Yes, Marco Cucchi’s last name is pronounced “cookie.” Very fitting for a man who has a sweet food business.
Thomas Sweet, to be exact. The now-iconic ice cream destination — famed for its build-your-own combination cups and cones with blend-ins — was founded 40 years ago in Princeton. Along with its celebration of four decades, Cucchi has opened a new store — its fourth New Jersey location — in the Windsor Plaza shopping center, at 64 Princeton-Hightstown Road, near Princeton Junction.
He also renovated the Thomas Sweet chocolates specialty shop at 29 Palmer Square West.
“It’s been a big year for us,” Cucci says. And it has been a landmark for Cucci personally, having turned age 50.
The original Thomas Sweet was opened at 183 Nassau Street in 1989 by founders Tommy Block and Tom Grimm. They shared a passion for confections, plus a first name that was enshrined in the title of their business.
Thomas Sweet was originally founded as a chocolates shop. Its signature offerings — taste bud-ranging selection of ice cream and frozen yogurt flavors in create-your-own ice cream cups and cones — were actually introduced later. But as crowds of customers soon began building innumerable custom delights, this ice cream concept built the Thomas Sweet business. (The two Toms opened their 29 Palmer Square West chocolate specialties store in 1987.)
A 1986 Princeton High School graduate, Marco believes he was one of the first people in line when the Thomas Sweet ice cream operation debuted at 183 Nassau. By age 14, he was working there part time as an ice cream scooper, later becoming involved in blending and other operations.
Even while he was an undergraduate at the University of Delaware — from which he graduated with a business degree in accounting in 1990 — he worked summers at Thomas Sweet.
His initial career in the financial industry started with a position at the New York office of American International Group (AIG), the insurance and pensions giant. By 1994, he was in the Citibank accounting department, then moved to Price Waterhouse to work in management consulting for the firm’s clients.
“I really loved the business consulting world, dealing with complex problems and coming up with innovative solutions,” says Cucchi. Not surprising, then, that he’s had the energy and skill sets for overseeing the logistics and expansion of Thomas Sweet.
During a 2003 to 2005 stint in Connecticut as a vice president at MasterCard, Cucchi began thinking seriously about opening a gourmet ice cream store in that state. Not surprisingly, in the course of researching such a business he got back in touch with Thomas Sweet founder/owners Tom Block and Tom Grimm. As it turned out, they were thinking seriously about other investment opportunities and might be willing to sell Thomas Sweet. But, as Cucchi recalls, they told him with good humored honesty, “You’re crazy to get into the ice cream business!”
Still, serious discussions were opened. Cucchi believes there were other investors interested in acquiring the Thomas Sweet brand, but the two Toms eventually greenlighted him. Ever the judicious businessman, he acquired it over a period of years, completing the purchase in January 2008.
Perhaps he was perfectly positioned to provide comfort food for the public during the subsequent financial crisis of 2008. Fortunately, Cucchi notes, ice cream is considered only a small indulgence.
Still, he admits, “back in 2008, I saw a lot of ice cream places struggling. Places like Dairy Queen were starting to do a chill-and-grill concept. [Competitors] were either diversifying their product line or they were struggling. I caught on to that.” So Cucchi looked to new foods and drinks that would balance out Thomas Sweet’s seasonality and time-of-day sales.
An initial culinary diversification move was the opening of a Montgomery Township branch (now located in the Montgomery Shopping Center on Route 206 just north of Route 518), facilitated by the December 2008 purchase of the Orphas coffee shop.
“I was especially impressed with the small batch roasting that [Orphas] did and the quality of the product they put out. So they really were a natural fit in the two cultures of the companies. I was looking to expand our offerings because the seasonality of the ice cream business can be limited.”
The Montgomery store became something of an experiment in bringing coffee and coffee-friendly foods (starting with baked goods, then progressing to soups and sandwiches), together with its famed create-your-own ice cream cups and cones.
Historically, when coffee became the great stimulating craze of 17th and 18th century England and continental Europe, “coffee shoppes” would subscribe to the leading newspapers and other periodicals of the day. Patrons would come in, read about and discuss current events, meet old friends, and make new ones — all the while purchasing refreshments.
“Today, there’s so much social media,” Cucchi notes. “Many people are so connected to their phones. There’s not as many places you can to go to have a people connection.
“That’s another neat thing I like about our brand. We’re a hands-on type of place where there’s a real connection. We’re making your sandwich, we’re creating your blend-ins in front of you. You’re coming up with your own unique flavor using our products. We’re very human-connected, I think.”
