October 24, 2013
Just down the Hill on College Street, in the heart of Clinton, you’ll find it: a hand-painted, robin’s egg blue and nutmeg brown sign and a flag with a finger-pointing hand guiding you inside.
Once you take that first step over the threshold, the first thing you’ll notice is the particular aroma of the small store, which is part-library and part-kitchen; the earthy smell of old wood speaks to the age and wisdom of the creaky hardwood floor panels, the shelves and the sturdy cabinetry, all of which seem to have absorbed nearly 40 years’ worth of homey scents like organic granola, spices and ingredients ranging from Hungarian paprika to elderberry. Key-lime green wall paint and ’70s and ’80s wall posters further contribute to the anachronistic vibe of the shop, making you feel as if you’ve been transported to a previous era. Looking around you at the front of the store, you’ll see jars upon jars of these diverse ingredients neatly labeled and organized on shelves; tiny bottles of vitamins, extracts and nutritive supplements; Clinton Pottery mugs hanging in the window; and hand-dipped candles. Nestled in the back, you’ll find heaping white buckets of soybeans, cashews, almonds, Brazil nuts, black mission figs and assorted granolas for every craving. (The vegan New England Supernatural type is my personal favorite.) Tea fans need look no further—herbal and black varieties line the shelves of the store’s rear corner, waiting to be purchased and steeped in a Clinton Pottery mug. Your tour of the store isn’t complete, though, until you’ve checked out the tiny kitchen in the back-left corner of the store, where the smoothie magic takes place.
You’ve stepped inside Tom’s Natural Foods, a health food store that has been a local favorite since its establishment in the early ’70s. The eponymous business came to be when Tom Bell, who still manages and operates the store today, saw a need for a business through which locals could access the finest natural products and goods that Clinton and nearby regions within Oneida County could offer. The business idea came from Bell’s passion for local agriculture, and revolves around his mission to provide goods “from the grower to the consumer,” as he phrased it.
Within the past decade in particular, Tom’s has made remarkable strides in building business relationships with local farms in order to supply students and community members alike with premium goods. The shop receives its grass-fed beef and dairy products from farms including Berry Hill Farm and Common Thread, and in the summertime, Bell stocks his shelves with the freshest fruits and vegetables straight from its own garden. The fresh-first mentality is evident in every aspect of the business, especially the smoothies that draw customers in time and time again; the oh-so-thick, “slurp-able” smoothies, a favorite among Hamilton students, are made from local yogurt, a vanilla almond Silk base, and a wide array of fruits, including bananas, mangoes, peaches and blueberries.
Apart from satisfying a large percentage of our student body with delicious beverages, Tom’s Natural Foods has sustained the Woollcott Co-Op House for a number of years. Thanks to Tom’s, students who reside in the Co-Op dorm are able to cook their own homemade meals instead of relying on a dining plan—something Woollcott residents (and the friends they invite to dine at the Co-Op) deeply appreciate. With that said, it’s no surprise that Tom’s has maintained a symbiotic relationship with the College and its student body—we support the business, and in turn, garner satisfaction of the mind, body and soul from the wide array of goods and products the store makes available to us.
When asked what he considers the best part of being a Clinton shop owner, Bell told me without the slightest bit of hesitation that the people make his business and its location meaningful to him. He loves the local customers who visit the store on a regular basis, as they keep his business alive and running, in addition to supporting the local economy. There’s no doubt that community members feel the same way about having a man like Tom Bell running the business; on any day of the week, you can find him manning the cashier, stocking the shelves or preparing the next batch of smoothies for the crowd of nutrition-hungry Hamiltonians that are bound to burst through the door at any given moment. Bell is no novice when it comes to local, natural goods; he’s constantly reading and learning more about natural goods, and continues to implement all that he knows and discovers in order to maintain Tom’s Natural Foods and keep his customers coming back for more.