didn’t come out until about 10 years after college. He’d never told me he was gay, and then one day I got an invitation to a wedding for him and his partner. I didn’t even know he was seeing anyone, never mind a man. It was a heck of a way to come out to everyone.

PGN: Did you do twin things with your brother? RW: My name is Robert, so I always wore red; my twin’s name is Bruce so he always wore blue. One day we switched colors and went to each other’s classes for the whole day. Our friends knew, but the teachers never picked up on it. Someone from the New York Times heard about it and did a story about the “Color Coded Twins.” The only other devilish thing we did is that we learned to finger spell in sign language. We were pretty serious musicians — I played the clarinet and my brother played the trumpet — so my parents got a subscription to the New York Philharmonic for us. One time we were furiously spelling to each other during a concert. The woman behind us saw us, and my mother overheard her saying, “Isn’t that nice that she brought her deaf children even though they can’t hear the music.” My mother was mortified, and we weren’t allowed to do it anymore, especially at the orchestra!

PGN: Do you still wear red? RW: No. I hate it. That was such an awful, awful thing that my mother did to us. I think in rebellion I started wearing brown. I blame her for the fact that I have no taste in clothes. I have no interest in fashion whatsoever. It’s funny: I don’t drink, I don’t dance, I’m not into clothes, I swear if I didn’t have sex with guys I don’t know if I’d qualify for my gay card.

PGN: What was your favorite thing to do as a kid? RW: Oh my gosh. I’m only 40, but it seems like so long ago! I guess riding my bike and going to the park. But probably the best thing was sailing. We had a boat the entire time I was growing up and we would sail each weekend.

PGN: Were you an athletic kid? RW: Oh, God no! NO, NO, NO! God no. I was the typical gay kid making up excuses to try to get out of gym class and always either on the sidelines or in the nurse’s office.

PGN: Do you remember what your favorite toy was? RW: I was such a geek. Remember that game “Simon,” you know with the Errrr, ehhhh, errrrr sounds and you had to follow the flashing lights. We played that on the boat all the time. That and Monopoly were my games.

PGN: An early sign that you were gay? RW: So help me God, I remember being on the playground in first grade and while all the boys were playing kickball I was on the side making daisy chains with the girls in my class. We’d take dandelion flowers and spilt the ends and thread them through with another flower and do it over and over and make necklaces out of them. I just remember always hanging around with the girls, until about third grade when I had my first crush on a boy. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but by sixth grade I knew exactly what it was and by ninth grade … well, we won’t get into that!

PGN: Ever have any paranormal experiences? RW: I’m a practical kind of guy. If I can’t see it, feel it, touch it or taste it, and I do mean that in the dirtiest sense, I don’t believe it. I’m the worst Jew on the planet; I’m pretty much the poster boy for atheism.

PGN: Well if you did come back as an object, what would you want to be? RW: Chris Evans’ underwear! He’s that hot guy from the “Fantastic Four.”

PGN: A favorite book as a kid? RW: I just saw it on TV the other day, and it took me back 20 years: “Flowers in the Attic” by V. C. Andrews. I loved that book. That and anything by Isaac Asimov, go figure. Oh, and I loved Judy Blume books, now that was an early sign that I was gay!

PGN: Song you’re embarrassed to admit that you like? RW: Strip clubs. They don’t really have them for boys here in Philly, but they have them in D.C. and Atlanta, in Montreal. Wherever there is one, we’ll find it.

PGN: [Laughs.] Actually, the question was song you like, not thing you like, but that was a fine answer. RW: Oh! Well, there’s the Dolly Parton song “9 to 5.” I fucking love that song, and I don’t think I’m supposed to!

PGN: Two sounds that disturb you? RW: I hate thunder, which is funny because my partner loves it. If there’s a storm, he immediately comes over to me and holds me and tells me it’s going to be OK. Thunder really freaks me out. I also get startled by the sound of a light bulb popping. I hate that noise. Since I’m in construction it happens fairly often. Ironically, chalkboards don’t bother me at all like they do some people.

PGN: What did you study at U of P? RW: Believe it or not, I majored in Japanese. I used to tell people I saw the movie “Shogun” one too many times. It actually did have a lot to do with it. It didn’t hurt that I had a crush on the star, Richard Chamberlain. And we didn’t even know her was gay back then! I went to Japan twice before I even went to college. I really liked studying the culture.

PGN: What did you think you were going to be when you grew up? RW: I actually thought I was going to be a doctor. All throughout high school I volunteered at local hospitals. My brother and I had a competition to see who could log the most hours, so I put in thousands of hours helping sick people. It was actually the med school interns that changed my mind. Seeing them log 60-70 hours a week, trying to cope with no sleep and generally hating their lives convinced me to do something else. I really did like the Shogun book and started to think that studying a language was something I could make into a profession. It was during the period when the Japanese were really getting involved with American businesses. They were buying up Rockefeller Center and the Empire State building and opening a lot of trade. Unfortunately, I wanted to stay here, and Philly was not a big place for international trading.

PGN: Did you leave the field? RW: Yes, I spent a few years working with Habitat for Humanity building houses.

