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ST. JOHN — The Strack & Van Til in St. John used to carry only a few almond milk alternatives to traditional dairy. 

Now the store at 9825 Wicker Ave. has case after case of almond milk, cashew milk, oat milk, coconut milk, coconut almond milk, and plant-based milk.

The 68,000-square-foot supermarket, which Strack & Van Til first opened in 2006, underwent a major renovation that has greatly expanded its selection, including by boosting fresh produce at least 10% and nearly doubling its variety of value items.

"This was our big project for the summer of 2019," Strack and Van Til President and CEO Jeff Strack said. "We expanded the perishables department. We expanded natural and organics, specialty foods, keto products, things of that nature that are on-trend with today's shoppers."

Strack said new additions were based on requests from customers, what manufacturers were offering and what other retailers from across the country were doing that worked.

After a four-month renovation, the grocery store added an island for cut fruit, more pre-packaged meals such as crockpot kits, and a pineapple coring machine that will core a whole pineapple.

"They pick out their pineapple and bring it over there and see that this is as fresh as it could be," Strack said. "Coring a pineapple yourself isn't the easiest thing to do."

Highland-based Strack & Van Til, the largest local grocery chain in Northwest Indiana with roots that date back to 1929, gave the store a more contemporary look and moved the floral section to the front to make customers more aware that it has a full-service floral department that can handle weddings, funerals and high school dances at a time when there are fewer and fewer independent florists.

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It added a new grab-and-go section with new items like pre-made salads, torpedo snack sandwiches on pretzel buns or conewich pretzel sandwiches that are shaped like ice cream cones so people can eat them in the car while on the go.

"We're just trying to find things that will make people's lives easier," Strack said. "We have all these things that are easier — rice cauliflower, zucchini noodles, sweet potatoes — where they're kind of like a meal kit, where it's quick easy solutions for everyone. We're trying to offer items that are on-trend, that shoppers today want." 

Strack & Van Til store director Kevin Grace said the store offered many new things, including a greater variety of vegan foods and plant-based proteins. The store has a loose tea scoop station, an expanded selection of craft beer, and an entire section devoted to organic and natural ice cream and gelato.

"We've got a lot of great updates, a lot of new things," he said. 

Customer Cynthia Williams, who shops there a few times a week to buy fresh produce, said she was very impressed with the renovations.

"The flowers jump out at you: the smell, the aroma," she said. "They help you start your day right, make it a happy day. This place looks very nice, and there's a lot of great produce. It competes with Whole Foods."

For the next few weeks, the store will host healthy eating demonstrations, offering samples of new products like freshly cored pineapple.

For more information, visit www.strackandvantil.com.

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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.