Clark’s Market Aspen founder checking out after 41 years in grocery business
When Tom Clark Sr. was in his 20s, he had sold and mortgaged everything he had to move from Denver to Aspen to open a grocery store in 1978.
More than four decades later, Clark Sr. is retiring as CEO of a company that now has 600 employees and seven grocery stores in locations throughout the West.
“I never thought it would grow to this size,” Clark Sr. said from his office in downtown Aspen on a recent morning. “I’m very pleased with the direction of the company.”
It probably never would have happened if not for two individuals who helped Clark Sr. in those early days.
Businessman and developer Jim Trueman owned the land where Clark’s Market sits today off Mill Street and was preparing to develop a shopping center.
“He took a chance on a 29-year-old who wanted to open a grocery store because he saw in me my motivation,” Clark Sr. said. “It would be hard to find that again.”
The store location was set but the investment money was thin.
“I was struggling,” Clark Sr. said, noting that he had $30,000 on hand and borrowed money to open the store.
He approached Gen. Bill Martin, another businessman who lived in the West End neighborhood.
“I asked him if he knew anyone who wanted to be my partner,” Clark Sr. recalled. “He came back to me and said, ‘I want to be your partner,’ and he paid off the debt and off we went.
“You don’t do this by yourself.”
To that end, his son, Tom Clark Jr., who is now president of the company, will become CEO, too.
Clark’s other son, David, is the store director of Clark’s Market in Aspen.
Clark Sr. said being CEO wasn’t as much fun as the 15 years he ran the Aspen store where he could connect with customers and provide products that they wanted.
“That’s the great thing about the grocery store, you get immediate feedback,” he said. “People have opinions and that’s why we have a unique product mix; that is the advantage of being independent.”
Clark Sr. learned early on how to shift with customer demand.
“If you look at our grand opening ad, we were trying to sell medium large eggs when all people wanted were large and extra-large eggs,” he said in a profile on the company’s website. “And whole fryer chickens. No one in Aspen knew how to cut up a chicken and needed them already cut up. The store evolved to be reflective of the people we were serving.”
The newspaper ads that hang on the Clark’s Market office walls show those whole fryers selling for 49 cents a pound and a dozen eggs were 65 cents.
Prices are a bit higher than that now at Clark’s Aspen and typically more than what competitor City Market offers.
But with the convenience of the large parking lot and spacious aisles compared to a cramped City Market, people flock for ease no matter the price.
Clark’s Markets are known for premade, homemade meals, along with soups and a salad bar and other unique items.
They also are known for their holiday sales — king crab before Christmas week and live lobsters for Fourth of July.
Clark Sr. had been working for his father who was in the food brokerage business and City Market in Aspen was a client.
He knew there was room for another grocery store here, and in 1970 he and his wife, Linda, came to Aspen on their honeymoon to ski.
They loved it so much they moved here.
They celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary Tuesday, which also was Clark Sr.’s official day of retirement.
“It’s been a great 41 years,” he said, adding that he’s a bit nervous about retiring. “I’ve never looked forward to retiring, it’s never been a goal of mine.”
But at 70 years old, it’s time.
“A lot of my friends are retired,” he said.
He said he does look forward to caring after his 100 head of cattle on his 600-acre ranch in Emma and spending time at their home in Goodyear, Arizona.
Clark Sr. said there are a dozen families who live in their neighborhood where they play golf and recreate.
But he has a hard time convincing Linda to come along sometimes.
“My wife still skis so I have to drag her out of here,” he laughed.
Clark Jr. will be in charge of the company’s real estate holdings and the stores in Aspen, Snowmass Village, Norwood, Crested Butte, Telluride, Blanding, Utah, and Sedona, Arizona.
Opened in 2017, the Sedona market is the fastest growing and busiest of all the Clark’s stores, Clark Sr. said.
The most entertaining, however, is Clark’s A&W/gas station/bowling alley in Blanding.
Clark Jr. saw the bowling alley up for sale in Las Vegas at the Rio about a decade ago. He bought it and now it’s a destination for Blanding’s residents.
“It’s been extremely successful,” Clark Sr. said.
The Crested Butte store will see an expansion this spring, with a new pharmacy and employee housing.
The Clark’s Aspen store went through a remodel in 2016 that Clark Sr. said was a $5 million endeavor.
“It was so old and worn out,” he said, adding that he remembers when there were ashtrays at the end of the aisles.
Clark Sr. said he wants to volunteer by serving on the county’s Open Space and Trails board and the Aspen Valley Land Trust. Other than that, it’s on to full-time ranch life in Emma, enjoying seven grandchildren living in the valley and golfing in Arizona.
He said he has no regrets and it’s been a fun journey.
“How lucky am I to do business in this town?” Clark Sr. said. “It’s been great.”