Al Forman, founder and owner of Tunie's Super Save Nutrition Center in Coral Springs, Fla.—one of America's most successful independent health food stores—sits on his terrace, 15 stories above the sparkling blue Intracoastal Waterway. His view of Fort Lauderdale takes in one of the country's most densely populated areas, where tens of thousands of retirees search for their youthful vigor in the natural foods stores and fitness centers that seem to sprout in every shopping center, and where the younger set seeks to stay forever fit. Forman is 62 years old, a fit 180 pounds, but only 15 years removed from the overworked, overstressed, 80-pounds-overweight man who underwent quadruple bypass surgery. He is telling his favorite story—how he learned to survive and prosper in business no matter how dire his prospects—until he built a $5 million annual health foods business with a personal outlook as sunny as a South Florida summer morning.
He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Russian immigrants. His father made hats; his mother kept house. "We had no refrigerator, so we always ate what my mother bought fresh that day," he says. From his boyhood, he wanted to be in business, making his own way. At age 9, he delivered packages for the corner grocery for 25 cents an hour. At 13, he delivered meat for a butcher shop for 40 cents an hour. His pay increased to 75 cents an hour when he became a soda jerk at a small candy store. "Whenever we had to sell something that wasn't moving, the owner said, 'Al, can you sell it?' And I'd say, 'Don't worry, I'll move it.' Whenever a customer came in, I'd say, "We have a 29-cent special today. And I'd move the merchandise.
"I always knew how to sell. In high school, I worked summers in the Catskills, delivering meat for a kosher butcher. Once we had a cut called French roast. We had maybe 40 pieces, 3 pounds each, and it would soon spoil. I went to all my customers and said we had a brand-new cut of meat called Indian roast. I said it was especially tender. I sold out! We had calls all week for more Indian roast."
Forman dropped out of college after a year, figuring he could learn more on his own selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door. "Knocking on doors gave me confidence that I could sell. I learned how to knock out objections for people who didn't think they could afford a $250 machine. I'd show them they could. If they said their vacuum was just as good, I had to show mine was better."
He was not yet 20 when he bought a showroom-new 1958 Dodge convertible. He filled his closet with expensive clothes. "The car, the clothes, they were my reward," he says. "But I didn't make plans for my future. I got burned out from working 12-hour days. So in 1961, I took a vacation to Miami Beach. I loved it," he says. "I knew I wanted to come back." He soon found work in the sun selling aluminum siding. This was in the early '60s when Florida was just beginning to be a hot spot for newcomers, and Forman prospered. "But as fast as money rolled in, it rolled out just as fast," he says.
Forman moved back to New York, rising from assistant manager to manager to regional manager for a company that leased health-and-beauty-aid departments in the first big discount chains. He was on the road, "drinking too much, eating too much, staying up too late." He married and started a family. In 1963, the company assigned him to a desk to oversee its many departments. "My heart wasn't in it," he says. "What got my juices flowing was opening up new departments, setting up displays to bring customers in. So I went to look elsewhere."
In the next few years, Forman became store manager for a chain of drugstores. He was still only 25 and "now I'm learning the pharmacy business, broadening my horizons." He was also learning how to find what he calls "the key to selling. I was always able to find the one key. Look," he says, warming to the tale of being a supersalesman, "I opened a drugstore in Manhattan in the mid-1960s. The key to that store's success would be the working woman. I wanted her to come in to buy toiletries and sundries. So I set up a pantyhose display. We featured the greatest variety of pantyhose, and word of mouth brought all those women into the store."
Crown Drugs became ShopRite, which later became Pathmark, and Forman started experimenting with little health foods sections featuring natural vitamins. For the next few years, Al set up health-and-beauty and sundries sections in supermarkets. "What we now take for granted," Forman says, "was innovative then—one-stop shopping." Soon he was promoted to district manager, in charge of health and beauty aids for nine stores with $50 million in annual sales. "I was ahead of the curve," Forman says. "It was 1973. I was 34. I wanted something more. I felt working for someone else was not for me. With his parents retired to Florida, Forman moved south. He opened a health-and-beauty department in a Fort Lauderdale flea market. He had only 800 square feet to work with, "but to me it seemed 8,000 square feet, because I had a new start." The flea market became a success, and in 1976 Forman sold his space. With his brother and partners he opened a modest chain of discount stores.
