Catch a rising Star

By emphasizing service, fresh meat, local products and its pharmacy, Star Super Market offers Huntsville, Ala. residents an out-of-this-world shopping experience.

By Richard Turcsik

Huntsville has a reputation of reaching for the stars. After all, the northern Alabama city with a population of 180,000 is the center of the nation’s aero­s­pace in­dustry—home to the Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Army/Red­stone Arsenal, NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, The Boeing Co., Northrop Grum­man Corp. and Lockheed Martin. There’s even an Apollo rocket alongside Interstate 565 welcoming visitors to the city.

So it really comes as no surprise that when Huntsville residents do their grocery shopping, many drive past Publix, Super Target, Walmart Supercenter and even a new 92,000-square-foot Kroger Marketplace on U.S. 72 and head straight to Star Super Market—a scrappy independent operating four supermarkets, three drugstores and a medical supply business. Star has endeared itself to Huntsville with outstanding, personalized service, local products, famous meats, low prices and dedication to the community. Plus, they make what is considered by all accounts the best pizza in town.

“Our mission statement is simple: Every­thing we do is over the top, whether it’s cutting a steak, filling your child’s prescription or running a charity golf tournament,” says Lonnie Miller, chief operating officer.

“The people in Alabama, especially in the Huntsville area, are very loyal to the local business guy and that has been very beneficial to us,” says Darden Heritage, Star Super Market’s owner. “If you give good service, people will recognize that. People want that.”

He says providing “good service” is the company’s philosophy. “If you want us to carry chocolate-flavored olive oil, we’re going to go over the top to find it,” Heritage says. “If you go to Walmart, that’s not going to happen. That’s the beauty of being an independent. We make decisions that are all about the customer.”

A registered pharmacist, Heritage is more likely to be found behind the counter of Star’s flagship Five Points store filling prescriptions than in an executive office.  He bought Star in 2000 from the son of its founder when he learned the son was selling the store for health reasons. At the time, Heritage was working as a pharmacist at Propst Discount Drug (he is now the owner), which is directly across Pratt Avenue from Star. He wanted to buy Star to maintain it as a supermarket when he heard its owner was in talks with CVS and Walgreens. He readily admits that he had no supermarket experience at the time.

“I went into the Regions Bank branch across the street and said, ‘I want to buy Star Super Market,’” Heritage says. “They sent me downtown to the president of the bank and he asked me what I knew about the grocery business. I said, ‘Nothing, but I know retail and I know how to treat people. You give them what they want.’ And he gave me the check.”

At that time, Star employed 15 associates. Today, it has 425 employees and opened its newest store in Southeast Huntsville on Bailey Cove Road late last year. Housed in a former Southern Family store, at 65,000 square feet it is Star’s largest location, surpassing the 44,000-square-foot Madison branch that was once a Winn-Dixie.

“Our Five Points store is only 14,000 square feet and Meridianville is 18,000 square feet, so going to 44,000 square feet [in Madison] was really a challenge, but it enabled me to understand what I needed to do with 65,000 square feet,” Heritage says. At the Bailey Cove Road store, that means new departments such as Star Café, its first self-branded coffee shop, and Star Cuisine, an upscale prepared food operation that will eventually supply the other stores with products. There’s also a U.S. Post Office and County Extension Office, where residents can get car tags, drivers’ licenses and things of that nature.

Miller says stocking the store really wasn’t a problem. “We were concerned about it being too big, but when we started setting it just came together,” he says. “Of course we drew it out and tweaked it a million times before we put the first can of corn on the shelf.”

Facebook friends
Heritage says the Bailey Cove Road store was born out of an online campaign waged by customers. “When Southern Family went dark last April, [customers] started a Facebook page that said ‘Bring Star Market to SHV’ [Southeast Huntsville],” he says.

He says the Facebook page was launched by customers who frequented the Madison store prior to moving to Southeast Huntsville. Heritage says they missed their Star store be­cause their child has special dietary requirements and the staff ordered what they needed, kept it in stock and called them when the products arrived. “Those people ended up having 450 people belonging to their Facebook page,” he says. “Kroger doesn’t get that. Publix doesn’t get that. Walmart sure wouldn’t get that.”

Star also wins fans because it emphasizes local Alabama-made products wherever possible. For example, Star carries the full line of Bama jams and jellies, “The Southern Tradition” sandwich spreads once made in Birmingham and now owned by Concord, Mass.-based Welch Foods Inc., while Publix doesn’t stock one SKU.
“We have as many Alabama products as we can throughout the grocery store,” says Perry Barnett, store director of the Bailey Cove Road Star. “I have one vendor who deals in nothing but Alabama products. We donated a basket of all Alabama products to a silent auction for handicapped children and it was the most sought-after item at the auction.”

