One day in late August, lunch patrons flocked to Thompson Flour Store for sandwiches on Morrisville Restaurant’s signature homemade bread. Most of them were as eager to learn about the new Thompson family as they were to have their meal.
Ryan Thompson, daughter of the store owner, took orders at the counter with a broad smile and an attitude of constant joy. “She’s a little meatball,” she said of the aforementioned new arrival – her 5-month-old daughter Hunter, who had come to work with her that day and was in the kitchen in front of her. attentive staff at Thompson.
Ryan, 35, also took an interest in every familiar face to arrive at the counter. “You are huge!” she exclaimed to a teenager who had come with his family. “You are so tall.”
Freshly baked bread and pastries aren’t the only home-style offerings at Thompson, a mainstay of the Morrisville community. Located on a bend of Lower Main Street in the center of the village, the store is folkloric and warm, with old-fashioned charm oozing from its nooks and crannies like the icing of its cinnamon buns. It is no wonder that Thompson’s has aroused the devotion of diners from near and far.
“It’s not the best bread in the world, but it’s about two hours out of the oven,” said Ryan’s dad Keith Thompson, who co-founded Thompson’s Flour Shop 27 years ago.
Many customers would say he sells Thompson’s shorts. They line up for the plentiful selection of salads, soups, daily specials and sandwiches for breakfast and lunch. Each of these is accompanied by fries, a drink and a homemade cookie.
The pastry shop captivates with scones, croissants, turnovers and muffins as good as they look. Thompson’s closes at 2:30 p.m., but patrons looking for dinner can grab a takeout pie from the dining room freezers.
The bread is cut thick, but it is soft and airy. In the curry chicken salad sandwich I tried, it held the main attraction firmly against the lettuce and tomato. The honey oatmeal bread brought out a slight sweetness in the chicken salad, which was light on spices and sprinkled with raisins and almonds.
“I’m not a chef. I don’t have a formal background. But I’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time,” Keith said. “The bottom line is: it’s really to make money.”
Some restaurants emphasize the “artistic and creative side” of food, he said. “That’s not who we are. What we are is: you’re going to come in; you’re going to pay a reasonable price for a reasonable product. It’s not the best; it’s not the worst . It’s gonna be consistent, you know, every time you come home. And we’re gonna do it with pleasure. ”
Keith didn’t start with a plan to get into the bakery. He grew up in Boston and moved to Vermont with his ex-wife, Kathy, in 1983. They both worked as restaurant waiters, but after the arrival of their three children they began to seek additional income. . One day, Keith brought some of his wife’s homemade bread to the chef at the Shed Restaurant & Brewery in Stowe, where he worked.
The chef loved the idea of offering locally made buns, and Keith saw a niche to fill. From their home kitchen, the Thompson’s began providing rolls and bread to The Shed and other restaurants. Soon they were cooking for and delivering to individual customers.
In 1994, the couple began renting space in Morrisville for $ 500 a month. A loan of $ 11,000 from Union Bank enabled them to purchase supplies for a bakery and storefront they dubbed Thompson’s Flour Shop.
“We made money from day one,” Keith said. “We never owed too much. I think one of the problems with restaurants these days is huge debt.”
Keith and his wife added a Thompson’s flour store in Stowe a few years later, changing its location in 2002, but found it difficult to operate and closed it in 2012.
Keith revels in Thompson’s success, but he’s not sentimental about it. Now 66, he said he looks forward to leaving the business to Ryan and his brother Zachary. But his succession plan is not based on any nostalgic desire to see the company perpetuate its last name.
He focuses on finances. If he was selling to an outside buyer, Keith said, he wouldn’t be able to get the price he thinks Thompson is worth. Most banks are reluctant to lend money to restaurants because many fail.
To close such a sale, Keith would have to pay the money himself to the buyer, who will then owe him payments. If the new owner lets things slide, “then they go bankrupt and I just lost everything I worked for,” he said.
