‘Mr. Tommy’ Looks to Future

Emily K. Vasiliauskas

A life-size cut-out of Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry from the movie Die Another Day greets customers at Tommy’s Value, where DVDs are available for rental.

About three years ago, Mian Iftikhar became “Tommy.”

That was when Iftikhar purchased the legendary Square institution Tommy’s House of Pizza. Several months later, he adopted the old name for the new convenience store he was opening next door, Tommy’s Value.

Now he plans to open a jewelry store, and an Indian restaurant and a grocery store in Somerville—all bearing the “Tommy’s” name. “My vendors call me ‘Mr. Tommy’ sometimes,” he says, adding that he never corrects them. “I’d like to make Tommy’s my trademark.”

Iftikhar wasn’t always on track to Tommydom.

After owning and overseeing a leather tannery in his native Pakistan, Iftikhar moved to the U.S. 17 years ago.

He owned two 7-11 franchises for several years, but says he became frustrated when corporate rules prevented him from making decisions for himself.

Making a foray into the pizza business at Tommy’s House of Pizza—his first independent venture—Iftikhar picked up his pseudonym but found that mixing dough and serving slices didn’t suit him. The labor was too physical for his fragile health, he says.

By November of that year, he moved next door and into that distinctively American business: the convenience store. In his brief tenure at the helm of Tommy’s Value, Iftikhar has gradually tried to redefine convenience.

At his fledgling store, Iftikhar offers a wide selection of candy and chips and sodas—typical convenience store fare—but he hopes to make the store much more.

“We would like students to consider Tommy’s as their Harvard canteen shop,” he says between puffs of a cigarette in his makeshift office in the basement of the store.

He has tried selling everything from cell phones to Pakistani wood carvings at his store. He introduced DVDs for rent on three small racks in a corner of the store last year—an offering that has expanded into 500 titles in the store’s back room. He plans to open an on-site juice bar and is considering selling fresh Indian food made at a restaurant he hopes to open in Somerville.

From Figurines to Fresh Juice

For Iftikhar, stocking a wide range of products has always just been a way of appealing to the tastes of his customers.

His small office is cluttered with wholesale boxes of food products, picture frames and wooden figurines. The miniature statues are relics from the opening days of the shop, when Iftikhar thought that Pakistani wood carvings and woven shawls might help move soda and chips off the shelves.

“Those didn’t work,” he says, adding that some had broken.

Amidst the clutter of merchandise that moves and less successful products, Iftikhar is seated behind a desk in the left hand corner of the room, vividly explaining his plans for the future.

Exhaling a transparent stream of smoke, he elaborates his freshest idea for the store.

According to Iftikhar, it won’t be long before River House residents unhappy with the juice-from-concentrate in the dining halls can come to Tommy’s for refreshment.

“I’m planning on bringing in a juice bar as soon as I get permission from the city,” Iftikhar says, explaining that his employees would have to be certified with 30 hours of training. “We’re talking fresh-squeezed orange juice, not like the Wrap,” he says, leaning forward to explain his plans. “You can have ice or no ice. You want carrot juice, we’ll have that. It’ll be just like you make it at home. Just fresh, fresh. We’ll make it in front of you.” He pauses for a moment. “I was thinking sugar cane juice, too. That might be something new.”

The Staples

Iftikhar loves to tout his store’s policy on filling customer requests.

“Sixty-five to 70 percent of the time we can get what you request and this is something you won’t find in the Square,” he says, smiling. “It’s our way of letting students know that we appreciate their business.” Customers can write in requests on a dry-erase board near the door. Once a request is submitted, Iftikhar and his employees attempt to find the product and stock it according to need.

“I had a customer buying garlic pickles last year,” he says. “She bought two jars every second day, but now she’s gone so movement of that product has slowed down and we don’t stock it.” According to Iftikhar, requests that they receive vary, but have included everything from diet root beer to hair elastics.

“People want the small things that you can get in a supermarket,” he says. “College students have different eating habits and different buying habits and we try to cater to that.”

Trying to satisfy students includes keeping a wide selection of products like cereals and bag candies on the shelves and may include a switch to Crimson Cash next year.

“I’m hoping to get that done here,” Iftikhar says.

Iftikhar caters to students because they compose the greatest percentage of his customers.

“Tommy’s is a good business, but it’s only profitable when the students are here,” he says.

Iftikhar has even ventured to stocking DVDs and says rentals have been successful, pointing out that there is no other movie rental store in the square.

Cell Phones and Indian Food

While DVDs have been a success at Tommy’s, Iftikhar says that he had a little more trouble moving another product off the shelves.

“I did try to bring in cell phones, but students don’t come here to buy phones,” Iftikhar says, folding his arms across his chest and shaking his head. He says that he had successfully negotiated contracts with AT&T and Tmobile, but personal health troubles prevented him from putting “100 percent effort” into sales. “Maybe I’ll try again next year, when the freshmen come in,” he says. Iftikhar says he has debated whether to introduce a fresh Indian food section into the store.

He is planning to open a restaurant in Somerville and says “once we have that going we can always sell food here.”

“It won’t be the food you get in restaurants here,” he says, explaining how conventional Indian restaurants let their food sit. “We will cook fresh every day, if people want it.” And while Iftikhar is expanding to bring in fresh items, he says he will continue to shy away from selling conventional products such as alcohol and lottery tickets.

“I don’t want to take Louie’s business,” he says, adding that he doesn’t think “children” should have access to alcohol.

Not 24/7 or 7-11

While not competing with Louie’s, Iftikhar did try to mimic the longer hours of his franchised counterparts in the square.

7-11 has long boasted 24 hour convenience—and CVS started staying open overnight this fall—but Tommy’s closes at 2 a.m. during the week and at 4 a.m. on weekends.

“We figured we could go 24 hours at the beginning of the year, and we tried it but the response was not that great,” Iftikhar says. “If you don’t get any business between the hours of 4 and 8, then it isn’t worth it.” Even CVS has admitted to having a slow response to their new 24 hour policy.

An assistant manager said that staying open hasn’t been profitable, but that the policy is set by the national franchise. After his experience owning 7-11s, Iftikhar says he does not envy the stability of a national name. “I feel very happy to make my own decisions,” he says.

“I know how the big stores operate, they just want to make money on every transaction,” he says over his cell phone, which he admits to purchasing at a Tmobile store, not Tommy’s. Iftikhar says he is driving home from New York, after a busy day of looking for the perfect juice machines for his latest venture.

“I’m not worried about 7-11 or CVS,” he says, “because we give a personalized service to our customers.”

—Staff writer Wendy D. Widman can be reached at widman@fas.harvard.edu.