CLINTON — Tom's Whole Earth Natural Foods, Clinton's oldest grocery store located at 16 College St., has re-opened under new ownership after 48 years.
Retiring former co-owners and founders Tom Bell and Bonnie Wood posted this as part of a farewell message on their Facebook page on May 30:
"Tom has watched generations pass through his door. First they were the children of the 60s, some of which became the parents of the children of the 70s and 80s. Today these friends bring their grandchildren in to shop and visit.
We would like to thank you all for supporting a small, local, family-owned business in an ever encroaching impersonal big business world."
Bell said he felt it was time to relax a little bit in retirement, and that they were selling the store to good people.
"I'm very happy," he said. "These are nice people and they're into organic foods, they are the right people and they want to do the work. I feel they'll do fine with it."
Wood said the coronavirus outbreak did alter original retirement plans.
"We were going to work until the fall," she said. "But with the virus, we just couldn't be in the store — we just couldn't take that risk. So it was either close it or have somebody take it over."
She said, "These people really wanted it and they seemed like good people, they have a real consciousness for shopping local, organic foods and planetary needs, they're young and who knows, maybe they'll sell it in another 48 years."
One of three new owners, Andrew Sblendorio, of Marcy, said he met co-owner Jason Townsend, a professor of Environmental Science at Hamilton College, who moved to Clinton 4-5 years ago, at the organic certified Kingfisher Farm in Sauquoit, which Townsend owns. Sblendorio helped out at the farm after taking an interest in food plants in 2015.
Nancy Morelle, also a partner, actually worked in Tom's Natural Foods for a number of years, and according to Bell was always, "waiting in the wings," to take the store over one day, while also co-owning Old Path Farm, an organic practicing vegetable farm in New Hartford.
"I was looking for an opportunity in a food-related business,” Sblendorio said. "Jason, who knew Tom and Bonnie from selling them produce for years, told me they were going to retire and perhaps this was something I'd be interested in. Also, Nancy had been interested for a number of years in taking the store over one day, so when the time came, Jason and I were talking about doing it, and she said she wanted to do it too, so we all did it together."
Sblendorio said the original plan was for he and his partners to work with Tom and Bonnie over the summer and get a feel for the store, learn the intricacies of running the business and then take it over in the fall. However the coronavirus pandemic changed that plan, and Tom and Bonnie closed the store in March, like all the other businesses, putting that plan on hold.
"Then one day (in May) we got the call from Bonnie," he said. "They told us Tom was done and basically it was now or never, and we were ready. We bought the store at the end of May."
The partners hit the ground running on their Facebook page, understanding the advantage of social media advertising, especially in these virus-protective times. It was also a way to communicate with their customers — to reach out and assure them they are not only open to offer goods, but to tell people how they would accommodate them in these uncertain days now and ahead.
For example, if people are uncomfortable with coming in to the store, they can call ahead and whatever they're needs are, they’ll be packaged up for pick-up or brought out to your car at curbside.
Sblendorio recruited his brother, Tom, a seasoned professional photographer who took appetizing images of the store's offerings — fresh fruit, vegetables, cheeses, breads and spices. Sblendorio did most of the writing for the posts.
"This is Andrew, one of the new owners at Tom's Natural Foods. I am thankful for the opportunity to keep Tom's alive, and excited to be a part of a deeply rooted community with branches still growing onwards and upwards,” the post read.
Much like their predecessors, the new owners offer wholesome, organic foods, but more importantly — local food, they said.
Sblendorio said shopping and selling local, as did Tom and Bonnie, is a major factor of their brand.
"I know when Tom and Bonnie first started a lot of what they did was very progressive," he said. "They had a lot of things that were not available other places. We'd like to continue that and offer things you can't necessarily find at a place like Hannaford's."
Also, he said they can special order foods and offer customers food in bulk to save them money — products like soap, grains, rice and other items.
"Spices are bought in bulk a lot," he said. "People will buy a pound of a particular spice they like. I have one customer who makes a home-made chutney that's amazing, so he needs things like mustard seed."
In addition, they have bulk maple syrup and bulk soy sauce.
There’s also a variety of gluten-free choices like continuing with "Tom's Original" Ginger Crunchies, Almond Seed Crunchies, and Almond Crunchy bars. Deland certified gluten-free bread, in addition to their popular all-natural millet breads, are also available. They also carry gluten-free and low-gluten breads from HeartStone Artisan Bakery in Cazenovia.
For those who like smoothies, Sblendorio is working up a new menu. They carry local grass-fed beef in the back cooler, and a unique variety of cheeses, like their XXX-sharp 4-year-aged wood-smoked cheddar.
"There's a lot of stuff," Sblendorio said. "Also, there's a lot of stuff that unless you know to ask, you may not necessarily know it's available. So that's a challenge for people. Even those repeat customers who've been shopping here awhile."
Sblendorio said he feels people don't ask for help these days the way they did in years gone by, conditioned by big department stores and shopping online where customer service isn't available as it once was.
"We hope to establish, or perhaps, maintain a more, 'Mom and Pop' atmosphere," he said. "We encourage people to ask questions and to depend on us to help them find what they are looking for."
So far Sblendorio said customers seem to be really excited they have kept the store running. He and his partners hope to establish a place where people seem more anxious these days can come and shop for good food — healthy food — leading to a more peaceful and calmer existence.
"I think that's essential for a healthy community," he said. "When you eat bad food you're going to quite naturally feel bad. When you eat good food, you have a much better chance of feeling good."
Store hours are currently Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and closed Sunday and Mondays. Check out their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Toms-Natural-Foods for new ideas and see special items or give the store a call at 315-853-6360.