PGN: Well, I guess you have a little “butch” in you! RW: I have a lot of butch in me! I’ve done construction for years. I’ve done several rehabs. Wait, that sounds bad, I mean houses not drugs. I’m telling you, you get this little gay Jewish boy in a tool belt, and it’s all over. I’ve gutted probably six or seven properties myself, including the house we’re living in now. I’ve done friends’ houses; I do all sorts of hard-core construction work. Oh yeah, it’s shocking I know, but that’s part of the fun. People look at me, and I’m not flamey, but I’m definitely a gay boy and kind of geeky. They’re always surprised that I’m actually pretty good at what I do!

PGN: If your home is any indication, you’re very good at it. RW: Thank you. I also went to culinary school in the summer during college. The reason that I did that is that my mother never cooked a thing … ever. So I was really intimidated by the kitchen. I don’t like feeling intimidated by anything, so I decided to learn all about it. I didn’t want to open a restaurant or anything, I just wanted to master it. I was tired of asking people how to boil water!

PGN: How did you get into the food business? RW: My sister was between jobs. She’d been working for General Mills, and I’d just finished up a few houses, and we were each trying to figure out what to do next. She suggested that we open up a restaurant. It was called Beyond Measure. It was back where the old Commissary restaurant used to be. We bought the building, and I did some of the construction. This was in 1995, and we worked well together for a while, but we were never on the best terms, and this really strained the relationship. It was a good idea to open it, and it was a good idea to close it. I always tell people that the fun of losing money wore off. I got into real-estate development and, for a while, enjoyed getting a real paycheck. I got out of it just in time about three years ago. And who would have guessed, I’m now back in business with my sister. My partner, Eric, and I just started the Philly branch of City Food Tours a little over a year ago. My sister had started the company in New York, and she encouraged us to get involved. The first few months were very difficult because although we’d been together for 10 years, we’d never worked together. He’s much more artistic and creative, and I am all into control and numbers. I was trying to get him to be more like me, and he was trying make me act more like him. But as soon as we acknowledged that we both had valid things to bring to the table, we were able to divide duties, and things were able to run smoothly.

PGN: What do the food tours consist of? RW: We offer both public and private food tours and events. We go to places like Di Bruno Bros. and do a cheese tasting and talk about how cheese is made. We might go to Naked Chocolate Café and learn the process of making chocolate from the cocoa beans to the final product. Joe Coffee has done some great demonstrations about coffee. If you learn something along the way to impress your friends that’s just a bonus, the most important thing is having fun. And of course you get to taste some of the best food in Philly. We’ve added more tours and events as we’ve grown, and so many of the area businesses have been amazingly supportive. The sisters at Tbar on 12th Street have been great, the folks over at PHAG shop and Duross and Langel have all participated in events with us.

PGN: What the most memorable thing that’s happened on a tour? RW: Eric was doing a tour about a month ago, and there was a guy acting really weird. He was jumpy and nervous and sweaty and, as the tour went on, he got progressively worse. We didn’t know if the guy was on drugs or what. Eric was getting pretty concerned when the guy confessed to him that the reason he was so nervous and shaky was that he was going to propose to his girlfriend on the tour. With a sigh of relief Eric said, “OK, you just tell me how you want to do it, and we’ll take care of it.” At our third stop in Tavern 17 (another great place), he proposed to her and, thankfully, she accepted. Everyone on the tour had a great time.

PGN: Speaking of romance, how did you and Eric meet? RW: A friend, Len Barbour, introduced us. It was not love at first sight. I gave him my number, and he threw it away (he says he misplaced it). A few weeks later, I ran into him again, and I gave him a hard time. We went out, and this time he warmed up to me. A few months later we moved in together.

PGN: I was looking at your Web site and was surprised at how reasonably priced your tours are. RW: Yes, especially considering how personal they are. We never have more than 12-15 people on a tour. They generally last between two-three hours and usually include samples; some tours also include a full meal.

PGN: How’s business? RW: We’ve been growing disgustingly fast. There was an article in the Inquirer on New Year’s Day that really put us over the top. We’ve also been working with Therese Flaherty at the Wharton Small Business Development Center, and they’ve been very helpful. She’s really amazing. She got one of her students to be our consultant. His name is Dalglish and, aside from being gorgeous, he’s also brilliant. And we found out that he’s gay! I usually assume everybody’s gay until proven otherwise, but this guy flew completely under my radar. Two hours into the interview, in our home, he said, “What a coincidence that I was the one assigned to you?” Eric and I looked at him and said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “I’m gay of course!”

PGN: You have your Valentine’s Day aphrodisiac tour coming up. What’s a sexy fun food fact? RW: The ancient Aztecs called the avocado tree “Ahuacuatl” meaning “testicle tree” because the fruit hangs together in pairs and looks like male testicles. How’s that for a vision? Aztec women weren’t even allowed out of the house during the harvest season because they were afraid they would be sexually stimulated. They’re actually rich in vitamin E, which helps with reproductive health. Who knew?

PGN: How involved in the LGBT community are you? RW: We’re obviously a gay-owned business, we’re members of the IBA [Independence Business Alliance], which is basically the gay chamber of commerce. We just did a benefit for the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus last weekend, and we’ve started doing “Gay Gourmet OUT-ings,” which are a lot of fun. We also do things with the Liberty Belle Bowling League. I like being involved. I was the treasurer of the William Way Community Center for a while, and I’ve been on the board of DVLF [Delaware Valley Legacy Fund]. I also volunteered with MANNA for about 19 years. Last year we did a cheese and wine pairing for MANNAfest.

For more information, go to www.cityfoodtours.com or call (215) 360-1996.

To suggest a community member for “Professional Portraits,” write to: Professional Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].