by Kurt Krumme
Thirty years ago, when I was a tyke, I would accompany my mother on her grocery shopping trips. Granted, being four years old I didn’t have much of a choice, nor did I care for it in particular, but there was always one thing that made it special. We always finished up with a trip to Tom’s Natural Foods, where I would be rewarded with a treat of fruit leather, or a dried pineapple ring.
Getting a treat as a child was always great, of course, but what really struck my young brain, and continues to this day, still shopping there 30 years later, was the atmosphere, Tom’s general sense of well being, comfort, and of course, the delicious smells. Oh, those delicious smells.
Tom’s continues its tradition of providing the Mohawk Valley with amazing organic and local whole foods, including breads, cheeses, meats, supplements, dried foods, and produce, (well gosh darn it you name it they have it), to this day. But maybe first some history.
Tom’s was founded by Tom Bell (who us locals likely know from the CNY “Party Band” Puttin’ on the Ritz) at the ripe old age of 19, in 1972. Originally located on Park Row in Clinton, as the business grew, Tom’s soon moved to its location at 16 College street, where it continues to operate to this day. Joined by his partner Bonnie Wood in the early 80s, Tom’s Natural Foods maintained under the management of Tom Bell for a whopping 48 years strong. After such a tremendous run, Tom and Bonnie recently decided to hand over the reigns, and a historical Clinton tradition continues.
Pictured: A sampling of local organic bread and meats available at Tom’s Natural Foods
After careful consideration, (hey, you don’t put in 48 years of your life lightly) the reigns were handed over to a well-versed trio, who share an equal three-way-split on investing in Tom’s: Jason Townsend, Andrew Sblendorio, and Nancy Morelle. Jason Townsend is an Environmental Science professor at Hamilton College, and also the owner and manager of Kingfisher Farm. Jason also manages the Sweet Water Orchard on Dawes ave in Clinton.
Co-owner Nancy Morelle, has not only worked with Tom and Bonnie in the past at the store, but is also the co-owner of Old Parth Farm, a 100+ member CSA.
Andrew Sblendorio, a graduate of SUNY Fredonia in Philosophy with a minor in Business (not to mention a lot of classical guitar) and primarily a landscaper previous to Tom’s, was helping on Jason’s farm, and after the connections had been made, jumped at the chance to be a part of the team.
I have had the pleasure to encounter this dynamic trio many times since they took the helm, and Andrew was more than happy to answer a few questions for me about the transition.
Andrew Sblendorio –
Q: What drew you to Tom’s?
A: “Jason really got us in, making the connections. Nancy was interested way before, and started working at Tom’s in 2013, with the idea that maybe she could take over eventually down the road, if that was ever needed. She wanted to keep the tradition alive.”
Q: What have you changed in the store?
A: “Not much. What I am realizing is that the business is built around Tom and Bonnie’s idiocintric methods. And also with the space, its the layout. You wonder, why is it like that? And then you realize that it’s that way because it works. We originally tried to make some changes, and maybe later we will, but also, we realized that its that way for a reason. Its not broke, why fix it? It works the way it is.”
Q: One of my favorite things, that I buy here frequently, are the spices. When I started my catering business, I was buying 5 to 6 pounds of spices here a week. Sometimes I still do, and sometimes you special order them for me. And I couldn’t afford that anywhere else. Personally I love it. What is your take on your spice rack?
A: “I love it. And its not really a rack, as you know, its more of a whole wall of spices.”
(Authors note: Like many people, I come to Toms all the time to get spices. Spices are extremely important for delicious cooking, and I like having access to the 100+ spices that Toms provides. For me, the best part is that you can get as much or as little as you want. Why buy 2 oz of rosemary for 8 bucks at a big store when you can weigh out as little or as much as you need for a tenth of the price? Seriously.)
Q: What do you plan to do differently in the future, maybe for the growth of the business?
