Service and community never went out of style here
By Elaine Hesser | Photography by Richard Green
What made me a near-daily customer of Salinas’ Star Market? I wanted to set cheese on fire. There’s a Greek Cypriot dish called saganaki, which involves pouring liquor over a cheese with a high melting point, like halloumi, and setting it on fire. (Try this with most cheeses and you’ll get a pile of rubbery, melted goo.) This was several years ago and I searched all over for halloumi, but nobody in Salinas, where I live, had it. Victor Kong, one of the four partners who own and run Star, offered to call cheese guru Michael Burke, who was then working at The Cheese Shop in Carmel, to help me find it.
The fact that Star was willing to refer a customer to a rival cheesemonger says a lot about the great, old-fashioned service that’s been Star’s trademark for decades. But going even further, Star soon thereafter hired Burke, and he’s been dispensing expert advice and tasty cheese samples from Star’s own cheese counter ever since.
Star Market has been community minded for more than 50 years, since its opening in December 1961. Almost every weekend, the storefront at South Main and Blanco hosts a community organization selling something to raise funds for a worthy cause. Thousands of Girl Scout cookies and hundreds of containers of Boy Scout popcorn have been sold there. Nancy Bernhard, teacher and coach of the Salinas High School Thespians, has held bake sales there almost every year since 2009. Bernhard notes that the store even provides her thespians with bottled water to stave off thirst and electricity for blasting their show tunes.
The fundraising spot is so popular, “I have a calendar just for bake sales,” Kong says with a laugh. Co-owner Mark Rollins is quick to point out that the system doesn’t always work. In a particularly epic mix-up, Kong once scheduled the ladies of Monterey’s St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church to have their Greek food sale on the same day that about 200 local Harley riders came to pick up discounted turkeys for a food drive. Rollins says, “The riders thought we’d set out breakfast for them!” When everyone realized what had happened, however, the women quickly sold out.
The market also supports California Rodeo Salinas, California International Airshow and Relay For Life. Fittingly, it recently sponsored the Food Pyramid at Tatum’s Garden, Salinas’ new, fully inclusive and handicapped-accessible playground for children.
Although there are two major chain grocery markets within walking distance (one’s almost literally across the street), Star’s website proudly proclaims, “We’re not competing!” Both Rollins and Kong reiterate several times that “a can of beans is a can of beans; what’s valuable is the service.” Rather than competition, the owners, who also include Cris Reyes and Victor’s brother, Art Kong, believe that good business is all about connections.
Star’s employees make these connections with customers by providing what has become, these days, unusually polite and knowledgeable attention. Whether you ask for caul fat or coconut oil, all 40-plus of them know where to find it. That’s at the heart of Star’s success. If you’re not sure whether the pine nuts are good, they’ll let you sample from the bulk bin. Local wine writer, Laura Ness, comments on Kong’s extensive wine knowledge: “Victor seems to have a sixth sense for anyone who is dwelling more than a moment in the wine aisle, ever ready with a recommendation.”
The Kongs’ father, Harry, was a partner in the original Watsonville branch of the store. Employee John Ow is a nephew of Shing Ow, one of the original owners, and he’s worked at the store for about 40 years, demonstrating the remarkable loyalty of Star’s employees as well as its patrons.
Rollins says he recently came upon three generations of a family in the checkout line; generation number four, the great-grandson, was the employee bagging their groceries. Rollins and Kong says they believe that paying a fair wage attracts good people; treating them well keeps them.
An article in The Californian on Jan. 10, 1962, noted that “Foodstuffs . . . are just one part of this tremendous operation. Certain drugs, beauty needs, novelties, household and kitchen gadgets, a limited supply of beverages, party specialties all cram the shelves. . .” Back then, in addition to eggs for 99 cents a dozen and “Birdseye T.V. Dinners” for 49 cents apiece, shoppers could also pick up children’s pajamas for $2.69 and a pair of Wranglers for $3.49. The jeans are gone, but cool kitchen gadgets and party supplies remain on the shelves.
Today, Star makes a point of supporting local producers by carrying and promoting their products, which include Fog’s End liquors from Gonzales, Gil’s Gourmet food products of Sand City, Acme Coffee and Angelina’s Bakery goods from Seaside, and of course plenty of local vegetables, wines and olive oils from the Salinas Valley. According to Reyes, there are only three licensed raw milk dairies in California—Claravale Farm, Organic Pastures and the newest, Schoch Dairy—and Star Market carries products from all three. Soquel’s Friends in Cheeses condiments dot the cheese counter; Monterey’s Lula’s Chocolates and Baker’s Bacon are there as well.
The meat department, managed by Art Kong, breaks down whole beef, hogs, sheep and goats from the Salinas Valley, Monterey County and San Benito County Fairs; it also has been churning out housemade sausages— Swiss, Italian, Sweet Italian, Hot Italian, Roasted Tomato Basil and chorizo—for more than three decades.
Art Kong’s been butchering meats for the market for about 40 years, and can cut up a chicken so it has three breasts—a secret you’ll have to investigate on your own!
“And I still have all these,” he says, laughing and waggling 10 intact digits.
The owners also enjoy the challenge of satisfying customers who want something from farther afield. For example, there’s a British-themed shelf near the entrance that piqued my curiosity.
“You would not believe how many people from England live around here because of Fort Ord,” Victor Kong explains. At Star, these expats can find Marmite and Vegemite, along with John West Kipper Fillets and other Anglophile favorites. For the chili-heads, the array of choices includes cult favorite Marie Sharp’s
hot sauce from Belize, in several varieties. And catering to changing times, the store carries green cleaning products like Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day right alongside the boxes of Tide.
Kong says that if a customer wants a special request, Star can usually accommodate it. In fact, it’s rare that there’s not a special-order box near the registers with a customer’s name on it for pick-up. Kong also emphasizes that “we’re very hands on,” and hence, one of the four owners is always on-site to help customers and employees.
On Feb. 27, when the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce presented Star with its 50-year membership plaque, three of the four owners showed to accept it. Victor Kong acknowledged the accolade with a two-word speech: “Thank you.”
Reyes was minding the store.
Elaine Hessser is a lifelong foodie who has been cooking since she was six years old. She lives in Salinas and loves to share her knowledge about seasonal, local food.