It may not have the flashiest sign or the biggest parking lot, but the people who go to have known for a long time that they can go to the Asbury Rd. establishment a stranger and leave as a member of the family.
Rob Johnson, who bought the Howell tavern a year and a half ago with his wife Lori said they have enjoyed being a part of the community they serve. "We walked in the door and felt so comfortable," she said of their first visit. "It's the kind of bar that was on every corner when I grew up. It's a very friendly atmosphere."
Before the Johnsons bought the bar they said they were not even looking to leave their Wall Street backgrounds and get into the restaurant industry. "We were looking for farmland," he said. "We have a friend who has a farm around the corner and saw the for sale sign."
It may not have been the smoothest transition but now he said he has enjoyed making the move from the big city work to the spot just down the road from Main St. Farmingdale. "When I came in I think there was a little give and take, a little feeling out process," he said. "Once a couple months went by I was welcomed as part of the family which was really great and really enjoyable."
When Tom's is filled to capacity there are still only around 80 people huddled around the fully stocked bar, playing at the original pool table or playing one of the video games up against the wall.
Every inch of the bar has a story to tell dating back to its founding as the Checkered Flag back in the 1930's. After years of wear and tear, scratches and breaks, the pool table may not be up to professional standards, but it provides its own advantages for the local players who know its secrets when they welcome a newcomer for a game.
That game of pool still costs 75 cents just like they did when it was first moved in though Rob Johnson said that was not always the case. "A couple of years ago they tried to go to a dollar," he said. "They (the patrons) protested and wouldn't play pool for a week. It's not worth 25 cents to upset the patrons. You've got a bigger picture to look at."
And the customers whose names are on the on the bar might not be around to have a drink anymore but they are still remembered by those who knew them before they passed.
Even with a loyal customer base the economy still plays a role in business for the Johnsons. "I think that's one of the reasons why we keep our prices where they are because we understand that it affects everybody and to raise the prices to create more revenue you're going to hurt yourself in the long run," he said.
The time at Tom's Tavern is more than just drinks and company they also have a full menu of homemade specials that customers have grown to enjoy. That includes hamburgers, pizza and chili made by longtime employee Sue Gunther that has become a favorite.
Lori Johnson said the staff is also part of what makes Tom's special. Open 364 days a year the only time the doors are closed is Christmas morning. Even on holidays like Thanksgiving the Johnsons said you can find a stool to spend the day with a homemade meal and a turkey to be enjoyed.
The Johnsons said for as loyal as they are to their customers their loyalty is reciprocated through a variety of charitable efforts. Over the course of the year they hold several events to benefit organizations from the Howell PBA to Joshua House and the Special Olympics.
For a building where one of the most noticeable features is the name on the roof in Christmas lights Johnson said he does not see much else changing about Tom's in the future. "You want to grow the business, but it's only growable to a point," he said. "You want to keep it with that local flair. It's kind of a balancing act."
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