There’s a new Sweetie in town. That’s what scoopers at Princeton’s landmark ice cream shop Thomas Sweet are called, and it’s what Princeton native Marco Cucchi was from the that time he was old enough to carry working papers right through the time that he graduated from college.
Now the scoop has been passed. Thomas Sweet’s founders have moved on. Tom Grim, called Teddy by his friends and employees, is just back from Naples and Tuscany, where he added to his already impressive knowledge of pizza in preparation for opening a pizza shop in Hopewell. Tom Block, meanwhile, is turning out amazing chocolates, including a fudgy number topped with sea salt that may well be the most decadently delightful treat on earth, in his Philadelphia store, which is called Naked Chocolate Cafe.
Cucchi, who grew up within easy walking distance of Thomas Sweet, now owns the ice cream store, and also the Thomas Sweet candy store on Palmer Square, and the company’s relatively small ice cream franchise and wholesale businesses.
Some Sweeties don’t last long. As anyone who has cruised down Nassau Street on a warm summer evening can attest, the place can get really busy. It is not unusual to see 30-foot long lines, three deep, snaking up to the front steps. Scoopers are in motion non-stop. It is a job that is hard on backs, feet, and wrists – especially wrists. Yet Cucchi loved it from the start.
"When I was working I used to dream that I owned the place," he says. It was a dream that persisted as Cucchi rose high on the corporate ladder in jobs that took him around the world and put him in charge of global operations at Fortune 100 companies.
Two years ago, when he was living in Connecticut and commuting to Manhattan, where he was vice president of customer relations at MasterCard, Cucchi looked up Tom Grim, seeking advice on starting an ice cream shop.
"I told him he was crazy," says Grim. "Retail is a very hard business. There are 30 to 40 people working there. There are 10 things that can go wrong. Machines can break. It’s nights and weekends. When everyone else is playing, you’re working." Besides, he says, he assured Cucchi that he would never make the kind of money he was making in his corporate job. He wouldn’t even come close. "In the corporate world you get big bonuses," he says. "In your own business, you’re the last to get paid."
But Grim did understand where Cucchi was coming from. "I certainly wouldn’t want a corporate job," says the laid-back life-long entrepreneur, who has put community ahead of every other business consideration, helping employees to start their own businesses, forming ventures with neighbors, and even starting a free community film festival. "In the corporate world, you’re anonymous," he says. "I wouldn’t want to work for a credit card company, screwing people."
It turns out that Cucchi was beginning to think about doing something to appease his ever-more-insistent inner Sweetie at just the time that Thomas Sweet’s Toms were at a crossroads.
"Tom wanted to sell his half of the business," Grim says of his partner. "We had been going back and forth about it, trying to figure out how I could buy him out." Grim was beginning to realize that he would not want to continue the demanding business of running Thomas Sweet forever, either, but he wasn’t ready to leave just yet.
So when Cucchi came around asking for general advice on starting an ice cream shop, he received an unexpected proposal: "They said `do you want to buy Thomas Sweet?’"
One part of him definitely did want to buy the business, but it wasn’t an easy decision. He went back to his childhood home, where his mother, Florence Cucchi, who works on PRAXIS tests at ETS, still lives. There he and his wife, June Cucchi, an MBA marketing executive who now works at Church and Dwight, talked into the night. He was pretty much ready to take the leap, but his wife was far less sure.
"She likes stability," he says, quickly adding that "anyone does." And the pair had been through a lot of changes, turmoil, and anxiety over the preceding few years. They are now the parents of two Sweeties in training, four-year-old twins Paolo and Nicholas. The boys, who enjoy donning aprons and wiping down tables at the shop, are healthy, active kids, but their start in life was a little rocky.
"When June was just two months pregnant we were told that there was only a 10 percent chance that the twins would survive," says Cucchi. The poor prognosis persisted throughout the pregnancy. After the couple had already started renovations to create a little space for the expected twins in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, June’s doctor put her on complete bed rest. This was impossible in a construction site, so the couple had to move. The babies were born prematurely, at 32 weeks, but developed well. Once they were out of the woods the family moved to a dream house in Redding, Connecticut.
"It was a 1700s farmhouse with walking trails behind it," says Cucchi of the house, which was in an area of nature preserves that was once home to Mark Twain. Of the town, Twain is quoted as saying: "I did not think it could be as beautiful as this."
They had just settled into life in Redding when Cucchi suggested to his wife that he leave his job, where he had just been offered a major promotion, so that he could move back to Princeton to buy Thomas Sweet.
June Cucchi had her doubts, but in the end she gave in to her husband’s long-held ambition to be head scooper. A deal was struck. Cucchi would buy out Tom Block’s half of the business right away, largely using his savings to do so, and then he would buy out Tom Grim’s half when Grim was ready to leave the business. In the meantime, he and Grim would be partners.
