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Store marches into its 15th year

Sandal sales helped propel Happy Feet Plus, which started as a booth in Tyrone Mall, into a 10-location business.

By PIPER JONES CASTILLO

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


When Jane Strong and Jacob Wurtz began selling Birkenstocks in the mid 1980s, the buying public was not familiar with the shoe.

"The hard part was selling the look," Strong said.

Now, the shoe once considered to have a style fit for gladiators, the width of a cross-country ski and a price tag for the affluent is perennially popular. Knock-offs line department store racks everywhere.

And it has made Happy Feet Plus a successful shoe chain.

This month, the business celebrates its 15th anniversary. What started in 1985 at a kiosk in Tyrone Mall now has 10 stores.

"As I recall, Happy Feet Plus was the only place that had Birkenstocks, and I was the only person who wore them," customer Bill Lee of St. Petersburg said, scanning the shelves of the St. Pete Beach store.

Well, maybe not.

Lots of others began wearing them, too. Happy Feet Plus, which sells Birkenstocks and other casual shoes, including Finn Comfort, Mephisto, Ecco and Teva, had sales of $4.9-million in 1999.

Strong and Wurtz came to Florida 25 years ago from their native Canada, seeking a warmer climate and "a healthful way of life," said Strong, who lives in St. Pete Beach.

Before the German sandal stepped into their world, they sold a Japanese rubber flip-flop called a Kenco. Wurtz, who lives in St. Petersburg, purchased a pair of the massage shoes on a visit to a health food store.

"We wanted to share with people the benefits of these shoes," Strong said.

They began selling Kencos at flea markets and fairs.

The business partners made $10,000 at the 10-day Florida State Fair in 1985 and decided to open a kiosk at Tyrone.

The small retail space had center stage in the mall, but rent was a pricey $3,000 a month.

"My father thought I was crazy, but I believed in what we were doing," Strong said.

Sales averaged 20 pairs of sandals a day, and soon it was apparent customers wanted more.

"Kencos were not designed for all-day wear. They were supposed to be worn for about 30 minutes to give you a foot massage. That's when we found Birkenstocks," Strong said.

Within three years, Strong and Wurtz realized they needed a bigger space. In 1988, they opened a location on Dale Mabry Highway.

Sales really took off once New York models started wearing Birkenstocks on the runways in 1990.

"People actually came seeking the shoes out," Strong said.

From 1990 through 1999, Happy Feet Plus expanded as far north as Tarpon Springs and as far east as Brandon.

Last year, the company purchased a former Badcock Furniture store on Clearwater-Largo Road in Largo for $335,000. After $350,000 in renovations, the 16,500-square-foot building became corporate headquarters. The facility includes retail space and the 2,300-square-foot mail-order division, which is expected to bring in 20 percent of this year's sales.

Two years ago, the company started an employee stock ownership plan.

"We consider our employees a big part of our success," said Strong, who thinks Happy Feet Plus is one of the only U.S. shoe retailers with such a program.

Two of their 50 employees are pedorthists, certified professionals trained to select proper footwear for specific foot conditions.

Dr. David Caldarella of the Alabama Bone and Joint Center in Alabama says the business should be applauded for its comfortable shoes and knowledgeable salespeople.

"However, in the past 15 years other shoemakers have come up with good-quality, comfortable shoes able to compete with Birkenstocks," said Caldarella, a member of the Shoes and Footwear Committee for the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. "I see a large part of the population who swear by Birkenstocks, but I also see a number of the population who do not like them."

Tell that to Lee.

"I could buy all sorts of shoes in the mall, but I don't," Lee said. "This will be my third pair of Birkenstocks from Happy Feet, and I wear them because they are comfortable and they're cool."

Content with its 10 stores for the time being, Wurtz says Happy Feet Plus will consider expansion as the need arises.

"We've always been busy," Strong said. "But at least our feet are happy."

* * *

Happy Feet Plus has 10 stores throughout Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. All stores are open seven days a week. For information, call (727) 538-1111, or go to the Web site at http://www.happyfeet.com.

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