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Between the Lines: A Real Destination

The lasting allure of an iconic roadside hot dog stand

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

On my first day at the Valley Advocate— June 12, 1995—the erstwhile managing editor Tom Mudd gave me a parting tip.

“Dunno if you’re into such things,” he said, suspiciously eying my slender frame, gaunt cheeks and 1993 World Track and Field Championship T-shirt, “but if you’re looking for a good hot dog, check out Tom’s over in Whately.”

Mudd went on at some length about Tom’s Famous Long Hot Dog & Grill, praising not only the food but place’s authentic vibe. It was, Mudd informed me, the kind of place where cops and construction workers mixed comfortably with leather-clad longhairs on Harleys and patchouli-drenched Trustafarians.

I didn’t bother to tell him that I’d grown up eating at Tom’s. Instead, I took him up on his offer to buy me a hot dog—a Tom’s Special, with cheese and tomato sauce.

In the years since, I’ve consumed easily a couple of hundred more of those wonderful natural-casing dogs (and many dozens of Tom’s equally delicious cheeseburgers). My daughter’s first hot dog experience was at Tom’s, and it was one of my mom’s favorite places to go when she came up from Connecticut to visit. In fact, Tom’s is the last place mom and I ate together before her rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s forced her into a nursing home.

I think my mom liked Tom’s for reasons that have nothing to do with the food. She liked the fact that this humble roadside hot dog stand looked pretty much the same in 2007 as it had in 1967. But more than the nostalgia, she liked the people-watching Tom’s afforded her. In the days before the owners enclosed the front of the stand to provide some indoor seating in inclement weather, Mom would sit at one of the many picnic tables outdoors, pretending to listen to me while eavesdropping. (“They’re from Cranston, Rhode Island,” she’d whisper, nodding slightly toward the table to our left, “here to visit her brother at UMass.”) She’d have loved the indoor seating, which is intimate enough that she’d never even have had to crane her neck to get the scoop on the other diners.

For people all over New England, Tom’s is a destination—a must-visit eatery for anyone motoring through the Pioneer Valley. On a recent weekend stop at Tom’s, I ran into an old friend from the North Shore. He told me that he and his girlfriend make the 100-mile trek out from Marblehead on his motorcycle three or four times every summer. On a number of occasions, he said, he’s run into other biker buddies at Tom’s.

“Everybody knows about Tom’s,” he said. “All the bikers and car guys know about it.”

Founded by Thomas H. and Jean (Sikorski) LaBelle, both of whom passed away in the 1980s, the stand will turn 60 this year under new ownership. Gary Kloc, a Whately native whose father and brother own the Whately Inn, bought the business earlier this year from the LaBelle family.

When I dropped by last week to grab a kraut dog, I found the new owner behind the grill, working side by side with his two daughters, Taylor and Fallon. Kloc told me that after working for 30 years for Danco Modern, a longtime furniture retailer in West Hatfield, he “needed a change of pace.” When the LaBelle family decided to sell Tom’s, Kloc jumped at the chance to buy it, viewing the eatery as an important local institution and a great family business.

“To be able to work with my daughters—well, it’s pretty special,” Kloc said.

Kloc is also a well-known car enthusiast in the area. No surprise: the deep connection between Tom’s and motor sport hobbyists has grown even deeper under Kloc, who hosts a weekly cruise night on Tuesdays throughout the warmer months, drawing classic car collectors from all over New England.

As Fallon Kloc hands me my kraut dog through the takeout window, I glance down at the sign below the counter—the sign that adorned the original stand 60 years ago. To the right of the window hangs a collection of photos of Tom’s through the years. The photos tell the story of a small business built slowly and carefully over decades. Innovation has come in small measures—the addition of a menu item here, the extension of hours of service there. Always a work in progress, Tom’s keeps improving its operation without ever crossing the invisible line between genuine and imitation.

At a time when Massachusetts finds itself at a crossroads, faced with a choice between a well-financed push to build casinos here and a popular movement to repeal the law that set casino development in motion, it’s important to consider what a place like Tom’s Famous Long Hot Dog & Grill already contributes to the local economy.

In my view, Tom’s is a real destination, a roadside hot dog stand that, by staying true to itself, has kept people from all over the region coming back for 60 years. The power of small, thriving businesses is probably lost on all the grandiose politicians who’ve filled their campaign coffers with casino cash, but we have much to learn from places like Tom’s.•

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