Image left: Tom Capobianco as a young teenager selling Christmas trees. Image right: Tom Capobianco today.
I had the pleasure of being introduced to Tom in 2007, at the Hartford Club by the General Manager / COO, Mr. Till. There is a special feeling you get when speaking with Tom. His passion for life and the business is inspiring. ~ Leo Bushey
GK: Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in the Morris Cove area of New Haven, and by the age of 12, I was stocking shelves and stamping prices on canned goods at my dad Vincent Capobianco's store, Tom's Market, in Fair Haven, CT. I had a paper route and did other odd jobs like shoveling snow and raking leaves. I made a shoeshine box and began shining shoes for a quarter at Tweed New Haven Airport. I was also an altar boy at Saint Bernadette’s Church in the cove area in New Haven. The 60’s were simple back then; I loved it looking back.
In 1969 my family fell on hard times, my parents lost their money to a builder who took their life savings, they were never able to find him. Within the first five months of my freshman year, we had moved three times as we didn't have a permanent place, to live. At times my three siblings and I were living in a one bedroom apartment or a basement of relatives while trying to find a permanent place to live. The challenges of changing schools, routines, and faces were awkward and sometimes embarrassing, but in the long run, it made us tougher.
During my last year of high school, I was selected to be the pitcher for the baseball team, and at the same time, my dad’s business was going under due to the emergence of the big supermarkets in late 60’s. I still remember when he would try to put $5 in my pocket when I worked for him. I wouldn't take the money because I knew things weren’t going well at home or the store. I will never forget walking up to Coach DeMayo, my psychology teacher, and coach and said, “Coach, I can't play on the team this year, my dad needs me at the store, he’s there alone.” This was heartbreaking as I had a real passion for baseball. I would take my dad to work at 5:30 a.m. and go to school, my schedule was modified so that I was able to leave early by 11:45 a.m. I had no breaks, 18 hours a day between school and work, just to make ends meet. I still see myself driving in his 1964 brown Chevy station wagon three-speed standard on the column pulling into the school parking lot.
GK: You have a love of the Christmas tree business?
Yes, at the age of 18, I started making Christmas grave pillows, blankets, wreaths and selling Christmas trees from November 1st- December 23rd. I did this for 15-16 years, until my wife Cynthia said, "you can’t do this anymore we have our third child on the way, and you are never home." I still miss the Christmas tree business to this day, but I love spending Christmas with my family more. Every year my wife puts up five Christmas trees throughout the house! I think it takes until February to take all the decorations down.
A few years after my father passed, my wife and I met Mr. Silver the owner of Silver’s Drugstore, who had given my dad $1200 worth of medication for pancreatic cancer. Mr. Silver helped out the non-profit organization Ronald McDonald House in New Haven, CT. They provide housing to families with sick children who cannot afford hotels while their child is receiving treatments in the hospital. Every Christmas he held a fundraiser, we donated a Christmas tree which my wife and children decorated with Yankee decorations and four tickets to a game at Yankee Stadium. There was an Angel Tree that had a lot of tags with children’s names ranging from 1 - 15 years of age. Every year my wife picked out five tags to help these children that are less fortunate to have a Christmas gift. Now it has been 11 years since my father passed, and I can feel him looking down on me. It makes me so happy to give back; it’s so rewarding there are no words to explain it. It is so much better to give than receive.
"We have profiled Tom and his HAFSCO team's design projects for some 20 plus years. His ability to understand what makes a foodservice operation at a club is simply unmatched. He creates a vision for an environment in which a la carte dining and catering can coexist seamlessly."
Publisher, Total Food Service
GK: Tell us about HAFSCO.
HAFSCO was established in 1934 as Howard Arnold Inc. Originally it was a Frigidaire distributor on Crown Street, New Haven, Connecticut. I started working there late 1973. I applied for a driver position while I was working two other part-time jobs and I needed more money. A year later I was on the road in sales at the age of 19. I went to gin mills and small restaurants selling; cherries, shot and beer glasses, and cases of high ball glasses. The market was different back then. The purchaser for Howard Arnold at the time was released from his position a few years later, and I was asked to take over his position of purchasing. I knew it was a step up, I was gaining knowledge and moving up in the company, I enjoyed learning all aspects of the job, so I moved back inside to sales and purchasing. In 1986, Howard Arnold had sadly lost one of their partners Mr. Bianchi, and it was in the process of selling to a company named Kingston Industries, which was a big exporter of food service equipment back then. A few years later I read they went bankrupt. Mr. Bianchi had promised to make me a small owner in 1985. The agreement that was promised. We met, and they both promised to sign me in as a small partner of the company. The area we were located in at the time was undergoing redevelopment in the New Haven ninth square. In 1988-1989 I found the building we are presently in Railroad Avenue in West Haven, which at the time I rented with the option to buy, and after almost 30 years now I purchased the building and property and we are currently putting on an addition because of our continued growth.
GK: You have a large following in restaurant and golf industry, how have you created that reputation?