A: “I think we can be strong in specializing in things, instead of being as general as some other health food stores. Possibly, fermentation supplies. And of course the spices. To be a place that people know they can get all the spices. Maybe a bigger tea supply, verses trying to have more variations on things like, say packaged pasta. Which you could get anywhere, especially now. I think that, from what I understand, Tom’s has always been offering what the big stores don’t. So we do more interesting and progressive products that they cant, or won’t. With a business, you have to be general for the general public. But we aim to be a specialty food option for the discretionary shopper. There has to be a balance.”
Q; I’ve been shopping here for 30 years; I know that you have virtually everything.What are some of your best sellers, to name a few?
A: “Cheese. Four year aged extra sharp cheddar. Spices, definitely healthy bulk grains; rice, oats, nuts, Tom’s homemade crunchy bars. These are all great sellers, and I can see why. Healthy, local, organic. Thats what works.”
Q: I love your supply of Asian products for my home cooking. Can you give some examples of your Asian foods?
A: “Sure, besides our fresh fruits and vegetables, our dried and canned Asian goods include Udon noodles, rice noodles, bulk miso, south River Miso, bulk tamari, and of course, all the spices.”
Q: I know that you guys have a wide variety of local and organic meat products for sale. You said earlier that you used to be vegan. How does this correlate to the business?
A: “The meat industrial system isn’t what it should be, and that turns a lot of people off. It makes a difference when you know the people in the supply chain, and that they have a symbiotic relationship, as there is a symbiotic relationship between plants, animals and people. In a certain way, having that knowledge is very important. Like knowing where your cheese comes from. In certain situations, that holds up more than others. Meats and cheeses, definitely.”
Q: Tom and Bonnie used to do quite a lot of smoothies here. Do you plan on keeping with that tradition as well?
A: “Absolutely. Fruit smoothies, make your own, mix and match, make your own, your milk type, oat, almond and soy. Fully vegan. $3.45 for two fruits in 16 oz. Its a great deal. Possibly we will do a more elaborate smoothie menu in the future: Kale, veggies, carrots, etc. We will elaborate depending on the customer feedback.”
Q: My mother used to come here for, well, all kinds of stuff, but sometimes, specifically for your iced coffee, because Tom used coffee ice cubes so that the coffee would not be diluted. Another tradition you plan to continue?
A: “More than likely. The coffee ice cubes were a standard of Toms own invention, and we plan on bringing that back, due to popular demand. Its a specialty item that Tom and Bonnie pioneered for this area, and that is the type of product that we would like to keep going, here locally, for the loyal patrons who have enjoyed what Tom’s has offered for years.”
Q: If I asked you to summarize some thoughts about the whole project, and I know that is vague…what might you want to add?
A: “We want to emphasize as many local products as possible. And give people who make local products a place to sell their high quality products, for good prices; products that you cant get anywhere else. Not Syracuse, NYC, Albany…It’s all here. Our artisan bread is a great example. Heartstone Artisan Bakery. Its everything. Light, heavy, thick, crusty, so many kinds. But it’s all fresh, and local. That is exactly what we are going for. Its a tradition that Tom and Bonnie Spent decades building, and that we want to keep going. It’s all about community.”
“High quality Products, following the seasons, with the community in mind. Its an honest store, for the people. Carrying on a time tested, honest tradition. The purpose and goal of the store: for me, is to give people a place where they can feel their own individuality and soul, reflected in their food community. A place where people can feel like they are are part of it. Walmart puts you in a box. Toms is a place where people can see themselves affecting the world, their own health, and having an impact. Where big business doesn’t take over. Where good things can still exist in our society, and you can support them, and yourself. “
Thank you Andrew, Nancy, and Jason, for keeping such a great local tradition going strong.
Toms Natural Foods can be found at 16 College Street in Clinton, and at 315-853-6360. Their hours are Monday through Friday from 10am to 6pm, and Saturday, 10am to 5 pm.