Healthy shoes, sold from a healthy store

Happy Feet Plus specializes in therapeutic footwear, and its Clearwater store earns top environmental marks.

Published April 30, 2005

Before the rainfall collection basin, the solar panels, the certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the nine branches and $6-million in annual sales, Jane Strong and Jacob Wurtz, founders of Happy Feet Plus, were selling socks at flea markets in Bradenton and St. Petersburg.

Selling socks came after Strong and Wurtz, migrant workers from Canada, made a living picking Florida oranges, after Wurtz inhaled fumes from a fruit-spraying tractor that made him sick for days, after the pair decided to buy into an organic farming business in Bradenton and eventually bought it out. After freezes in 1980 and 1981 put them out of business and forced them to file for bankruptcy.

After all that, they started selling socks and then a Japanese massage sandal called the Kenkoh reflexology sandal for $24.95 a pair. The rubber insoles stimulate pressure points, improve circulation and brought them $10,000 in 10 days at the 1985 Florida State Fair.

On April 19, 1985, Health Shoes Plus made its debut as a kiosk in Tyrone Square Mall. Since the therapeutic Kenkoh sandal was meant for part-time use, Strong and Wurtz researched footwear suitable for all-day use. They picked up a little-known brand called Birkenstock.

Three years later, the former couple and now business partners opened a store in Tampa and eventually changed the name of their business from Health Shoes Plus to Happy Feet Plus.

"People thought, "Oh, health shoes, I don't need that,' " Strong said, standing in her lime green Birkenstock sandals in her Clearwater store, the only retail store in the country to earn a gold certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system created by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The green building rating system is based on a 69-point scale. A building needs 26 points to be certified, but Happy Feet Plus in Clearwater earned 39 points, giving it one of the 53 gold ratings in the country. Happy Feet Plus' Clearwater store sits on U.S. 19, but the noise of traffic can't penetrate the walls made of insulated concrete forms, blocks locked together with rebar and filled with concrete resulting in wall insulation at R-54 (building code requires insulation at R-11). The metal roof helps reduce energy usage.

The store is the only Happy Feet facility built from the ground up, making it possible to construct it to green building standards. Posters placed between shoe displays explain what makes the building environmentally friendly.

The store's parking lot of crushed shell disperses heat and allows water to seep through while keeping pollutants out of the ground.

Half the amount of electricity the building needs is attained through four arrays of solar panels. The building also cuts back on energy by using full spectrum lighting, which is energy efficient and less draining for people.

The toilets are flushed with rainwater collected in a 5,000-gallon cistern, which waters the drought-resistant Florida native plants.

Ceiling fans keep the air circulating. The lumber used in the raised ceiling was shipped from a managed forest in California. The double-paned and glass block windows keep cool air from seeping out and keep natural light beaming in.

Then there are the shoes.

Stilettoes, pumps and other pretty yet often-painful footwear won't find shelf space at this store. Teva, Dansko and Finn Comfort are among the brands sold, which are selected based on quality, health and comfort.

Companies like Birkenstock are starting to shed their reputation of producing a comfortable yet ugly product with trendier colors, styles and even a few models that are appropriate for work.

Most importantly, the shoes have contours and ridges, giving the wearer the right amount of support and keeping pressure off the knees and back.

"To have shoes that don't let our feet function the way they're supposed to function doesn't make sense," Wurtz said.

The shoes are especially popular among nurses, hairdressers and other professionals required to be on their feet all day.

Strong and Wurtz say customers often come back to tell them how their shoes have helped heal their ailments.

When they were selling the massage sandals at a flea market, a customer who suffered from back and leg pain walked around the market for two hours and came back to Wurtz claiming to be pain-free.

"If I wasn't married, I'd kiss you," she told him.

It's those anecdotes that keep the partners going despite the initial struggle to grow their company "one shoe at a time." This month, Happy Feet Plus celebrated 20 years in business.

"We were sharing with people what we learned so that kept us driving," Strong said.