For a small town with big city needs, Tom’s delivers the goods
- Published: June 5, 2008
For a small town grocery store, it might be considered unusual that Tom’s Market carries 16 kinds of olives, six kinds of tofu (if you count the Tofu Pups), ground lamb, Italian parsley and cheesecloth. Customers in the produce aisle can sometimes be heard exclaiming surprise at finding fresh jalapenos or shiitake mushrooms they were pretty sure their local grocery store wouldn’t have. But even after 43 years in the grocery business at that particular location, Tom Gray still finds that to succeed, he must get advice from his higher-ups on how to stock his store.
“I ask my customers,” he said with a knowing look. “People say, ‘Oh it must be nice not having to answer to anyone,’ but actually everyone who walks through that door is my boss.”
Six years after purchasing the grocery store from Bud Weaver, Gray is expanding organics to almost one-third of his stock, moving more produce than the store has ever sold, and ordering from a wide variety of specialty distributors. But Gray has been in the business so long that the secret to it is locked in his bones, and he finds it hard to describe how he keeps a town with diverse needs happy with only as much variety as 10,000 square feet of retail space affords.
The business has weathered its downturns, such as when two Kroger’s in Fairborn and on Dayton-Yellow Springs Road opened, and the current economic setback and increasing gas prices have presented another temporary challenge — Tom’s won’t be replacing any of its aging refrigerated cases this year. The closure of Antioch College also threatens the loss of faculty shoppers, who have been very loyal customers over the years, Gray said.
Still, overall, Gray feels the business is stable enough to pay the bills, keep the payroll going and still have enough to repave the parking lot this summer.
“For a small store, I feel we do a good job of trying to have what customers want, and I see us staying that way for the foreseeable future,” Gray said.
Meeting the need
First there are the organics. Though the store has been selling organics since well before it was the rage, customers, 90 percent of whom are local, are always requesting more organic produce and grocery items. Currently the ratio has risen to about 40 percent organic items to 60 percent conventional groceries. Not sure that it would be a big seller when he started stocking Horizon organic milk on a customer’s suggestion several years ago, nearly half the milk Tom’s sells now is organic. Horizon now boasts its own refrigerated case, and the store has added two more kinds of organic milk brands as well as fresh soy milk.
Gray stocks what customers say they want. If it sells, he said, he orders more of it. But if it doesn’t move consistently, he has to think about discontinuing it to use the shelf space for something more productive.
Take the pre-washed salad, for instance. A customer suggested Tom’s start selling boxed salad greens, which Gray admitted recently he didn’t think would work. But he stocked it consistently, in the same spot long enough that customers noticed it and then began to rely on its availability. Happy to eat his humble oats, Gray kept up with increasing demand and now has two refrigerated cases dedicated to prewashed salads.
On the other hand, too often Tom’s has not sold enough Bakehouse Bread, another suggested product, to pay for the weekly delivery from Dayton, and Gray is considering discontinuing the product.
“If you try to sell something new you need to stick with it to see if it’ll work, and it’s gotta be there all the time,” he said. “And there’s thousands of things we’ve tried that didn’t work.”
Produce in general is something the Yellow Springs market supports, and the fresh section at Tom’s has gone from a small section that used to fit on three freestanding tables to 300 items that account for a third of the store’s selection and take up the whole back section of the store.
“We’re constantly looking at expanding produce,” Gray said.
In contrast, 30 years ago villagers were eating so much red meat that it was the biggest single section in the store, Gray said. But now he finds the red meat section is one of the smallest and still shrinking, he said. Now Tom’s is all about fresh fish, chicken and turkey sausage. Shoppers also come for the Boar’s Head deli meats, Brother Bear coffee and items such as Mexican molé sauce. Gray knows his customers: they are health-conscious, daily shoppers who want fresh foods to cook for tonight or tomorrow night’s meal.
“It’s not a meat and potatoes market here in Yellow Springs,” he said.
Competing with the machine
Have you ever gone to much bigger chain stores thinking surely they would have organic chicken broth or dried poblano chile and to your astonishment just could not find it there? Perhaps it’s about expectations, but for a small town grocer, Tom’s pays particular attention to the needs of Yellow Springs customers and has developed a unique way of meeting them to keep the locals happy and coming back.
Kroger’s reported over $66 billion in sales in 2007 and is currently the second largest grocery retailer in the country by volume and third-place general retailer in the country, behind Wal-Mart and The Home Depot, according to Wikipedia. The Kroger’s operating on Dayton-Yellow Springs Road has about 57,000 square feet of retail space, or five times that of Tom’s, according to Gray. The space for produce alone likely approaches the size of Tom’s whole store.
But the vast space that Kroger’s has to manage is a liability if the staff can’t keep up with the demands of the perishable food clock. With a smaller store, Gray has a lot less rotten vegetables to worry about.
“I don’t want a section that big if I can’t keep it fresh,” he said. “We’re the right size here.”
Pricing is a sensitive subject, complicated by a volatile market and the trickle down effect of competition between the bigger chains such as Wal-Mart and Kroger’s. Typically, Supervalu, Tom’s main supplier, suggests a retail price for all of its items and then keeps Tom’s informed of the weekly change in price on items such as milk, eggs, bananas and seasonal produce. The prices of those items are set by the big box stores, who have such large cash flow reserves that they can store items for much longer than Gray can afford to, he said.