Putting aside doubts, the Cucchis put their home on the market, and moved to Princeton. But there was more trouble ahead. "Our house in Connecticut did not sell," says Cucchi. They had put it on the market just as the great real estate boom was coming to an end. "It just sat and sat and sat," he says. The family, well into a high-flier lifestyle so recently, were forced to rent a less-than-grand house in Princeton. It was a small house, says Cucchi, and it wasn’t in good shape. "The landlord refused to paint," he says, "and there was all of this mold in the bathroom. The first weekend I had to paint the whole house and clean like crazy."
He then set about learning the ropes at Thomas Sweet. For two years he did a lot of back office work while Tom Grim handled most of the on-the-floor duties in the ice cream shop, which scoops up as many as 3,500 ice cream cones a night during a Princeton Reunions weekend. But Grim, at the same time, was preparing for his next venture. Last summer, after years of study, Grim rolled out a totally new concept for just about everyone’s favorite food (or maybe second favorite food, right behind ice cream).
He outfitted a 1949 REO Speedwagon pick-up truck with a pizza oven and formed Nomad Pizza. An instant hit, his rolling pizza business played a starring role at outdoor film screenings, community events, and upscale parties (U.S. 1, June 27, 2007). While the retro pizza truck took coolness to a degree to which even the most deeply frozen ice cream could never aspire, for Grim it was really all about the pizza, not the packaging. He obsessively researched pizza and teamed up with local farmers to create it with the tastiest, freshest, most natural ingredients.
On his recent trip to Italy, home of "the best pizza in the world," Grim sought to learn even more. "I studied the pizza shops in addition to the pizza," he says. In the end, he didn’t learn much that he didn’t already know. The best pizza, he says, is cooked on a wood-fired oven and is pure as can be.
"In the best pizza shop in the world, in Naples," says Grim, "there are only two choices – marinara or margharita. That’s it. With or without cheese." He learned that in the past proud Italian pizza shop proprietors did not allow take-out. "You have to eat pizza within a minute after it comes out of the oven," he says. But on his recent visit he saw that the rule has been relaxed. He acknowledges that, although his own preference is for unadorned pizza, he will have to relax another purist pizza rule too, the one on toppings. He says that he will have to defer to American tastes and offer some toppings at his Hopewell shop, which he hopes to open early in the spring.
"There’s a pizza shop in New York City that doesn’t offer toppings, but I don’t think that we can do that here in a smaller market," he says. At the moment he is having enough trouble just getting his pizza shop opened. He will run the pizzeria, which is to be located at 10 Broad Street, along with his Nomad Pizza partner, Stalin Bedon.
"When we started Thomas Sweet we were young and foolish, and we had no money," he says. "But now I honestly don’t know how any young person can afford to open a business. It costs so much money! There are environmental studies, and drainage studies. You need traffic studies, parking studies, lighting studies." There have been appearances before the Hopewell planning board, and Grim expects that there will be more. "And we’re just renting!" he exclaims.
Grim is hoping to use the lawn of Dana Communications’ building, which is right next door, in much the way that Thomas Sweet uses the lawn at 185 Nassau Street, Princeton University’s fine arts building, as an informal outdoor space where customers can lounge and people watch as their children run around. He is also working with landscape architect Peter Soderberg on plans for an organic garden near the pizza shop, "like the one behind that was behind the Witherspoon Bread Shop," he says, referring to the garden that was full of winding paths and eye-catching sculpture.
Grim has another new venture in Hopewell, too. He wanted a business for his sister and brother-in-law, Ellen and Johnny Abernathy, who had been managers at Thomas Sweet from the beginning, so he bought the Boro Bean, a coffee house that the Abernathys are now managing.
With Grim fully occupied by his new ventures, Cucchi bought out the remaining half of Thomas Sweet in late January with a business loan from 1st Constitution Bank, which he praises as being exceptionally friendly to small businesses like his. He won’t talk about what he paid, and neither will Grim, although Grim says that he would if he could. "He made me sign a document saying that I wouldn’t divulge the price," says Grim, commenting, "that’s his corporate background."
The departure of Grim and the Abernathys leaves a huge void for Cucchi to fill. Beyond his infatuation with ice cream shops, the biggest reason he traded designer suits for aprons was that he wanted to spend more time with his wife and their boys. He did just that for the two years before Grim departed, but now he is working from 8 a.m. until 1 a.m., with breaks in-between to ferry the twins between their morning pre-school program and their afternoon pre-school program.
A graduate of the University of Delaware (Class of 1990), Cucchi earned an MBA at Fordham – "with a 4.0 average" – while working full time. After brief stints at the American International Group and Citibank, he went on to a job as a management consultant at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he and his wife met. After his division was acquired by IBM, he moved on to MasterCard.
