How long have you managed Tom’s?
“Probably about 35 years…The restaurant has been in the family for a long time. My father was a part owner years ago, and then he passed on his share to me, and there are several other cousins. It’s like a family business.”
What do you do as manager?
“Well basically anything besides cooking I do: hiring, firing, ordering food, dealing with customer complaints, dealing with complaints. Everything that has to do with running a business.”
Are there any special skills you’ve learned as a manager of Tom’s?
“I would say it’s very important to have people skills, you have to deal with, well if you have partners you have to deal with them, that’s like a marriage. You deal with customers, you deal with employees, you deal with suppliers, people for whatever reason didn’t deliver on time and left you hanging. These are very important things to keep the business going…You understand that if I’m dealing with you, sometimes you need to be treated with kid gloves, or she might need to be pushed around a little bit to wake her up or something, so you know everyone’s different. It’s important to pay attention and listen to other people so you get a feel of what exactly is bothering someone. Sometimes people open up and tell you, ‘look I didn’t like this or I don’t like this or you didn’t treat me right’–whatever. Or sometimes people say it in a covert way, they don’t come out directly, so you have to figure out what is upsetting him, did I do something wrong as a boss? Is someone mistreating him so I can deal with them?”
Does Tom’s have a lot of loyal customers?
“Quite a lot. Like I said, there’s been a restaurant here since 1900. Tom’s has been here about 65-70 years…The people who come here, let’s say I’m here during the day, the customers who come during the day, I would say I know about 95% of them. The people who stay at night know the night customers…We don’t want anybody leaving the restaurant dissatisfied. If there’s something wrong you talk to us, we will rectify it. We want you to come back. The important thing is for people to come back.”
What’s it like having a community around the business?
“It used to be much more of a community, when it was a smaller Upper West neighborhood. A Lot of people had been here for many many years. Then what happened in the 70s with gentrification, a lot of the buildings were bought up by either investors or large organizations, a lot of the older tenants…I’m not going to say they were forced out, but they left. And new people came in.”
“The look has changed…years ago it used to be that Tom’s was like the cafes that we have in Europe, where people would come in, in the morning, and everybody knew each other. There was bantering and kidding around and people knew about people’s families, everybody knew each other in the neighborhood. All the stores knew each other. Now a lot of the stores are owned by their owners and no one wants to get to know their next door neighbors. So it has changed and it’s not the way it used to be”
How does Tom’s appearance in the TV show Seinfeld affect business?
“People say, you owe it all to Seinfeld. No, Seinfeld was only around for 9 years, and [Tom’s] has been around for 70 years. There has to be a reason that customers keep coming back. And it has to do with the policy that I won’t give my customers something that I won’t eat. If you want a burger I’m gonna give it to you with good fries, a good bun, and a fresh pickle. That’s it. We make the best shakes and we’ve been making them for years. All ice cream. We used traditional ingredients. Buttermilk pancakes.”
“I would say that it’s helped us a great deal. In terms of percentages it’s very difficult to say. I mean it could be anywhere from 5 to 20 percent but it varies throughout the year. But it has definitely helped, there’s no doubt about it…We have tourists coming in from all over the world.”
“People say we’re stuck in the 50s, doesn’t matter. The people who know good food, if you want scrambled eggs with bacon and homefries, they know this is the place to come. Because you know you’re gonna get them the same way your parents would make them. They way like you them…I’m not going to give my customers something I won’t eat.”
Do you get any Seinfeld fanatics?
“There’s a guy that came in and took his shirt off and his whole body was tattooed with the Seinfeld show. His whole body’s got the actors, everything. Then we get people coming from, I don’t know, Timbuktu who say, ‘you know what, we came to New York and the only thing we want to see is your restaurant.’ And I say to them, ‘You really need to get a life.’ Because Tom’s is the last thing that is important in New York. There’s a lot of very devoted fans to the show. As far as they’re concerned, we’re very important to them.”
Anything you’d like to add?
“The restaurant itself is historic. There was actually a documentary done about 2 hours long done on Tom’s. There’s all sorts of famous people being interviewed. It’s an experience. You come here and on the weekends for example, at night, you can’t get in. After 1 or 2 in the morning, it’s packed. It’s a regular hangout spot for the Columbia kids, and all the clubs let out. That’s when you really see all the crazies of New York. Crazy outfits, or lack of outfits, to put it this way.”