Robert “Bob” Cullum and his brother Charles didn’t sell success at the flagship Tom Thumb store that opened on Lomo Alto Drive in 1948. But they certainly stocked the supermarket with the ingredients it took to create it.
“I cannot define it precisely,” Charles was quoted as saying in Tom Thumb: The Little Giant. “But some of the ingredients were faith, mutual trust, sharing, high aspirations, a pinch of creativity, and, of course, the old reliable, hard work.”
And, perhaps, just a dash of good luck.
“When [Bob and Charles] started the company, they competed with the three largest grocery chains in America, which were A&P, Safeway, and Kroger,” said Brooks Cullum, who began his own grocery career working for his father, Bob, as a package boy. “They thought that if you gave better service, took better care of the customers and employees, that you could compete with these giants. And they competed very successfully, until they became the largest [chain] in Dallas.”
On the road to creating a booming business out of a small neighborhood grocery store, however, the Cullum brothers and partner J.R. Bost were often confronted by a bit of the bizarre. Consider the chain’s cinematic beginnings, when the owner of Toro supermarkets — the biggest customer at the A.W. Cullum & Co. grocery supply firm — skipped out on his bill, not to mention the United States.
“The man that ran Toro ran off to South America and left [A.W. Cullum & Co.] holding the bag,” recalled Brooks’ sister, Sally Cullum Holmes. “They were owed so much money by [Toro] that they ended up buying the [six] original supermarkets and renaming them Tom Thumb.”
A butcher strike at Safeway would go on to introduce a new wave of unexpected customers. And then there was that surprisingly fortuitous accident on Lomo Alto.
“A car came along and, instead of putting it in reverse, [the driver] accidentally put it in drive and smashed into the front of the store,” Holmes said.
What could have been a nightmare turned into a dream thanks to a bit of ingenuity.
“My father was a very creative guy,” Brooks said. “He took a picture of it and ran an ad in the paper immediately after that. It said, ‘We know you love Tom Thumb, but please don’t go this far.’ ”
Customers loved Tom Thumb so much, in fact, that by the 1950s the chain had expanded to 20 stores.
“The openings were a great festival,” said Lee Cullum, Charles’ daughter. “Often, people would line up in the morning to get in the door because the specials would be terrific.”
For Lee’s father, success was most often measured by the sale of a very specific product: bread.
“I’m sure Bob would have had other measures, but for my dad, it was a matter of checking the loaves of bread,” Lee said. “If the bread shelves were pretty well empty, that was a good sign that business had been good that day.”
Through the years, the Cullum brothers went on to shelve as many accolades as they did apples, thanks to their deeply held personal and professional commitment to civic leadership and philanthropy.
“The legacy, of course, is a standard of excellence in the business they did, not only in the service and products they provided, but also their business practices … and also enormous involvement in the community,” Lee said. “They were of a generation that believed that if Dallas grew, their company would grow.”
In 1992, the company merged with Houston-based Randalls. The original Tom Thumb stores have all since closed, and that neighborly feeling is harder to come by when shopping at one of today’s expansive versions of the supermarket. Which is precisely what makes the Tom Thumb in Highland Park Village so special.
“That’s where I shop, and that’s where my pharmacy is,” Holmes said. “It’s small, but it’s a friendly place where you see everybody you know. So it still has that kind of hometown feeling.”