If you're going to gamble by opening a mostly vegetarian market in the Heartland, you might as well stack the deck in your favor—and then let everyone know about it.
The Urbana, Ill., natural foods store and café Strawberry Fields has done its best to make the bet a sure thing by locating close to the county's legal and banking center, two medical centers and one of the largest universities in the country.
Fields' General Manager Jack Wallace, who has more than 13 years experience at the store, knows that all the local professionals mean business for the store. Lunch is a veritable convocation of professionals, with doctors, lawyers, and bankers coming in for a bite, but he cites The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as the major influence on sales. "The university faculty is incredibly supportive of the store," he says, "especially with the big influx we've had from the West Coast and especially the Bay Area. I've had new professors call me up in a panic before they move here asking if we carry their favorite items." The students, however, are a more elusive bunch. "The younger students are pretty campus-centric, so they aren't a big part of our customer base," he says. "But we do get a fair amount of upper classmen and graduate students."
The only mostly vegetarian and vegan café in a five-county radius is active in the community, supporting community events, charities and schools through several different programs, including "Fifth Saturday" events when local nonprofits fundraise in the store.
Strawberry Fields grew out of the ashes of two Urbana businesses that started in the early 1970s, the Earthworks Co-op Grocery and the Metamorphoses Café. By 1974, the co-op had closed, but was soon revived by a local couple, Vic and Bobbie Fein, whom, Wallace says, "I still see every week at the store." Between 1974 and 1990, the store had six different owners and three different locations before the present owners, Paul Dohme and Frances Jervis, finally settled it in a strip mall on the edge of downtown.
Originally just in one small section of the mall, Fields now takes up the entire 10,000-square-foot building. The 55-seat café and coffee bar opened in 2000 when the store acquired the last bit of available mall space.
The store has had a bakery since the mid-1970s. There, café items such as rolls and pastries are created, along with breads, cakes, energy bars and cookies—many of which are vegan. Fields' bakers are currently developing a line of gluten-free breads. So many former residents order popular bakery items through the mail that Wallace is considering offering shipping as a regular service.
Strawberry Fields faces competition from more than a dozen large-format conventional grocers in the Champaign-Urbana area. But as a virtually one-of-a-kind natural market, Fields' dedicated customer base draws from a 90-mile radius that stretches east to western Indiana and west to Springfield.
Wallace knows that even those regulars do not guarantee success. "We live in meat-and-potatoes heaven," he says. "It's not quite as bad as Iowa, but we're pretty entrenched in traditional American cuisine."
But he also knows that people are not always as stuck in their ways as they may seem, and that whether by necessity, such as a referral from a practitioner at one of the health centers, or through the magic of a Fields' billboard, customers will come. Then it's his job to keep them coming back. "We have to find those niche things that add value to their experience that they may not look for on their own," Wallace says.
Sports nutritionist Susan Kundrat, R.D., L.D., is an example of the value-added experience Wallace advocates. Kundrat walked into the store thinking it would be a great venue for her services. Taking it a step further, the Fields team decided to give her an office in exchange for an article in their bimonthly newsletter and two hours of free mini-consultations for customers every Thursday afternoon. The store also helped Kundrat land nutrition tip spots on two local radio stations. She also appears monthly on a local morning-television news program. Kundrat gives quarterly in-store demos on various diet-related issues, often preparing foods sold in the store. Wallace says the store underwrites Kundrat's radio spots as well as workshops she gives at local schools.
Kundrat has been good for the store. "It's incredible. The number of people she's brought in is just fantastic," Wallace says. "Just having someone as warm and wonderful as she is builds confidence in what we're doing. It really enhances our image as responsible retailers."
And the store's image is something Wallace has worked hard to project. Working with marketing consultant Nancy Whitford, he narrowed the store's advertising focus and reaches out with billboards in the early spring and late summer to coincide with the university calendar. The initial concept was a simple image of a strawberry as the "o" in "organic"; they've continued to evolve the campaign. The most recent ad shows the new strawberry character strapped to the back of a bicycle with the words "To Go" printed above. So far the new focus is working. "We're choosing specific things, well-timed and beautifully done," says Wallace. "If I can get a customer to smile when they see our billboard, I have a customer for life." The theory is proved by the steady stream of newcomers mentioning the ads and purchasing to-go items from the café.
All of this makes Wallace confident that the store has a bright future. "People count on us for vegan choices," he says, as well as fresh breads and café fare. And the store's proximity to Urbana's downtown and university guarantees a progressive customer base.
But the key ingredient to Strawberry Fields' success may just be its ability to attract customers and give them more than they expected. And that's a great way to deal a hand of veggies to the meat-and-potatoes crowd.
306 W. Springfield, Urbana, IL 61801, 217.328.1655, Fax 217.328.1574
Owners: Paul Dohme and Frances Jervis
Employees: 57 including owners (including 20 full-time and 21 café employees)
Store Size: 10,000 square feet total, 5,500 retail
Annual Sales: $2.7 million$3.2 million
Best-selling Department: Café, second best-selling department: Vitamin/Body Care
Top Seller: Alacer Corp. Emer'gen-C
Bryce Edmonds is a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 1/p. 70