Many of the customers who came into the Metro supermarket at Bayview and Eglinton on the morning of May 23 expected to find the genial manager Tom Sanders at the front counter, where he usually held court.
Instead they found a notice inside the main doors that made many of them break into tears.
“It was pretty bad,” says Nikki Georgiou, a deli employee of 18 years.
The notice announced that Sanders had died suddenly the night before at the age of 67. As the news quickly spread through Leaside it caused an unusual amount of emotion.
Within a few days following his death a second condolence book was added to the first, in which customers, supervisors, managers and staff documented their affection for the charismatic manager. Flowers filled the store.
Hundreds of customers and employees, even junior part-time staff members of less than four months, attended his celebration of life on May 26 at the Pine Hills Cemetery & Visitation Centre in Scarborough.
“It was packed,” says loyal store customer John Kellett, of Bennington Heights. “It was almost impossible to find an empty spot in the parking lot, and all the rooms inside were full.”
Kellett, who used to engage Sanders in animated political debates, says, “The truth is, I had a man crush on him. My wife always knew where we were in the store because she could hear us laughing.
“He had a really pleasing demeanor, absolutely larger than life,” he adds.
The reaction from the community was due in great part to his generosity to the community, be it the Rotary Club corn roast, Northlea United Church community barbecue, or buying cookies from Girl Guides who came to the store.
“Tom, when approached to contribute donations to our church barbecue at Northlea United, would always say, What do you need and how much? It was always ready the promised day for pick up free of charge,” said Becky White, Glenvale Blvd.
“I learned that Tom Sanders had worked for Metro for over 40 years. When I told other people in the Leaside community about his death many told me how nice he was to them in the store or with giving donations to their school or churches.”
While under Sanders’ stewardship, the supermarket, originally known as Dominion, was voted by industry experts as the top performer in North America.
It’s not hard to understand why. Sanders really cared about people.
“He was one of the best guys I ever worked with,” says senior assistant manager Norm Simoncini, his voice filled with emotion. “The message he relayed was ‘Take care of the customers, first and foremost.’”
If a product was not on the shelves that someone wanted, Sanders made sure staff members ordered it. He remembered his customers by name, and even more often by the products they used, once teasingly referring to Leaside real estate agent Charlene Kalia as Hot Sauce because of her love of the product.
He was especially kind and respectful to elderly customers, often steering them to the back of the store to get a better cut of meat, or to listen to their opinions on products.
He also had a reputation for supporting and encouraging his staff.
“He was my mentor and second father,” says Georgiou. “He was there for me, and guided me. I could confide in him. He was a great boss, and very fair.” Georgiou called the over six-feet-tall Sanders a loveable teddy bear.
Chris Valentini, the husband of Sanders’ daughter Amanda, who started his career as a bakery supervisor in one of Tom’s stores, said, “My father-in-law cared less about how much training you had for a job than whether you were prepared to work hard. He’d say to me, ‘Chris, I know you’re new at this, but trust your instincts, and remember the customer is always right and you’ll never go wrong.’”
At the conclusion of the celebration of life service on May 26, when John Kellett and his wife returned to their car, they discovered a flyer with Sanders face on it lying on one of the seats.
“As soon as we got home, we put it on our bulletin board,” says Kellett, underscoring the uniqueness of the action: “We don’t even do that with family members.”