Son takes the helm at Tom’s Market
- Published: February 9, 2022
After 57 years in the small-town grocery business, Tom Gray is retiring.
That’s over half a century of waking up before dawn, bagging groceries, stocking shelves, cutting checks, unloading trucks, corralling carts, sorting out swordfish orders, putting out fresh doughnuts and doing, well, just about anything that’s needed to get done around Tom’s Market.
In a recent interview with the News, Gray said he’s proud of his life’s work: that is, decades of simply helping people, from near and far, right in the heart of downtown Yellow Springs.
But, as Gray said, all good things must come to an end.
“It’s not going to be easy hanging it up, but I am looking forward to not having to go into work every morning,” the 71-year-old grocer said with a smile.
Gray said he plans to catch up on his hobbies. He’s got his 1930 Ford Sedan Delivery to tinker on, woodworking projects to dust off and, most importantly, quite a bit of relaxing to do — something that overseeing a grocery store in the midst of a global pandemic doesn’t allow much of.
But what of the store?
Well, it’s always been a family business and it’s going to stay one.
Gray’s youngest son, Jeff, will soon be taking the reins from his father.
“It was about seven years ago when I told my dad that I’d be interested in someday stepping in his shoes and taking over the store,” Jeff Gray said. “And here we are, finally making it happen.”
The father-to-son ownership transition began late last August, when the younger Gray, now aged 48, moved back home to Yellow Springs after spending the previous 23 years working and living in Phoenix, Ariz.
Jeff Gray said he initially went out west to follow a rock-and-roll career that, according to him, didn’t work out the way he wanted. As a sound tech and band manager, he was traveling with an outfit he described as equal parts funk, rock, blues and metal.
“In the end, we didn’t hit the big time,” he said.
But like his father, Jeff Gray is a master of many trades. While in Arizona, he started his own company doing home remodeling, specializing in electrical work. Eventually, he landed in a management role with one of the largest scrap companies in Phoenix.
Since his homecoming, Jeff Gray has helped with a number of big maintenance projects around the market: rewiring the store’s overhead lights and tuning up some of the coolers, among other in-house jobs.
But mostly, he’s been shadowing his dad around the store.
“I’ve been trying to learn the nuts and bolts — not just learning the day-to-day duties of what my dad does, but also taking over some of those duties,” Jeff Gray said.
“Eventually, I’ll just kind of fade away from the daily work of the store,” Tom Gray added.
Meanwhile, the younger Gray’s recent aim has been getting customers used to seeing him around the store. He said it’s important to him to let customers and community members know that their favorite grocery store will still be in good — and especially familiar — hands.
“The main goal is to carry on the legacy that my father started 57 years ago,” Jeff Gray said. “He’s made this store what it is.”
Both father and son spoke to the shared sense of relief they’ve experienced throughout the ongoing transition process — a relief grounded in a mutual trust that the store will ultimately continue to flourish under its new owner.
“As my dad’s been taking more time off here and there, it makes me feel good to know that he knows that I’m here and I’m taking care of business,” Jeff Gray said. “I’m comfortable because he’s comfortable. He trusts me — he’s able to take a deep breath and relax.”
His father agreed, but added: “Like I’ve been telling people, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll always be just a phone call away.”
A grocer’s life
Tom Gray’s story is a famous one around Yellow Springs.
As a freshman at Yellow Springs High School in 1965, Gray got his first job as a bag boy at the grocery store — then Luttrell’s, named after owner Ed Luttrell — working alongside his two older brothers.
Back then, he said, the village was home to four groceries: Carlisle’s, located where the Yellow Springs Credit Union currently sits; the IGA farther south down Xenia Avenue; and the co-op store on High Street. It was around that time when Luttrell’s took over the space that was once Grinnell’s Paint and Appliance Store. In those days, there were two houses sitting in what is now the Tom’s Market parking lot.
Although Gray imagined himself becoming an auto mechanic, he found himself in the rank and file of the Marine Corps upon graduating from high school. After two years of service, Tom Gray came back to the village and found quick work back in the aisles of the grocery. By the time of his return in the early ’70s, the store had gotten a new name: Weaver’s, after Luttrell’s successor, Bud Weaver.
