Stroll through the aisles of a recently renovated Strack & Van Til, and you can find organic cucumbers, fair trade-certified blue agave syrup, a well-stocked salad bar and more than a dozen types of extra virgin olive oil, including a truffle-infused version.
There's almond butter, gluten-free bread, craft beer and blinking electronic price labels on the shelves. There are sushi chefs and cheesemongers. There's even organic dog food.
Northwest Indiana's largest local grocery chain has been bulking up its fresh food offerings while undertaking a flurry of renovations to its stores. Highland-based Strack & Van Til is investing $2 million to $6 million in more than a half-dozen stores, which are getting new, more modern looks inside and out.
Strack & Van Til recently overhauled its Highland supermarket, and renovated Ultra Foods stores in Merrillville, Gary and Wheaton, Ill. The company also just opened a new Strack & Van Til in Cedar Lake and a new Ultra in Prospect Heights, Ill.
Stores are getting more modern facades and decor. Features in new and newly remodeled supermarkets have included electronic price tags, mural-sized historic photos and accented lighting that showcases pesticide-free Brussels sprouts and radicchios.
The 84-year-old company is revamping supermarkets in Valparaiso, Hobart and Chesterton, as well as an Ultra grocery in Highland. Strack's supermarkets in Munster and Schererville, and an Ultra in Lansing, are slated to soon get upgrades.
President Dave Wilkinson said the capital investment is significant, and the modernization projects will continue for the next 18 months.
"It's important for us to be new, modern, fresh and exciting," he said.
Strack & Van Til also is eyeing the possibility of buying a few of the former Dominick's stores in the greater Chicago area the grocery chain Safeway has given up on, Wilkinson said.
"We're also looking for opportunities and are seeing if any of the sites would be a good fit," he said.
The longtime Northwest Indiana grocer does not plan to grow just for growth's sake, and it does extensive market research before opening any new locations, Wilkinson said.
Industry focuses on fresh
Competition has expanded in the grocery sector in recent years. An emphasis on fresh, organic and locally sourced food has been an industry trend, as people have tried to eat healthier.
Whole Foods, a purveyor of wholesome fare such as antibiotic-free poultry and grass-fed beef, plans to open a new store in Schererville. Jewel has increased offerings of organic products that range from ready-made salads to preservative-free chocolate chip cookies.
"We've expanded our organic section for produce, for fresh fruit, for everything," said Allison Sperling, communications manager for Jewel. "We have more fresh fruits and vegetables and are increasing variety in organics with many different types of food."
Strack & Van Til has been modernizing stores by beefing up the perishable food sections, to cater to growing consumer demand for fresh, natural, organic, gluten-free and nongenetically modified fare, Wilkinson said. The grocer is especially hoping to draw in more shoppers from the millennial generation.
Stores are getting sushi bars, bigger deli sections and bakeries, and wider selections of everything from leafy greens to prime Angus steaks. They will offer more prepared foods, including at a wing bar station, for harried on-the-go customers.
Renovations are about 99 percent complete at the Valparaiso Strack & Van Til store on Calumet Avenue, which features a cheese island, a much larger wine selection, and the biggest organic department in Porter County, if not all of Northwest Indiana, Wilkinson said.
The department will offer a wide range of organic products, including produce, milk, peanut butter, and health and beauty products, he said.
People are eating differently and looking to try new things, Wilkinson said.
"The trend is that people want to know where their food is coming from," he said. "They want fresh produce, and non-GMO products."
The newly revamped Highland store at 45th Street and Cline Avenue offers expanded selections of almost everything, including lettuce, cedar plank salmon, corned beef brisket and Kentucky-cured ham. Signs peppered throughout the expansive produce section announce, "I'm organic."
The store now has at least 50 percent more floor space devoted to produce and meat, Wilkinson said. Most of the grocer's new or renovated stores will have 25 to 50 percent bigger perishable sections, if the buildings are big enough.
The size of the perishable sections and the extent of the renovations will vary from store to store.
Typically, the modernization projects take up to six to eight months since the store needs to remain open while the work is going on. Much of the work takes place at night.
"The life cycle is that all stores need a major renovation every seven to 10 years," Wilkinson said. "Most will be major renovations, but some may be things customers don't even notice. When we look at renovations, we listen to customers and look at what the competition is doing across the country."