As a rule Gray sticks close to the suggested prices because, as he says, he doesn’t want to lose customers by pricing above Kroger’s, but he doesn’t want to lose money either by pricing under them.
Kroger’s has its own generic brand of most foods, and Tom’s carries the affordable Flavorite brand for many items, which allows for comparable prices between the two stores’ selections. And Kroger’s has the ability to offer many items in larger volumes, which naturally drives prices down even further. But prices aren’t the only concern for many shoppers, as several described in recent interviews.
The view from the aisle
Convenience is a big one for residents such as Phillip Bottelier, who rides his bike to Tom’s just about every day for a fresh vegetable he needs for dinner or to get more milk when the family of five runs out of it. Bottelier makes a big grocery trip to Kroger’s every one to two weeks because he feels he saves a percentage on bulk items such as pastas, meats, fruits and veggies (the family orders Seventh Generation cleaning and paper products by mail for a separate savings). But he still thinks Tom’s has reasonable prices, and he likes the bulk nuts and grains and the fact that they sell nutritional yeast, which Kroger’s does not.
“Tom’s is a pretty cool little store if you ask me, and it’s rare that I go there for something and they don’t have it — I’ve looked for weird flours or mangoes before, and they usually have what I need,” he said.
Buying groceries at Tom’s also saves on time and money spent in the car, he said. “You think of the ethics too, because I always ride my bike to go to Tom’s, so I’m not polluting and contributing to global warming — it feels really good to shop there.”
Local resident Nathan Badger shops in a very similar way, stocking up at Kroger’s several times a month and making lots of smaller trips to Tom’s, which in his opinion carries a nicer selection of high-quality items such as the yogurts, cheeses, meats and organic products.
And it’s the community role that shopping at Tom’s plays that draws Badger there as well for impromptu meetings with friends and acquaintances who share warm greetings and information about the village.
Local resident Janeal Ravndal walks to Tom’s nearly every day with her backpack looking to buy any item that is on sale. She buys a lot of tomatoes and mushrooms, and there is always some kind of fruit marked down, she said. Ravndal said she has trouble resisting a good bargain, and a lot of what you can get at Tom’s is a bargain, she said.
“A lot of things at Tom’s are cheaper than at Kroger’s, like the veggies, brown rice, whole wheat flour, some meats, and at Thanksgiving and Christmas Tom’s prices on turkeys were just as good as Kroger’s,” she said. “Kroger’s has all these silly things like get two for one, but that 67 cents a pound for turkey at Tom’s was pretty good.”
Her goal is to shop at Tom’s more often, and she recently purchased a cart at a garage sale which she hopes will help her transport more food from Tom’s.
“I want to support Tom’s because it’s such an important institution,” she said.
Old school management style
Working the tightly-packed retail space at Tom’s requires the eyes and ears of 30 full- and part-time employees. It is notable that most of the managerial staff has been with the store, known previously as Luttrell’s and then Weaver’s, for an average of 20 years, and that Tom Gray, the current owner, has worked there for 43 years. Such an experienced staff also manages its own sections, such as Sonny Walden, who takes care of the dairy and frozen sections; Sheri Wilson, the deli; and Dave Trollinger, the store’s general manager and produce guy, and Terry Trollinger, the meat manager.
Dealing with food suppliers as a smaller store can be more relaxed, said Gray, who gives the salesmen from the more regular distributors the freedom to walk his aisles and order “whatever they think will sell.” Gray gives the suppliers the power to fill the holes in the shelves as they see fit, but he also expects that they’ll take responsibility for an order that didn’t sell and will credit the store and take back the excess.
Working this way, Tom’s has about 25 different suppliers who deliver to the store, some of them twice a week. Supervalu is the conventional grocery supplier in Xenia that has been coming to Yellow Springs since Ed Luttrell owned the business in the 1950s and provides two-thirds of the dry goods at Tom’s. The other major third of the groceries comes from Kehe Foods in Chicago, who delivers once a week. And the bigger chips and cracker companies send their own people to personally manage each delivery; these include Frito Lay, Nabisco, Keebler, Pepperidge Farm, and Mike-Sells, which is headquartered in Dayton.
Tom’s gets smaller deliveries from smaller companies such as Tree of Life Organics, L & K from Delphos, Spring Creek, and Frankferd Farms from Pennsylvania, which supplies Tom’s stone ground organic flour. And Tom’s also gets limited produce from local growers such as Peach Mountain Organics, Anderson Farm Market and several Yellow Springs organic gardeners. And some local products, such as Brother Bear’s coffee, draw customers from outside the village, Gray said.
As the store’s main floater, Gray is never idle, and he isn’t always at the store, either. Some deliveries are close enough, that it makes more sense for Gray to take his truck to get Dayton Nut products and Esther Price candy himself. And just like the deliveries he used to make to the Antioch Inn when he first started working for Luttrell’s, Gray is still making deliveries to places like the weekly snack drop-off to the Community Children’s Center and the Antioch School. He even makes grocery deliveries to elder Yellow Springs residents who call up and can’t make it in to the store, he said. And recently, when a customer locked her keys in the car, Gray drove her home to retrieve them.
“People know if they need us we’re here,” he said. “We do whatever it takes; it’s not a big deal.”