Shoppers entering the Bailey Cove Road store are greeted with the pharmacy department on the right and service departments on the left. Walls are lined with silver stamped tinplates, similar to those found on the ceilings of old-time stores and something of a Star Market hallmark.

“This store is definitely not like what it was,” says Rick L. Spina, vice president of sales for Birmingham, Ala.-based Spina Marketing Services, which provided the store’s hanging signage and aisle markers. “They have dramatically changed the look versus just patching it up.”

Warm welcome
“We made the store more open, more inviting, put all new floors in and purchased all new checkstands [from Boone, N.C.-based ECR Software Corp.],” says Miller. Shelves were lowered, two rows of gondolas were removed, new lighting was installed and the drop ceiling was painted a warm golden color.

Directly ahead of the entrance—complete with a wooden arbor and piped in romantic music—is the Star Vino Market wine department. “We have our biggest wine selection in this store,” Miller says. “We do Morgan Creek, which is a local Alabama vineyard and includes organics. The wine selection here is incredible and larger than any other store in this area.”

One of the pegs on which Star hangs its hat is its meat department, billed as “The Best Meats on Earth!” in its circulars.

What makes the meats so special? Star controls how its cattle are raised “from birth to box,” Heritage explains.
“Our meat is raised in South Dakota and processed in Chicago,” Miller says. “We meet with those guys weekly. We discuss any issues we have. We just rolled out a natural beef line that is really and truly a natural line of beef.”

“And because of our tight control we’re soon going to be able to do DNA tracking,” Heritage notes. “We’ll be able to track the DNA of that cow all the way back to the grandparents, so if there is ever an issue with the animal, through DNA tracking we can go right to the source.”

Hot pies
Service departments, including the Star Cuisine prepared foods department, line the front of the store. “We do have a made-to-order salad bar, which we don’t have in any other store,” Miller says. “We can toss you any kind of garden salad or Caesar salad and you can take it home for dinner. We’ve also got a Panini Sandwich Bar, which is unique to this store.”

There’s also a complete line of hot and chilled entrées and side dishes. “We hired an executive chef and our plans are to have foods prepared here and sent to the other stores,” Miller says, adding that sushi is also made fresh daily and sent out to the Five Points location.

But the hallmark of the foodservice area is the outpost of Terry’s Pizza—a Huntsville institution with a rabid following. Terry’s Pizza is sold made-to-order, along with eight signature recipes, including Bavarian Pizza (ham, pepperoni and Polish sausage over a bed of kraut); Sticky Fingers Special (sausage, pepperoni and mushrooms loaded with extra cheese); Chef’s Special (sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, green pepper and onion with anchovies upon request); and Maui Wowee (ham, pineapple, cheese and another topping at no extra charge).

Terry’s Pizzas are available in raw take-and-bake form or can be cooked in the store’s brick oven. “It’s amazing to see how much pizza volume we have at this store because folks who wanted Terry’s Pizza in this area were driving to Five Points to get it,” Miller says. “This has taken off like gangbusters, but it hasn’t hurt [sales at] Five Points.”

Terry’s Pizza is a beehive of activity, as is the Star Discount Pharmacy department. It’s the largest in Star’s chain and contains a training room, where classes are conducted on topics such as diabetes, and Star’s first immunization room for flu shots and other vaccines, along with a drive-up window for prescription pick-ups. The diabetes classes are conducted in each store. They cost $75, but run seven hours over the course of two days and include a glucose meter, detailed manual and lunch.

The department has a Parata Max prescription-filling machine from San Francisco-based McKesson Corp., along with a state-of-the-art intelePharmacy WCS (Will Call System) from Pleasanton, Calif.-based PickPoint Corp. [See sidebar, Page 30.]

Powerful team
“It is a very synergistic and powerful combination if you mesh the pharmacy and grocery store together the way they really should compliment each other,” Heritage says. “Grocery gets stronger because of the pharmacy and pharmacy gets stronger because of the grocery. What I’ve noticed in our industry is that a lot of folks don’t want to do that.”

Star Discount Pharmacy is renown in Huntsville for the way it treats its customers. “It is all about the patient,” Heritage says. “Another one of our philosophies and why we are so successful in pharmacy is that we give people fair prices. There’s no smoke-and-mirrors. We don’t do $4 prescriptions. Our customers know that they are going to be treated fairly, get a fair price, and we are going to treat them like they are a patient and not a number.”
The stores are affiliated with the HealthMart cooperative, but Heritage doesn’t play up that point. “We work very hard at establishing our brand—almost to the point of obsession.”

