Thumb's Up

Upscale single store banks on clean cars, fine wine and bodacious barbecue.

By  Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

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Tom’s Thumb Fresh Market is a reflection of its surroundings. This North Scottsdale, Ariz., business caters to things the locals care about: sparkling cars, delicious food and an upscale experience everywhere they go, even the gas station.

The operation opened for business in January 2012, named after the famous Tom’s Thumb boulder, a point of interest from a nearby mountain range, as well as the main feature of the owner’s original concept: fresh produce.

But James (Kipp) Lassetter, who purchased the building after selling his medical company, has already grown past the produce idea in favor of better-selling, less perishable eats. His focus? Barbecue bistro.

Bistro Beginnings

Lassetter paired up with Chef Tudie Frank-Johnson to develop the menu for the bistro, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., withsit-down service after 4 p.m. weekdays and all day weekends. Customers can dine inside the 2,000-square-foot bistro or on a dog-friendly outdoor patio.

With 18 fueling stations on site, Tom’s Thumb patrons can drive off with full tanks and full stomachs. Chef Tudie will see to that. Hailing from San Antonio, Frank-Johnson came to the table with Southern-style barbecue in mind. The site’s top-selling items are pulled pork and beef brisket, quality-grade meats smoked daily in an Ole Hickory Pits model smoker, but the baked mac and cheese and “3 Little Pigs”(three pork sliders) are also popular. Dinner entree prices range from $9 to $16.

“It’s quite the operation,” says Michael Lawson, general manager. “From 11:30 to 1:30, you can’t even get a seat in here. There are always 15 to 20 people in line just to get to the counter.”

To accelerate those lines, Tom’s Thumb uses iPads and iPhones as its POSsystem, taking orders and running bills through an application called Ambur. It offers wireless mobility and flexibility, allowing the bistro’s 25 employees to serve up to four customers at a time.

The bistro has racked up awards from Arizona magazines, in part due to its open ears to customers’ ideas. When a local patron asked for a specialty omelet with pulled pork and mozzarella, Chef Tudie obliged. It’s now a permanent menu item.

Specialty vs. Convenience

The building, formerly a more conventional c-store, includes a second story, which is now devoted entirely to office space, although Lawson says it’s underused. The first floor is part restaurant, part “specialty store,” which Lawson believes is a more apt name than “convenience store “to describe the product offering.

Although Lasseter didn’t alter the exterior of the building when he bought it, he did open up the interior, creating a bright, airy space with ample room for customers to circulate through the store’s 3,000 square feet. Walk through the double-door entrance and you’ll be greeted on the right with an upscale coffee bar, branded Pinnacle Perk, which serves locally roasted Echo Coffee and cappuccino until 6 p.m. daily, appealing to the store’s affluent clientele. To the left is an expansive wine selection, including as many as 1,000 bottles of more than 200 varieties priced up to $120 each.

“Coming to a c-store, you expect to pay a premium for some of the goods you’re purchasing,” Lawson says, “but we’re competitively priced on wine. We’re looking to do volume.”

Customers can purchase wine by the bottle or the case, and they most definitely do. As the store’s wine business has expanded, overall sales have spiked almost 200% since opening day. The wine-tasting events Tom’s Thumb hosts every Thursday night from 5 to 7 p.m. have helped build that business. Each week local vendors come in and serve samples along a theme—sparkling, red, white, etc.—and Tom’s Thumb provides appetizers. The site also has hosted “beer dinners,” charging $36 per person for a four- to five-course meal, created by Chef Tudie, and a different local beer with each course.

Other specialty items include hand painted Lolita wine glasses, collectible garden watering cans, and greeting cards from brands such as RSVP, Oatmeal Studios, Design Design Inc. and Anne Taintor Greetings. These items also do well with upscale Scottsdale patrons, as does the variety of gluten-free products the store offers. “We’re becoming known as the local gluten-free headquarters,” Lawson says.

Inside and Out

At the back of the store is something you’re not likely to see at a typical convenience store: a chess table, 30 inches by 30 inches, with a seat on each side.“It’s a big hit with customers who are waiting for their car to get washed, “Lawson says.

The soft-touch car wash is made up primarily of MacNeil equipment and run on Blue Coral and Simoniz cleaners.“Only the best,” says Lawson. “We’re not skimping on our chemicals.”

It’s manned by 20 friendly employees wearing the same white jumpsuits golf caddies wear, which promotes a clean image, makes the car washers easy to identify and gives customers peace of mind. “No belts, no watches, nothing that’s going to damage a customer’s car,”Lawson says. And with Lamborghinis and Ferraris regularly coming through, that peace of mind is especially valuable.

Tom’s Thumb offers three primary wash options: Tom’s Exterior, Tom’s Full-Service—a basic inside and outside clean—and the ultimate Thumb Wash, which includes triple foam condition, spray wax, Rain-X for exterior glass and a tire-pressure check, all for $49.99. For $79.99, you can get a hand wash. The car wash also offers carpet shampooing, polishing, waxing, scratch removal and headlight restoration.

Growing Up

Tom’s Thumb isn’t just waiting for customers to come its way. The company reaches out by participating in local events such as Devoured Phoenix, a foodie fair. The business is also scoring virally, participating in an invitation-only tasting event hosted by Yelp.

“Our Yelp reviews have been fantastic, “Lawson says of the site’s 52 reviews, which total 4.5 out of 5 stars. Chef Tudie has done a few local TV spots, sharing recipes and talking up the bistro, which also is promoted through support of local schools. During a two-day period in March, for every customer who mentioned participating school, Tom’s Thumb donated 20% of its profits from the purchase. It also helped cater a Boys &Girls Club fundraiser in the area. And as the store moves into year two, barbecue will be its driving force.“Our best advertising,” says Lawson, “is when [customers] get a pulled-pork taco in their hands.”


Meet Chef Tudie Frank-Johnson

Where did you grow up?

San Antonio.

Where did you learn to cook?

Texas! My great Aunt Frieda and my mom were great cooks.

What previous culinary experience do you have?  

Seafood and Southwestern cooking for more than 30 years.

How long have you been with Tom’s Thumb?

Since its inception.

What’s your favorite menu item?

Love the brisket—it’s a Texas thing!

Other than Tom’s Thumb, where is your favorite place to eat?

Cookouts in my backyard.

What’s something surprising about you?

I rode bulls in the rodeo while attending an all-girls school in San Antonio.

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