Highland Ultra closes after 36 years

The Highland Ultra closed Thursday after selling out during a liquidation sale.

Ultra Foods changed the Northwest Indiana grocery landscape when it arrived at the highly trafficked boulevard of Indianapolis Boulevard and Ridge Road in Highland in 1981.

Strack & Van Til debuted its discount warehouse concept, which has since become popularized nationally by Costco, Aldi and Sam's Club. The layout was bare, the shelving was spartan, all the items were off-brand and many were sold in bulk.

One could buy Wildwood Cola in a vending machine outside for a quarter. The focus was on making everything as cheap as possible: breakfast cereal for instance was sold in plastic bags without the customary cardboard box.

The 36-year-old Highland Ultra Foods was the flagship supermarket in a discount chain that once had 15 locations across Northwest Indiana and the Chicago suburbs in Illinois. Today it closed. 

A total of 139 workers lost their jobs, according to a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.

The supermarket at 8401 Indianapolis Blvd. closed this morning after a liquidation sale cleaned it out. A video posted to Facebook Wednesday showed all the aisles were closed off, the remaining shelves were bare and only baked beans and a few other scant items were left. The Ultra had been selling groceries, wine and other items for as much as 80 percent off as it looked to scorch its remaining inventory.

"It's the end of an era," Indiana Grocery Group Chief Executive Officer Jeff Strack said. "It's a sad day for that discount food store. That was the vision of Larry Raab, Andy Raab and Dave Wilkinson. They really built up the Ultra brand into the Illinois market."

The only Ultra Foods left standing is located at 6001 Broadway in Merrillville, just south of Andrean High School. 

Bankrupt Central Grocers closed 14 Ultra stores this year, including the original Highland location of a chain that once ran television ads and had the slogans "Finest quality – lowest prices!" and "The Freshest Way to save!"

Though Jewel-Osco had initially expressed interest in buying the Highland Ultra, it ultimately chose not to bid for it and was outbid for the 20 remaining Strack & Van Til by the founding Strack and Van Til families anyway. Indiana Grocery Group acquired 20 Strack & Van Til stores, including the Ultra in Merrillville.

No one stepped forward in an auction to buy the Ultras in Kankakee, Illinois or Highland.

The Highland Ultra once drew many customers from North Lake County, but suffered when a Super Walmart opened 1.5 miles north on Indianapolis Boulevard, closer to the Borman Expressway.

Highland-based Strack & Van Til just pumped millions of dollars into a renovation at the Highland Ultra in 2015, adding amenities like an expanded produce section, a salad bar, a sushi bar, and a full-service seafood counter. The store, a staple in Highland, employed more than 300 workers as recently as the 1990s, according to Times archives.

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Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.