Kent Starr has a list, roughly three pages long, showing some of the many organizations that have received support from him and his store, Liquor World, over the years. Recipients range from major philanthropic organizations like The Walton Arts Center and The Children’s House shelter for abused children to smaller groups, such as the Junior Service League of Northwest Arkansas and Rodeo of the Ozarks.
Starr has owned and operated Liquor World in Fayetteville, Arkansas, since 1993 and served as part-owner of a nearby store called Liquor Mart. Prior to that, Starr says he has made it a point to give back to the community throughout his career. “Since day one, it just felt right,” he says.
“I think a lot of it comes from my parents,” Starr explains. “They didn’t have anything when they were starting out. My dad became a tremendous success as the vice chairman of the board at Tyson Foods. My mom was involved in community service while raising me and my siblings. We always got the message—you want to give back to the community. It’s just ingrained in me that contributing to charity is an important part of life.”
For his long-running efforts in philanthropy, Kent Starr has been named the winner of the 2017 Market Watch Leaders Community Service Award.
Starr, who was named a Market Watch Leader in 2010, says his largest and most high-profile contribution is ongoing support for the Walton Arts Center and its annual Art of Wine event in June. “We helped found that event—it started out as a one-table wine tasting called Garden Party,” Starr recalls. “Next thing you know, there are 600 to 700 wines, with vintners, winemakers and representatives from all over the country. All the distributors in Arkansas are very supportive. The event raises over $100,000 for the Art Center annually. They use that money for lots of different functions, including arts education for children.”
This year’s Art of Wine included a “Winemaker’s Dinner” with wines from J Vineyards and Winery; the “Uncorked: Friday Night Tasting,” which featured 800 different wines from around the world along with food from Northwest Arkansas’ best restaurants; and a “Premier Tasting” for wine enthusiasts and connoisseurs. Starr’s role in the three-day event included working on various committees to organize distributors, wines and winery representatives, donation of glassware and plates, and other efforts.
Fayetteville’s Economic Opportunity Agency operates The Children’s House, which provides therapy and long-term care to abused children from the surrounding communities. It’s another of Starr’s centerpiece causes. “We’ve been involved for 25 years or more, dating back to my previous store,” he explains. “We provide in-kind donations for their summer salsa event, their biggest event of the year. And we provide in-kind contributions or cash donations each year, either through the store or through my family’s foundation.”
In addition to those two causes, there is a large range of charities that Starr and Liquor Word support. “We try to do as many things, big or small, as we can and still remain profitable,” he says.
Rather than focusing on a single type of organization, Starr aims to spread his philanthropic efforts widely. Children and the arts figure heavily in his outreach, but he values other causes as well. “The passion people have for their individual cause kicks it into gear for me,” he says.
Starr’s standing in the community—and perhaps his reputation for giving—mean that representatives of various groups approach him often. “We can get requests numerous times a week or even a day,” he says. “Maybe it’s just a basket for their silent auction. We make up baskets six or eight at a time so we’re ready for that. Or maybe they need a case of wine. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t—it depends on if I have 10 other things going on. I have to balance it.”
Currently, all such requests filter through Starr. Former store manager Kim Crawford, who left the company last year, used to handle many charitable donations and was heavily involved in some of the store’s larger community efforts. “Now there’s no buffer,” Starr says. “I have a couple of managers who filter them somewhat, but ultimately the requests always end up on my desk.”
Not only is there no buffer, there is no budget. Starr says he has no idea how much he spends each year in monetary or product donations and other charitable efforts. “It’s funny, I don’t really think about it,” he explains. “A lot of people would set up a budget in January and stick to it. I let it evolve over time. If I deem something important or I sense a certain level of passion with the person, then we’re probably going to be involved in some fashion. Maybe that’s a case of wine, maybe that’s five cases, or $100 or $1,000. I guess after doing it for 35 years, it’s kind of in my head.”
While he enjoys giving, Starr notes he may need to cut back. “I just have to be a little bit more guarded with the competitive environment being what it is,” he says. “We’re probably not able to do as much as we used to because if your sales are affected then your giving is affected.”
The retail landscape is shifting in the Northwest Arkansas region, so Starr has needed to make some adjustments. Liquor World and other independent retailers are under fire because competitive pressures continue to ratchet up. Several years ago, the state’s only Sam’s Club with an attached liquor store moved into the area, and Liquor World took a significant hit. The proliferation of grocery stores and convenience stores has also hurt the retailer. Those stores have sold beer for a few years, and a new law passed earlier this year will allow for wine sales in grocery stores beginning later this year. “The market has changed so much,” Starr says. “We’re under fire all the time, so we have to try to figure out what we can do to separate ourselves.”
Several counties that previously didn’t allow beverage alcohol sales within their boundaries have eased restrictions, prompting new competition to move in. Benton County, located between Fayetteville and the Missouri border, is the home of Walmart and Tyson Foods—two titans that bring a large number of well-heeled executives to the region. Previously, county residents and visitors had to drive to Fayetteville in Washington County or to Missouri for their beverage alcohol needs. Now they have the option of shopping locally.
The confluence of legal changes has made the independent retailing business a bit more challenging, Starr admits. Customer service, from the time customers enter Liquor World until they leave the parking lot, is crucial in the increasingly competitive environment, and Starr says that his longtime community philanthropy also helps the store stand out. “I think we’ve developed a lot of loyalty because of our participation in the community,” he says. “People see that we’re giving back, so they’re more likely to support us.” And if the customers get top-notch service while in the store, they’re more likely to continue their patronage, Starr adds. “Our focus will always be to provide the best selection and finest customer service possible. Continuing to build loyalty will be a key to future success,” he says.
Loyal customers are also more likely to get support for their individual causes. “That’s easy,” Starr says. “They have options now, so if they’re shopping with me and being very loyal I will support them. It’s really important to me to give back to the people who have been supportive of Liquor World and my previous store.”
Starr says despite the ongoing competitive pressures, he’ll keep up with his efforts in the community to the greatest extent possible. In some way, he says, he’s carrying on a legacy set forth by his parents. “It just comes naturally, so I don’t think about it much,” Starr says. “We’re really fortunate that we’ve been successful and we’ve been able to do so many things.”