It wasn’t long before Gray began managing the produce department at Weaver’s. Then he moved to the meat department. Then dairy. A couple of years later, Weaver asked him to manage the grocery department. Eventually, Gray took over as store manager — a position he held for the next 15 years.
Cut to 2001. Gray had gotten married, had several kids and was doing alright for himself as a small-town grocer. In the middle of that year, Weaver approached him with an enticing offer.
“It was an easy decision to buy the store,” Gray said. “I had basically been running it for the last 20 years, and I had already told Bud that when he was ready to sell the store, I wanted to be the first one in line.”
The store was his, and by 2002, it became Tom’s Market.
According to Gray, the last two decades have ushered in a number of changes in the grocery business. With those changes came challenges — and chief among those has been the perennial feat of competing with larger chains.
“I think it’s a real success that we’re still here,” Gray said.
“A lot of small grocery stores have gone under with the larger stores like the Krogers, the Meijers, the Walmarts and all these different guys that are out there now,” he said. “I just don’t have the buying power they do.”
As Gray told the News in a 2017 interview, the opening of the new Kroger Marketplace on Dayton-Yellow Springs Road — just six miles southwest of Tom’s Market — posed a significant threat to his small store.
“We took a hit after Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods opened, but business came back,” Gray said. “It’s taking a little longer this time.”
Then, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic struck and Tom’s Market gained its designation as an “essential business.” At a frightening and uncertain time, when many downtown businesses were temporarily closing their doors, Tom’s remained open.
Although the store brought in a significant amount of local business from villagers, the ongoing pandemic has not been without its troubles. From toilet paper scarcity, keeping the store sanitized, difficulties enforcing the masking policy and more — the past two years have not been easy, Gray reported.
“But right now our biggest challenge is labor,” Gray said.
Both he and his son — who’s also experiencing the difficulties of labor shortage firsthand — have had to fill in around the store on a regular basis just to keep up with business.
“A lot of people want a paycheck, but not a lot of people really want to work,” Gray said. “I know it’s COVID-related, but it’s been hard for us.”
Despite and through it all, Gray has never lost sight of his true north: meeting customers’ needs.
Whether it’s making sure an Antioch student from California has her favorite brand of organic soap or helping an elderly customer bring his groceries out to his car, Gray has spent his life on the frontlines, ensuring his patrons get the customer service he believes they deserve from his store.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’ve never been the boss,” he said. “Everybody who walks through those doors is my boss.”
Even after all these years, Gray goes through the store’s suggestion box — the small wooden container right by the front register — each and every day.
“That’s my main job: taking care of the customer and making sure they have what they want,” he said. “Sure, the customer is not always right, but they’re always the customer.”
A new era
Already, Jeff Gray’s confidence about running his father’s store has grown.
“I feel it every single day when I come in here,” he said. “It just feels right — like this is where I belong and that this is what I should be doing.”
The younger Gray said he’s looking forward to implementing improvements around the store.
For one, he hopes to integrate more and better technology in the day-to-day operations of the market. An upgraded point of sale system is already underway.
“I’m also trying to get us out there on the social media landscape to get more of an online presence for the store,” he said.
Gray said he hopes to hop from department to department, working with each manager and hearing their ideas on how things can improve.
“There are a lot of people who have been here for a long time,” he said. “I want everybody’s input. I’m asking them, ‘What do you see for your department and how can I help you get there?’”
Gray said he’s already begun sussing out new ideas with longtime deli manager Mike Garrett.
“Mike’s a wealth of knowledge and experience in the food industry — especially with cheeses and charcuteries,” Gray said. “He and I are looking to expand the lunch menu and get some more recipes going in the deli.”
Even with his big plans for the store, Gray said he plans to stick to the road his father’s paved.
“The quality of the products we provide — especially in the meat and produce departments — that’s certainly not going to change,” Gray said. “The quality of the people who work here. The cleanliness of the store. The positive experience of shopping here. None of that’s going to change. All of those things have always been here and are things that’ll always be here.”
And the name?
“That’s not changing either,” he said. “This will still be Tom’s Market.”