Of course, ThomasSweet.com has an online order portal. And Cucchi acknowledges that “we’ve been trying to promote our brand a little more through social media, really what makes our brand is being in the store, the interactions and the customer service that take place within our locations.
“Even the lines people have to sometimes wait on at our Princeton store, it’s a way to meet people, to network. There’s sort of a vibe that occurs in our stores that typically is community-oriented, and we find it happens organically. There are a lot of book clubs or school group meetings. We try to promote that and be a gathering place for our community.”
Marco has his own family community. He and his wife had twin boys in 2003. The couple subsequently divorced, but he’s merged families — for a total of five boys — with now-partner Molly Lependorf, another Princeton native who also serves as Thomas Sweet’s enthusiastic public relations person.
(Could this combination of offspring be the ultimate sweet blend-in? Marco does report that the twins are working happily at the original 183 Nassau Street location.)
But why open a new Thomas Sweet adjacent to Princeton Junction in West Windsor?
Growing up in Princeton, Cucchi has remained aware of the town and its neighboring communities. West Windsor is suburban like Montgomery but with a slightly denser population; it’s close enough to Princeton for residents to be aware of the Thomas Sweet brand, and the Windsor Plaza shopping center’s proximity to both the train station and high schools was an added plus.
And, like a delicious final topping on one of its own custom-created ice cream dishes, West Windsor was close enough for Cucchi to maintain his practice of personally visiting all his locations at least once a day. “So, it checked all the boxes,” he says, clearly happy at such a sweet convergence.
If the Thomas Sweet concept were ever franchised, Cucchi adds, the 2,000-square-foot West Windsor store, with its mix of ice creams, sweets, coffees, sandwiches and soups, would be the model.
Actually, someone has already taken a brief scoop at franchising: In 2011, a successful Chinese businessman licensed the Thomas Sweet brand with plans to open a 200-shop chain to serve an emerging market for ice cream in his country. But the effort melted. Why seems unclear; the established New Jersey locations are clearly quite popular with customers of Asian heritage.
And it’s popular with people of many heritages. Says Cucchi, “I’ve always felt it’s good to have a diverse community and learn from people of different backgrounds.” This is deliciously demonstrated by the new Thomas Sweet food menu, with sandwiches featuring vegetables and seasonings popular in China, India, and elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Central America. Examples include a slaw made with napa cabbage, an Asian noodle salad (“One of our grab-and-go items”), orange couscous, and, occasionally, a cinnamon-like cardamom ice cream flavoring (“You have to come in and try it, it’s kind of hard to describe!” he laughs).
“Right now we’re experimenting with a green tea ice cream,” Cucchi says. “But I don’t want to use any artificial flavors, so I’m finding the right ingredients to make a more natural type of recipe.”
In response to customer requests, gluten-free sandwich bread is now offered. Changes and additions may soon come to even the classic Thomas Sweet ice cream landscape. New blend-ins, such as leche nuts, are being considered. “Our blend-ins selection is 40 years old, “ Cucchi freely admits. “There are some neat ways to get creative there as well.”
The new Thomas Sweet in Windsor Plaza had what Marco calls “a soft opening,” without advertising, on June 22. In lieu of a formal grand opening, the store has gradually added promotions and special events.
These include invitations to small student music groups to perform; free toppings to grade school students in uniform during sports or performance event days; and commuter-oriented weekday 7 to 9 a.m. discounts. Wednesday night open mic nights are planned to start in November.
And on September 7, the Saturday night live music series at the new West Windsor store commenced with singer-guitarist Anker.
“I’m the first entertainment in this new location,” Anker declared to the room, asking the servers (who were very busy with a good-sized crowd). “How long have you been here? Wow, it took you two months!”
After announcing with jovial drama, “I’ve come all the way from Cranbury!” he launched — with perfect humor as well as perfect pitch and driving rhythm — into the classic Southern Rock travel anthem “They Call Me The Breeze (I Keep Blowin’ Down The Road).”
Says Cucchi, “Community, and our involvement in the community, is so important to the success of our business. I want people to know that we sell products throughout the day, but also that we want to really be here for the community.”
Thomas Sweet Ice Cream, 183 Nassau Street. Sunday through Thursday, noon to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.
Thomas Sweet Chocolate, 29 Palmer Square West. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Thomas Sweet Cafe, Montgomery Shopping Center, 1225 Route 206, Skillman. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.
Thomas Sweet, 64 Princeton-Hightstown Road, Windsor Plaza, West Windsor. Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m to 11 p.m. www.thomassweet.com