Thyme Zone

W hen Thyme & Season opened in Hamden in 1997, many people still saw health food as “some weird old hippie thing,” longtime employee Vicky Parslow says with a laugh, and that was reflected in the supply chain. Now, 24 years later, the small “natural” grocery can stock its produce section with all organic fruits and vegetables, many of them locally or regionally grown, and its fridges and shelves with too many vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and minimally processed items to count. “Once [people] start eating better,” Parslow says, “they start to realize how much food is being used to actually fuel them—to fuel their energy, to feel better, to boost their immune system.”

Big chains have noticed too. As a result, Thyme & Season is now up against behemoths like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s as well as more conventional supermarkets. But on a rainy late summer day, business is steady. A bin of organic watermelons anchors the small produce department. Shelves are stocked with staples you’d find in any supermarket—chips and salsa, candy and granola bars, seltzer, cereal, household cleaners, pet care products, frozen and prepared foods—all of it deemed healthier than the usual alternatives. A hot food bar in the back of the store offers lunch treats like Vegan Enchilada Casserole, Roasted Vegetables and Pad Thai Noodles; the menu is posted on the store’s website daily. In the bulk food section, customers stock up on a wide selection of grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Another section is devoted to Connecticut products: maple syrup from Morris, wildflower honey from Granby, tomato sauce from Southington. And one entire aisle is dedicated to vitamins, supplements and alternative medicine products—a “store within a store,” says founder Mary Ellen Stearman.

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She co-owns and runs the business with her son, Josh Elliott, along with a second store, The Common Bond, in Shelton. Elliott grew up in the aisles of Thyme & Season and, after a mostly homeschooled education, earned a law degree at Quinnipiac University before deciding the family business was where he wanted to be. He also represents Hamden’s 88th district in the state House of Representatives.

One way for Thyme & Season to stay competitive in an increasingly crowded market, Elliott says, is by “being on the vanguard and relying on our buyers to always be looking out for something that’s going to be new before these larger companies can come in and just undercut us on cost.” That means Thyme & Season’s customers sometimes get to try new products first. A case in point is an oat milk machine from Shark Tank startup Numilk that’s not even on shelves yet. Thyme & Season staffers are testing it out behind the scenes. Stearman points out a tray of glass bottles and a brand new shipment of pouches of concentrate that, when mixed with water in the professional grade machine, produce fresher oat milk. The sample she shares tastes delicious.

Elliott argues the most compelling reason to shop in a place like Thyme & Season is that your dollars stay in town. But another, possibly more powerful, reason seems to be its employees. Linda Myers is a member of the management team, which has hardly changed in 24 years. A certified nutritional counselor, Myers spends most of her day at a desk built right into the supplements section. She often fields questions from and conducts research for customers. “We try to educate people so they can make their best choices,” she says, adding that her job hinges on “kind of just listening to people.”

As I wander the aisles, I learn that’s not just Myers’s approach. Every employee I meet cheerfully asks if they can help me. Regular customers clearly know these folks. Overheard conversations go deeper than politeness; customers and staff are checking in on each other.

For Elliott, a busy career in politics poses little conflict with operating two health food stores. For one thing, he trusts his experienced managers to run the show day-to-day. But he also sees both jobs as working toward similar goals: “helping people [be] healthy and then helping people when they need resources… A lot of what I see as politics,” he says, “is just being in customer service.”

Thyme & Season
3040 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Mon-Fri 8am-7pm, Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 10am-6pm
(203) 407-8128
www.thymeandseason.net

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-2 and 4-5 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 3 and 6, the latter featuring Josh Elliot, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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