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VALPARAISO | The world's best convenience stores are right here in Northwest Indiana.

Trade publication, Convenience Store Decisions, named Valparaiso-based Family Express 2015 Convenience Store Chain of the Year. The award will be presented at a Las Vegas convention that's attended by more than 30,000 people.

Family Express, a family-owned chain that started in Valparaiso in 1975, joins elite company. Previous winners include industry heavyweights such as 7-Eleven, Wawa, Speedway and Thortons.

"I have observed Family Express and its evolution for close to 20 years, and the chain continues to amaze me with its innovation and daily commitment to being one of the finest convenience store operators in the industry," said John Lofstock, vice president and editor-in-chief of Convenience Store Decisions.

"There are chains that are bigger, but there is no one that works harder than Family Express, and we’re proud to recognize their commitment to bringing excellence in convenience retailing."

The 26-year-old Chain of the Year award is the most prestigious in the convenience-store industry, and Family Express is the smallest company that's ever won, president and CEO Gus Olympidis said. Family Express has 63 locations, mostly in Northwest Indiana.

"I'm going to be honest, I'm a little speechless that a company of our size was able to receive this award," he said. "I remember the story that you probably read in kindergarten about the little engine that could."

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Convenience Store Decisions said it was specifically recognizing Family Express for innovation, outstanding operations and superior leadership. The trade publication cited the 150,000-square-foot distribution center it opened in 2010, the central bakery it opened in 2013, and its fleet of iconic "moo" trucks, which deliver milk, square donuts and other perishable goods.

Family Express also earned praise for its living brand concept, which stresses building relationships with customers, and for building a full-scale replica Family Express store inside its Valpo headquarters where the company trains employees and tests products. The magazine also touted the company's "You Matter!" initiative to pay workers a starting wage of $10 an hour. 

"It is this kind of innovation and connection with the customers that sets Family Express apart from its peers," Convenience Store Decisions Group Publisher Tom McIntyre said.

"The Olympidis family's leadership in building a dynamic company so committed to its employees, its customers and the community is another reminder that family-owned businesses continue to be such an important part of our industry."

The convenience store chain has long distinguished itself with innovations in the sector such as fresh baked goods, private label goods like those found in supermarkets and self-serve European espresso machines.

"The plain reality is that it's necessary for a company of our size to prosper when competing against multibillion-dollar, multinational conglomerates," Olympidis said. "Innovation is not elective if you're our size."

Family Express was also recognized Wednesday by The Society of Innovators of Ivy Tech Community College, which stopped by its Valparaiso headquarters as part of its seven-county "Expedition Innovation 2015 - 'A Call for Nominations.' " The tour aims to shine the spotlight on innovators in the community.

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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.