Unlike many corporate refugees, he says that he loved the work. He found the brainstorming exhilarating. He had fun trading ideas with peers whose intellects he admired. He relished the collegiality. For years, he looked forward to the travel. "It’s a great way to see the world," he says. He spent a month in Singapore on one assignment, and routinely spent one or two weeks a month in Madrid, Brussels, or Edinburgh.
When he became a husband, and then a father, Cucchi wanted to travel less and be home more. He wanted to spend a lot of time with his sons. His parents are divorced, and his own father, Paolo Cucchi, dean of Drew University, was not around as much as he would have liked when he was growing up. "I see what I missed," he says.
Now he is trying to figure out how to avoid getting sucked into a business that has to potential to keep him away from home nearly as much as his corporate jobs did.
Even carving out a little time is hard now. "I try to keep Saturdays for the family," he says. But Tom Grim has warned him against doing so. "He told me that you have to make hay when the sun shines, and weekends are our busiest time." Cucchi is trying to strike a compromise, being with his family, but "staying local," and checking in often, "probably too often."
"I want my dream," he says, "but I don’t want to short-change my wife." He realizes that she is in a corporate environment where weekdays can be stressful, but where some weekend relaxation and regular vacations are the norm. And when does he expect to take his next vacation? "Oh, I don’t know, maybe two years," he says. "But that’s not what my wife says."
Certainly there will be no vacation this spring. Crunch time is here. "The warm weather has already caught us off guard," says Cucchi, who has just hired and trained 15 Sweeties, and who has some 20 more to train. Recruitment can be tough in the Princeton area, where many parents like to have their youngsters doing college application bolstering activities in the summer rather than working at low-wage jobs. With college tuition at $40,000 a year at elite schools, the $7.50 an hour plus tips that Cucchi can pay is not going to be much of a contribution. This often makes an SAT prep course or an overseas experience look like a better use of time, and makes summer recruitment more difficult.
Cucchi is casting a wide net as he recruits for this summer, and has signed up youngsters from Princeton, Lawrenceville, and East Windsor. They will join a small core of full timers and also a cadre of college students who return year after year, but never early enough to catch the first big crowds, who appear right along with first robins.
"This is the hardest time of year," Cucchi says. "The high school kids are still busy with school and the college students are not yet home."
Cucchi himself is working on the floor five or six shifts a week, generally including the last shift, which ends at 11 p.m. In addition to his floor time and training sessions, he is busy getting to know his vendors, working with his distributors, making runs to Trenton, where the company stores some of its ingredients, working with Arctic ice cream, which manufacturers the ice cream that Thomas Sweet wholesales, lugging 50-pound bags of chocolate down the stairs at the Palmer Square chocolate shop, getting the company’s books in shape, and concocting new flavors, including Nutella and peanut butter mashmallow Oreo.
"I get home at 1 a.m., and then try to unwind," he says. That leaves a good six hours until the boys wake up, at which time Cucchi springs into a routine of helping them get ready for school.
At work he is running as fast as he can to gear up for the first summer when he will be alone to run Thomas Sweet. But he is also thinking ahead to building the business.
The ice cream shop, featuring super-rich handmade ice cream, as well as a big selection of fat-free, sugar-free frozen yogurt, is the company’s moneymaker, with the chocolate shop serving as ballast. "There is counter-seasonality," Cucchi says. "The ice cream shop loses money in the winter, but that is when the chocolate shop is busy." The majority of its business revolves around holiday entertaining and gift giving. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter are huge. The money that comes in during those cool-weather holidays doesn’t completely balance the money the ice cream shop loses during the months when Princetonians are wearing mittens, but it helps.
Luckily, Cucchi doesn’t have to devote much time to the chocolate shop. It is run by chocolatier Karen Youngers, who has been in charge from day one. "If she weren’t there, I couldn’t do it," he says. Her seasoned presence means that the store doesn’t consume much of his time.
This gives him more time to plot future growth. "I think we could do more with franchising," he says. This is one place where he breaks with the old guard. Tom Grim doesn’t even like to hear that his former partner, Tom Block, is thinking of opening a second chocolate shop in Philadelphia. "One successful business is enough," he says. Add another and management becomes a nightmare. As for franchising, Grim says he has told Cucchi "don’t do it."
"I told him he’s crazy," says Grim. "Franchising takes you into the marketing, into dealing with lawyers and accountants, people who look at it as an investment, not a lifestyle."