"I lured customers with rock-bottom prices on food," he says. "If a can of tuna sold for $1.50 in the supermarket, we sold it for $1. Then they'd buy other stuff, and I'd make my money." After some business disagreements, Al took one store and gave his partners the other five. "I took a financial hit," he says, "but it was worth it to be my own boss. One partner said, "You can't make this work as an independent," and I said, "I'll not only make it, I'll call the store after you. So I called the store Seymour's and it became a huge success in Hollywood, Fla."
The key to Seymour's? "Wednesday is the slowest day of the week," Forman says. "So I offered double coupons. We had a large selection of health foods and vitamins, and we had a lot of customers who were retirees. The coupons brought them in. It was the first time a retailer in South Florida had done that." In 1982, Forman faced his midlife crisis. He had money but was now divorced. He sold Seymour's then took a 10-year break. "I'd walk the beach when I wanted," he says. With endless days of free time, he started reading about the fitness obsession sweeping the country. "I used those years learning," he says. After his bypass, he started working out, changed his diet, lost weight and gained a new outlook on life.
"I said, 'Now it's time to take care of Al.'" In 1991, he went back to work selling memberships at Bally Total Fitness. "I was able to converse with people 30 years younger on the benefits of exercise. My key was my own life experience. I started looking to buy a health foods store. I wanted to make it unique and different. None of the stores I saw in South Florida resembled what I was looking for. To me, a store should give vibes that say, 'Come in, spend time here, buy things.' A vibe that says, 'These people care.' A lot of mall health foods stores are cold, sterile. There's no reason for me to be there."
He found his in Coral Springs, west of Fort Lauderdale. The store was 1,600 square feet in a strip shopping center with a Publix supermarket as its anchor. The store was only doing $2,000 a week in 1993. "I set a goal: by the end of 1994, I'd be doing $1 million." He gave the store his mother's Yiddish name: Tunie. "She was elated, euphoric that I named it for her. I've learned you can call a store whatever you want. I knew success was in the future of this store.
"I stocked what I knew people wanted. I knew TwinLab was popular from the muscle and fitness magazines. Soon I had 8 feet of TwinLab products. My premise was always 'word of mouth' was best. So I offered the most popular brands at 30 percent off at a time when my competition was selling full price or 10 percent off. Nobody was at 30 percent. I took the most popular items like soy milk and rice milk and sold them at cost. I sold nothing for full retail. Nothing. I opened in July, and by October, I was doing more than $5,000 a week in sales, and that increased every week."
Forman soon discovered the power of a targeted radio audience. He began sponsoring Janet Cimorel, a local nutritionist, on a health talk program. His $300 a week brought him new customers. "Once I started seeing the response from radio, I never ran print ads," he says. Today, Tunie's spends $1,800 a week to sponsor five shows, and Janet visits his store several times a week to offer tips to customers. Tunie's has grown to 3,200 square feet and has become a leading place to shop for natural foods, vitamins and supplements in South Florida.
"You know what the key to Tunie's is?" Forman says. "We look like a fully stocked supermarket. We look like we're ready to do business. Customers don't have to wait for sales—they know we're always on sale."
Forman hopes to soon expand his retail space again. His daughter Wendy is in charge of Tunie's.com, where she and Forman's second wife oversee a booming mail-order business from a nearby warehouse. "Our customers didn't want to lose us when they moved back north for the summer," Forman says. "So they take us with them on the Internet."
Forman says that Tunie's has many keys: his prices, his staff, his name recognition from the radio and his close relationship with vendors. "You need the rapport and that relationship to get the best prices," he says. "Our reps may come to the end of a quarter and they need to sell a certain amount of product to get a bonus. The Florida market grows soft April through October. Instead of doing less promoting, we do more. There's an old Cajun saying: 'lagniappe'—you wash my hand, I'll wash yours. So I give to the rep. I help the rep make the bonus. Then it will be my turn."
Mel Allen is the features and travel editor for Yankee magazine in Dublin, N.H.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 9/p. 14, 20, 23