Relaxation Station

Gourmet gas stop keeps surprising clientele with wine, gifts, bakery and more

By Marjorie Rice

Photography by Adam Moreno

Tom.setting-tableOn a late afternoon at Tom’s Thumb Fresh Market in Scottsdale, server Andrew Davis is getting ready for the dinner rush, setting the tables in bistro basic black with white butcher paper covers. Above him is an ornate crystal chandelier. A heady aroma of smoked brisket perfumes the room. Wines for tasting are arrayed on a handy counter.

In a nearby nook, Rosalind Milrod and four friends are playing mah-jongg. Farther back, customer Dillon Kjerstad lounges in an area outfitted with plush leather furniture and a giant chess set. Outside, a car wash team in spiffy white jumpsuits cleans monsoon grunge from his truck.

Customers mill through the sprawling market, selecting lemon bars, muffins and cookies from the bakery, ordering lattes from the coffee bar, having a late lunch of sliders with chipotle aioli, shopping for gifts and—oh yes—paying for their gasoline. This is, after all, a gas station. Raised to a new level perhaps, but still, a gas station.

General Manager Michael Lawson says first-time visitors to Tom’s Thumb get a surprise when they enter the unprepossessing building at 94th Street and Bell Road. “When they walk through those double doors it’s like, ‘Wow! This is not what I expected.’ That’s what we went for.”

Lawson has been with Tom’s Thumb since its inception. The original vision was a gas station/market/car wash with a twist: serving great food in a bistro-like setting and offering specialty groceries and wine. While the early concept included a farmers market, demand has shifted the mix more to wine and gifts. The bakery was added two months ago.

The menu centers around Texas-style brisket, pork and chicken smoked fresh every night. The focus is on fresh, with seasonal specialties like fire-roasted Mexican corn coated with rosemary aioli, chile powder and local cotija cheese; sandwiches like the caprese combo with newly made mozzarella, pesto, tomato and arugula; and dinner entrees including trout, salmon and barbecued ribs.

Chef Kevin Janeski has been with Tom’s Thumb since it opened in January 2012, coming to the market via Gainey Ranch and Camelback Inn. He continues to bring in new items and services, including catering. “We recently prepared lunch for 150 people at a local business, and many of our customers order our smoked meats by the pound for parties in their homes,” he says.

Since the market opened, it has earned a loyal following from nearby office complexes and construction sites, has been included in Phoenix Magazine’s Best New Restaurants list for 2012 and has earned a 4.5 rating on Yelp. Social media including Facebook, Instagram and Constant Contact have been an integral part of the company’s marketing program, according to Lawson.

“Originally our customers were mostly locals, including many from DC Ranch and Silverleaf,” he says. “We’ve expanded to become a destination spot, with people willing to drive a long distance for our barbecue. From the beginning we wanted to be more than food. We hoped to create a ‘relaxation station’ that would be a meeting point—almost an extension of your home.” That’s worked for Rosalind Milrod and her friends Mimi Hutchinson and Adrienne Shapiro, all of Scottsdale, Betty Rosner of Mesa and Bina Pomerantz of Fountain Hills. The women meet monthly at Tom’s Thumb for mah-jongg and conversation.

“I saw a newspaper article about the market,” Milrod says. “I told my husband, ‘Would you believe it, there’s a gas station with gourmet food.’ We tried the ribs, and they’re the best I’ve ever had. I saw the big chess set and thought this would be a great place for our mah-jongg group.”

While the food and ambience are big draws, great service has helped keep customers coming in. “Hiring the right people and providing impeccable service has been essential to our success,” Lawson says. He emphasizes courtesy and a no-pressure approach by the 65 employees. For example, while full interior and exterior detailing are available, car wash customers aren’t hounded to buy extra services.

Looking forward, there may be opportunities to expand Tom Thumb’s concept of “making the mundane into the extraordinary” by adding a Phoenix location. They should find a willing market. After all, anybody can sell gasoline, but not everybody can sell gasoline and a good brisket.