Bill Sullivan has heard the same phrase countless times behind the counter at Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl since he became the restaurant’s owner over three decades ago.
“When you think of Zanesville, you think of Tom’s.”
Sullivan shook his head and smiled as he repeated the phrase at a desk inside his wooden office buried in the basement of the storied restaurant, which has served as a local hub for families to gather for a fresh meal with options far beyond ice cream since its inception in 1948.
It’s a “restaurant” for a reason, and it serves American-style food with a plethora of ice cream selections inside a building that hasn’t lost a touch of its 50s-esque features.
Sullivan, 68, has spent nearly three decades in charge. The restaurant has never felt old to him.
“Tom’s is a part of Zanesville,” Sullivan says as footsteps echoed from above as customers and employees carried conversation over an early afternoon meal. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that here. It’s a family atmosphere. We get people in here everyday. I know their life, and they know mine.”
While the cheeseburgers, sandwiches, nuts and ice cream add to the restaurant’s charm, Sullivan believes it’s the people, his customers, who have given the nifty building its reputation, which expands far beyond the small outskirts of Zanesville.
He’s seen couples eat at the restaurant for their first date. 30 years later, he’s served food to their grandkids. He’s welcomed visitors from all over the world — Australia, Romania, Germany, Denmark — who have traveled through Appalachia just to snag a meal.
He also heard a story of a person who randomly met another tourist at the Great Wall of China.
Somehow in that conversation, they both learned that they had been to Tom’s.
“We’ve survived the test of time,” Sullivan says. “We still have those people coming back, and we’re known all over the country.”
The path to stardom began when it opened seven decades ago as just an ice cream shop. But business took off, and Tom Mirgon, the original owner, and his cousin Jack Hemmer moved from Linden Avenue to a new location in 1950 with a bigger space to seat more people and to cook more food.
That location, 532 McIntire Avenue, is where the restaurant sits today. And yes, it still makes over 100 gallons of ice cream each day to complement its wide-ranging menu with meals made from scratch and fresh beef imported every day.
The restaurant is almost always busy, too. Families and friends of all ages bustled with conversation around the yellow beige tables on a Thursday afternoon. It didn’t matter that it was a work day or that school was in session — people still wanted to eat at Tom’s.
For Sullivan, the hustle never stops. He’s always busy with a restaurant that stays open seven days of week, but that work is what led to Mitt Romney making a campaign stop — Sullivan’s favorite memory — at Tom’s in 2012.
It’s what keeps Mark D’Antonio, Michigan State football coach and Zanesville native, a frequent visitor whenever he comes back home. It also has led to Tom’s being selected for shows on Food Network and being named one of the top ice cream shops in the country by USA Today in 1998.
But no matter how large Tom’s popularity grows, it’ll always be known by Sullivan as a slice of Zanesville.
“What I enjoy about it is dealing with the people that come in here for years and years,” he says. “This place is my family.”