Grim and his partner tried franchising on a pretty big scale. At one time there were Thomas Sweet franchises around in country, in California, Florida, Texas, and even in the Caribbean. Closer to home, there was one in New Hope. There are just two franchises left, one in Washington, D.C., and one in New Brunswick. "The others all failed for different reasons," says Cucchi. "In California it was that people didn’t want to eat fat. In Florida it was that they were the first to open in a mall and no other businesses came." Cucchi thinks that franchising the business could work if it were done in a more methodical way. Rather than placing franchises randomly across the country, he would work in concentric circles, starting close to home. In fact, he says, "there could be room for another Thomas Sweet in Princeton."
The ice cream shop does have a unique offering, as any number of people posting reviews on the Internet point out. The company’s trademark product is the blend-in. Coldstone Creamery, a chain of ice cream stores, has tried to copy the technique of mixing fruit, nuts, and candy of all kinds into ice cream, but, as one reviewer, in a typical comment on community website Yelp, states, the results do not even approach Thomas Sweet quality.
"There is no place like Thomas Sweet, and believe me, I’ve looked," says Yvonne L. from Campbell, California. "When I first came to the West Coast for graduate school, I lamented the fact that there was no place to get a blend in. My housemates asked me what a blend-in was, and they suggested I visit Cold Stone. Boy, was I disappointed. Nothing but a blend-in has the consistency and temperature of a blend-in. Nothing else is worth standing in long lines on a hot, humid East Coast day."
Bolstering Cucchi’s belief in the business’ franchise potential, Yvonne L. goes on to write "I wish Thomas Sweet would expand to other parts of the country. I think it could be successful. I know they tried it in College Station, Texas, around 1990, but the shop was not around the main drag, so I don’t think word got around."
High on the possibility of franchising, Cucchi also sees a possibility for growth in the wholesale business. The company now gives its recipes to Arctic ice cream, which turns out some ice cream for a handful of retailers, including Carella’s Hallmark in Nottingham and Crazy in Rumsen. Cucchi thinks that more customers could be added.
He also wants to do more to promote existing products, like Thomas Sweet’s ice cream cakes, which could lift the bottom line in cold weather months. He thinks that a partnership with restaurants and other venues that routinely host birthday parties could be a natural. He is also eager to form collaborative ties with other local businesses and to take a more active role in Palmer Square’s annual events.
Grim, the experienced veteran with the wide and deep independent streak, is somewhat skeptical of the value of Cucchi’s corporate background. He says that he quickly vetoed some of the ideas that his protege brought over from that world. "He was trying suggestive selling,’" says Grim. "He wanted the scoopers to say `would you like a topping with that cone?’" That might work in a chain store, says Grim, but it has no place in a small town business.
Cucchi appears to have learned that lesson. He says that, despite a dizzying rise in commodity prices, he doesn’t worry much about portion control. "I tell my scoopers that it’s better to give a customer a little more, and have him leave with a smile on his face," he says. "You want the customers to leave happy."
Cucchi also says that some corporate structure was needed at Thomas Sweet, where he found that bookkeeping had been a little haphazard. He says that when he arrived the books were off by thousands of dollars, there were $80,000 of liabilities that no one knew about, and accounting was being done on out of date software. "I put everything on Quicken Retail 2008," he says. "I pay the bills when they come in." He has also devoted substantial time to analyzing insurance coverage and the status of state-mandated reporting requirements.
While these holdovers from his life as a business consultant are straightforward, Cucchi is finding the issue of management style a little more tricky. Back when he was a Sweetie he had found the two Toms’ management style a little less collegial than he liked, and wished management had beenmore open to employees’ ideas. But as boss he soon found that thee everyone-has-a-say brainstorming style he was used to in the upper echelons of corporate culture doesn’t necessarily translate well to an ice cream shop.
"Sometimes it can be confusing," he says. "Sometimes people need more clear direction."
Thomas Sweet itself is heading in a new direction, but not too new. Cucchi is determined that the ice cream shop will remain the beloved community institution that it was when he was a child. "I want it to be there for my children, and for their children," he says.
Grim might grumble a bit, might worry that Cucchi doesn’t know what he’s in for, but he was ready for the transition. "We needed a little youthful vitality," he says. "Twenty-seven years is a long time to do something. This is a good thing."
The unexpected deal with Cucchi, whom Grim and had seen for many years before the former corporate guy popped up asking ice cream shop questions two years ago, has brought satisfying new lives to all concerned. Tom Block, in partnership with his daughter, Sara, is happily immersed in innovative chocolate making in Philadelphia. Tom Grim has found new passion in pizza, which has given him a good excuse to spend time in Italy, and Cucchi, fulfilling a childhood dream, is now free from international travel, and able to be onhand to scoop up cones for his sons every day of the week. A Sweet ending all around.
Thomas Sweet Ice Cream and Chocolate, 183 Nassau Street, Princeton 08540; 609-683-8720.
Thomas Sweet Chocolate, 31 Palmer Square West, Princeton 08542; 609-924-7222. Marco Cucchi, owner.