I’m a workaholic. If I'm home, I'm in my office, and often I get home between 10-11 p.m. I'm there until 2 or 3 in the morning to take care of our revised drawings, quotes, etc. My children, Mario, Austin, Briana, Demi, and Darren, are following suit and they all work until they get things done. They work from home, and they work on weekends/ vacations. This business is not 9 to 5, far from it. This business is a seven days a week job.
I always try to do the right thing. It's more about being good to other people in your life, not just selling supplies and equipment. In general, good things will happen if you are kind and do the right thing and I believe that people recognize that. I try to instill this in all five of my children, work hard, be honest, be a good person in general in life and good things will come to you. Forget about just the business itself. We keep it old-school; it’s still a people vs. people business. Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Connecticut, 1986, was the first club that we did the design for and now we service over 50 clubs. Westchester Country Club, Winged Foot Golf Club, Baltusrol Country Club, Glen Head Golf Club and The Apawamis Club just to name a few. We also service resorts, restaurants/diners, universities, nursing homes and golf/yacht clubs from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont.
One day about 3-4 years ago, General Manager Tom Nevin who was working at Sleepy Hollow Country Club called me and wanted me to come by and visit the club to see if we could do some business together. I still remember afterward how he showed me around the club and drove me to the grounds where the horse show takes place. It was amazing. Afterwards, we sat down in his office, and he said to me “I think you should go see a gentleman I know in Greenwich so he can write a book on you!” I said “Tom there’s no story here! Besides, the only person that would buy that book would be my mother!” I never did take him up on that, but I appreciate his genuine feelings.
We serve our customers in more ways than one. We are all hands on, and we try to go above and beyond what our clients want and expect. That market was held very tight by other dealers in the 70’s and 80’s. Brooklawn Country Club was our first club. At that time a lot was going on between the food industry and the equipment supply industry. A lot of these big players were selling food and adding foodservice equipment supplies.
GK: You came up with an added value concept?
I had an innovating concept, to build a service department and to fix and repair equipment from dishwashers to refrigeration steamers, ovens, building walk-in coolers, and a complete installation department. We have our Cad art department in-house that develops all of our drawings with me designing the set-up of the flow of the kitchen. We stock all brands of paper goods as well as imprinted cups, golf shoe bags, napkins, and candy.
GK: What was one of the finer moments of your career?
I had my meeting with Mr. James and Mr. Paul Brock, of Westchester Country Club during the interview process and had told them that I would send the club my resume and consultation contract of about 40-50 clubs that I've designed. He stated, "we don't need to see your reference list. We spoke with other clubs, so you don’t have to send in any references. All we need is for you to give us a competitive bid. We need two other bids and would need to check everyone’numbers." I was eventually awarded the job, and we had job meetings for 8-9 months every Thursday. We finished the job just before their season, their kitchens were completed, and they invited myself and my wife and everybody that worked on the job, as well as the members, to their open house in the Travis Room. I'm standing there that night in the new Travis Room that they had just unveiled to show off the new renovations of their club and opened up to this whole new sports grill room, bar, new tables and chairs, and kitchen. I'm standing there and suddenly, Mr. Pisano, the club President stands up with a microphone and starts talking and thanking everybody involved in the project. He said, “I’d like to thank the construction committee and all other companies and individuals who were involved in this project, how beautiful everything came out.” He turned around in the middle of his speech standing in front of everyone and said, “And I'd also like to thank probably the best food service consultant on the east coast.” I'm saying to myself; I hope it's not me. So, Tom, could you just please raise your hand?” It was astounding to me to see and hear all the members applaud my hard work and dedication of what they witnessed happen to their club. I was a little choked up with that one. I didn’t know how to react. The emotions took over; I was at a loss for words, that meant more to me then I could ever explain. I was just doing this job the way I handle all other jobs.
Feeling wanted is important to me. There was an exceptional feeling that made me feel good inside hearing that. I just did this job as I would do any other job. Everybody wants to be wanted, I don't care if you live by yourself, if you're single, if you're married, you have kids, or you don't. There's a part of us in life that just wants to be wanted; it feels good. You could be the best landscaper, the best roofer or the best painter. There's a particular love to that connection of being wanted. I’m still just a blue collar worker that loves to work 18-19 hours a day, and I love it as sad as it sounds.
Raising a family is a job in itself, it has ups and downs every day. One day I realized I must have done something right when the youngest of my five children, Darren, calls me on a Tuesday during the Glen Island General Managers show, before his high school Division I championship hockey game between Notre Dame-West Haven and Fairfield Prep. I answered the phone and said, “Darren are you okay?” He innocently said yeah I’m just going to see grandpa at the cemetery before the big game tonight (who has just passed away in 2007). My father loved watching my boys play hockey and baseball. I was so choked up I could barely say goodbye to him, and to this day it still chokes me up, but when I look back, maybe I did raise my children the way I hoped I would. I could only hope and pray that one day my children pass the business down to their children.
GK: What are you most grateful for from all this?
Right now, I’m very thankful for my blessings and that I'm still here. I'm alive. My beautiful wife Cynthia, we have been married almost 37 years. My kids are healthy. My two beautiful grandkids, Bradley and Noelle, and I employ lovely people.
"I’m just a kid who shined shoes." ~ Tom Capobianco
by Leo Bushey, Briana Capobianco and Diana DeLucia