While other stores develop private label salsas and pasta sauces, Star is developing private label cough and cold products and analgesics. Other pharmacies have been known to call Heritage saying a customer brought in a bottle of Double Touch cough syrup (a Star private label) and that they can’t find it. “I tell them, ‘You’re not going to find it because it is under our name.’ We get a kick out of that.”

A Star program offers free monthly bottles of vitamins to parents of children in kindergarten through sixth grade. “To get them you have to fill out demographic information—name, address, email—and we capture all of that. Having that e-mail address is like having money,” Heritage says. “It’s been a good promotion for us. It’s a bottle of vitamins with our name on it, so the customer looks at our name every day for the next 30 days.”
He’s had the same success with Star’s private label syringes, manufactured by St. Paul, Minn.-based Ulti-Med. The brand has become so popular that he says it is outselling a national brand.

Hitting the links
In addition to enhancing its private label offerings, Heritage is raising Star’s profile in other ways. One of those is a charity golf tournament, held for the first time last year. “We pulled it off in six months and it was just such a roaring success in the community,” he says. “Our first year goal was to raise $10,000 and split it between two charities, but we doubled our goal and raised $10,000 for each charity. We are now known among all of the golfers as the premiere golf tournament in Huntsville.”

The beneficiaries were two local children’s charities: Military Education Child Coalition, which helps military children transition to new bases, and the Kids to Love Foundation, which provides assistance to foster children.
Heritage says Star is going to grow the tournament each year and use it to continue to build Star’s awareness. Given how Star is so widely regarded and respected that is a tall order indeed.

“We’re blessed to be an icon in Huntsville,” Heritage says.

A slice of nostalgia
Forget those guided missile systems. Hunstville’s most famous product may very well be Terry’s Pizza, which is sold exclusively at Star Super Market.

“Terry’s Pizza has helped me not only survive, but thrive,” says Star owner Darden Heritage.

Established in 1959, Terry’s Pizza was a Huntsville institution operating three pizza parlors. Its owner died in 2005 and in June 2006 the family padlocked the doors and shut the business. That made the front page of The Huntsville Times. Heritage bought the rights to the name and the recipes and started making the pizzas in his stores, selling them hot out of the oven and raw take-and-bake. Shortly before Christmas that year, he sent a press release out to the three local TV networks and The Huntsville Times, resulting in another front-page story.

“We hired the original workers and the paper asked one of them what it was like to be working again,” Heritage says. “She said, ‘I feel like I was born again.’ Well, just put that in a paper down here in the South. That night we had a two-and-a-half-hour wait for pizza. We were selling 3,000 pies a week!”

Sales eventually tampered down some, but with Star’s new Bailey Cove Road store Star officials expect volume to once again easily surpass 3,000 pies a week.

And because of Huntsville’s military bases, Terry’s Pizza has developed a strong national—even international—following.

“Around the holidays it’s amazing because you will actually see people that are in town visiting relatives hauling 10 or 12 take-and-bakes back home,” says Lonnie Miller, Star’s chief operating officer.

“I have the rights to franchise it and I’ve gotten calls from all over the country from people wanting to franchise Terry’s Pizza,” Heritage says. But, at least for now, “You can’t get Terry’s Pizza anywhere else,” Heritage says. “And you know, we don’t run it on special hardly at all, because we found that when we do it really doesn’t increase our sales.”

Easing pain
Tired of waiting on line for 20 minutes while a pharmacist assistant rifles through alphabetized plastic basket after plastic basket looking for a misfiled prescription? Then head on over to Star Discount Pharmacy, where the intelePharmacy WCS (Will Call System) from Pleasanton, Calif.-based PickPoint Corp. has been installed and has dramatically transformed the prescription pick-up process, according to officials at the retailer.

Under the PickPoint program, when a doctor calls in a prescription it is filled, scanned and placed in a bag, which is then put on a hanging rack, says Lonnie Miller, Star’s chief operating officer. When the shopper comes to pick up a prescription, the assistant simply types in their name and a light on the hanger holding their bag begins to flash. The lights can flash in three different colors—one for each different register.

As a result, pick-up time has dropped to almost nothing. “It’s a real timesaver, especially with the high volume that we have,” Miller says. “If you have somebody who misfiles one prescription and puts it under S instead of T, you would literally have to go through all of these drawers from top to bottom trying to find it.”

The system also conducts an automatic inventory every 30 days so that items that were never picked up can be flagged and put back on the shelf or discarded, Miller says.

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