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If the shoe fits: Comfort, safety built into 'Shoes for Crews'

The Stanley and Arna Smith family’s “aha!” moment came nearly 30 years ago, as their New York nursing uniform business struggled. Searching for a new market for nurse shoes, Arna Smith called Burger King. The corporate safety director didn’t want nurse shoes but said that shoes that would grip on a slippery kitchen floor would be a great product. As anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows, “it’s like ice skating in the kitchen,” says their son, Matt.

Two years later, with the help of a chemist, the Smiths had their slip-resistant shoe. In 1995, they relocated 10-employee Shoes For Crews (No. 36, Private Companies list) from New York to West Palm Beach, where CEO Matt Smith says they employ 230 of their 500-person workforce.

The key for the company — gripping power aside — is its corporate program. Through it, Shoes for Crews sells to employees of restaurants, supermarkets, health care companies, hotels, casinos and manufacturers. Employers let the company market to workers who buy the shoes through payroll deductions. Employers aren’t out anything and get a safer workplace. Employees get “safe, comfortable shoes,” Smith says.

The program is at 86 of the 100 largest quick-service restaurant chains, including McDonald’s and KFC. The company mails 13 million catalogs a year. Half of its business is conducted over the internet.

The recession was almost a non-event for the company, and the reviving economy holds promise, Smith says. January was the company’s best month ever. “We feel we have a lot of growth potential in new markets,” says Smith.