For over 45 years, Tri-Star Supermarket has been the mainstay of the culinary world of Kilmarnock and the lower Northern Neck. Founded in 1975 by Stuart Dunaway, Lee Davis and the late Mitchell Carlson, the store truly has served the community—and for many of us, it has been a center of our social life as well.
After Mitchell’s death, Stuart and Lee have continued the traditions that the three of them had established in the local retail market. In return, their customer base has been unwavering in supporting them. Tri-Star is the epitome of the “shop local” theme.
For some of us, going there nearly every day is a routine, indeed a ritual, of life in the Northern Neck. Last week, Stuart died at the age of 86. He never retired, remaining president of the store for as long as he lived, even as his health had declined in recent years. With the help of his wife, Jane, he made it into the store as often as he could—but more than merely presiding over the operation, he continued to show that he had mastered the art of meeting the public. To go to the store for groceries, and not to have at least a brief word with Stuart or Lee, was to miss one of the best parts of the experience.
Stuart had an acerbic wit that thrived on expressing his views on the passing scene. He had a flair for putting words together that left his listeners thinking about what he had said after the conversation had ended. Up until our last chat two weeks ago, he never spoke to me without making reference to this column. He particularly liked to comment on items I had written on our barnyard menagerie, to which I would retort that perhaps I should speak with him about marketing some of the excess production.
Over the decades that they have operated the store, Stuart, Lee and Mitchell welded together a family of co-workers, imbuing each with the essential element of serving the public, which is the store’s hallmark. While other grocery stores have come and gone, Tri-Star has prevailed. In keeping with their familial theme, some years ago the founders turned the management of the enterprise over to Francine Jones, who continues applying their unique approach to the daily business of assisting the customers in being able to get what they want.
Once, coming out of a big box store where I had gone to get a prescription, I met a long-time Tri-Star employee. I told her that if she told Stuart and Lee she saw me, please tell them I was not buying groceries. She replied that if I told them that I had seen her, to make certain I added that she was buying a car seat. We laughed and agreed to say nothing.
One evening when I was shopping late, I met Jane in one of the aisles, shopping by herself, with Stuart sitting up in the office. I told her I should have to speak to him, as when Evon, Lee’s wife, came to shop, Lee accompanied her up and down each aisle, to which Jane replied, “I like it this way.” When I told Lee about the conversation, he said he followed along to make sure Evon did not spend too much money.
As Bobby and Chris Burgess have closed their family-run Callao Supermarket, Tri-Star remains one of the few full-service local grocery stores left in the Northern Neck. A good business should reflect the personality and character of its owners; in that respect, Tri-Star shines as an example of personal service and friendship. Stuart, Lee and Mitchell have made lasting impressions on all of their customers, thereby producing bonds of loyalty that resonate far beyond the walls of the store.
Lawrence Stuart Dunaway, December 3, 1934–June 10, 2021. R.I.P.