By passing the business on to his children, he gives them guaranteed income and the power of ownership. And they can keep Keith on the payroll.
“So they don’t have to borrow money,” Keith said. “There’s nothing hanging over them, so this business goes to the next generation without debt service, with Keith getting a little bit of the stock. And I’m also a resource for them whenever they do. need me. ”
Zachary, 31, stays in the back of the kitchen, making menus and preparing menus, while Ryan works up front and takes care of customer service. Another son works in the tech industry in Boston.
“It’s my family’s business,” said Ryan, sitting at one of the small wooden tables in the dining room, with Hunter in a baby carrier by his side. “I grew up in the industry. I love the people who come, the customers, like my second family.”
Three years ago, Thompson’s moved across the street to its current location in a historic brick building with checkerboard linoleum floors. It’s a suitable backdrop for home-cooked meals and, with its large front patio for outdoor dining, great for pandemic patronage.
Like all non-essential businesses in Vermont, Thompson closed in mid-March 2020. It reopened nine weeks later exclusively for takeout, which previously accounted for about half of its business.
Almost immediately, customers lined up on the sidewalk. Some people gave Keith cash gifts, expressing concern for Thompson’s survival, but he didn’t accept them, he said.
Large orders have arrived. Manufacturing Solutions, a nearby company with a few hundred employees, has requested more than 300 sandwiches in one day, on multiple occasions.
“I couldn’t believe the number of people walking up to me outside of here, when we were closed, and telling me how much they missed the sandwiches and how much the conversation with us here was theirs. was missing, “Zachary recalls last month. .
“People were really trying to lend a hand,” he continued, “because they didn’t want to see us anywhere else. They want to see us succeed. It was just as important to them as it was to us. . ”
After Thompson received a loan from the Federal Paycheck Protection Program, Keith took the opportunity to make a difference. He bought a few items and streamlined the menu, in part because the sandwich boxes used by the store had become scarce.
“It gave me a safety net because I knew I could have a little more courage with my business because I had no debt,” he said of PPP. “That money was there, and I knew if I needed it, I could get it out.”
One of the biggest changes for regulars at Thompson’s was the introduction of sandwich meals packed with fries, a drink, and a cookie for $ 11.95 – a $ 4 jump from the only sandwich that was on offer. previously. Some diners balked, but others liked the deal, Keith said, “Before you know it, we’re doing better sales than we have in the past.”
Thompson’s also added half a dozen varieties of home-baked pies: vegetarian leeks and mushrooms; classic chicken; tourtière (the traditional Quebec tourtière); a decadent seafood option that looks like chowder inside a crust; and a steak pie that Thompson had to stop making last month due to soaring beef prices.
On Christmas Eve, Thompson sold 100 pies. Keith has expanded its workforce from three to nine to meet demand.
“We were setting sales records because of the pot pies,” he said.
What Thompson hasn’t changed is his technological presence – or lack thereof. The store does not have a website, just a Facebook page. He does not take any order online, only by phone. An employee checks off the customer’s choices on a paper list and submits it to the kitchen. Thompson didn’t even accept credit cards until 10 years ago.
Before the pandemic, Bonnie Bound, who lives in the nearby town of Wolcott, used to come to Thompson’s house every week with a friend. When the COVID-19 lockdowns set in, she and her husband brought home Thompson’s pies and soups. They knew small businesses were in trouble.
“I prayed for them all the time, ‘Don’t let Thompson sink,’” Bound said as he finished a tuna sandwich. “It really, really is a perfect place.”
Her friend Sherry Bell agreed, saying, “Not only is the food good, but the people who work here are very friendly. They are engaged.”
Not everyone wants the person who takes their sandwich order to chat with them and ask where they’re from and what they’re doing in town. Thompson is for the people who do.
“When you come here,” Keith said, “we’re going to develop a relationship on the first visit.”