Star power fueled company’s rise

What started as a kosher wine business in northern Chautauqua County near the turn of the 20th century became one of the greatest success stories that Dunkirk-Fredonia has ever known.

In 1971, Stanley Star and his Uncle Leo Star created Cliffstar, which would become the nation’s largest private-label juice company. “I was convinced that the popularity of juice as a regular drink was going to grow tremendously,” Stanley Star says in the book, “Achieving Stardom.” “There was an increasing awareness of the importance of health and physical fitness. I believed that people would be buying juice rather than soft drinks and wine.”

Star’s story – as well as the rest of the family – is told in a book written by Buffalo-area author Dick Hirsch. Business First readers know Hirsch has a weekly column, Bflo Tales, but he also was a newspaper reporter and hosted programs on Channel 17 over a period of 18 years.

His work on “Achieving Stardom” spanned about one year. But it was something that he had been intent on pursuing for years. Once he got his foot in the door, he was able to be a part of a summer breakfast brigade that includes Star and some of his close area friends at Bob Evans off the Dunkirk-Fredonia exit of the state Thruway.

Hirsch’s book is an excellent portrayal of the family, how it arrived in this region, its disagreements, unrest as well as the small and large victories. It also is a fair portrayal of Star, a respected leader who was known by those who worked at the company as having a compassionate side, but had occasions of being temperamental due to his passion in driving a growing business.

“Stan is a brilliant businessman,” noted Peter Poth, who was a member of the Cliffstar board of directors and a former president of Delaware North, in the book. “He took a small business and built it into a colossal enterprise. He took chances, sometimes borrowing heavily. He worked relentlessly. There were periods when he traveled continuously; he was making both sales calls on potential and existing customers as well as dealing with growers whose produce he was negotiating to purchase.”

Besides major deals and an almost tireless group of executives, aggressive tactics grew the company. Those tactics led to sometimes low margins, but excellent relationships that made Cliffstar a national powerhouse.

Those who played roles at Star’s right hand also receive mention in the book, especially Sean McGirr, Kevin Sanvidge, Jim Koch, Jack Hutton, Monica Consonery, Jan Tharp, Poth and Gene Bailen. All were an integral part of Cliffstar’s rise, which would include acquisitions in California, Washington, South Carolina and the building of a plant in Missouri. It led to a work force of 1,200 employees nationwide with 600 of those working here.

In 2010, Cott purchased Cliffstar. Not only has the industry seen plenty of challenges since then, there has been changes at area plants that were previously led by Star, a shining example of what the American dream is all about.

“Achieving Stardom” is a 160-page book that was published and distributed to Star’s family and colleagues. But it is great insight to a remarkable achievement made locally. There are two copies each currently at the Dunkirk Free Library and Darwin Barker Library in Fredonia for residents to borrow.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.