Local businessman reflects on time in C-U
October 11, 2015
In 1982, he left Iraq and moved to Illinois with his pregnant wife after receiving a scholarship to attend the University’s Ph.D. program in Plant Pathology. After finishing his program, the Champaign resident contemplated staying in the area or returning to his home country. But as he looked at his young daughter, he knew the move would be difficult.
“It was a wonderful environment to get more education,” Al-Heeti said. “But there was some difficulty with the language.”
Al-Heeti had an educational portfolio of agriculture expertise. He previously obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Plant Protection in Agriculture and a Master’s in Plant Pathology at the University of Baghdad, graduating at the top of his class.
But 30 years later, he has taken on a different route. Al-Heeti made himself into a local entrepreneur, currently owning Strawberry Fields Natural Food Market and World Harvest International & Gourmet Foods.
Al-Heeti bought Strawberry Fields in December 2014 and re-opened the store on July 9 after months of remodeling.
“When I saw it was for sale, I knew it had the potential and has a good name in this town. It’s a legend in this area,” Al-Heeti said. “I talked to the family and the owner and to friends, and I got a lot of encouragement and support, and I decided to try it and let it happen.”
Al-Heeti said Strawberry Fields has the largest variety of frozen foods in town and is also known for its vitamin, body care, dairy department and olive bar.
“We try to be very selective and find things that are not everywhere,” he said.
Al-Heeti is especially proud of the bakery and pastry selections, claiming that Strawberry Fields has the best vegan and vegetarian options, and not just limited to bread. The store has partnered with Sugar by Sarah, an Urbana bakery that carries macaroons, along with other bakery items. The bakery is expanding and starting to include more international items, such as Ukrainian baked goods.
Despite his unique path, Al-Heeti is no stranger to turning businesses around in the Champaign-Urbana area. He went into business not too long after getting his higher education at the University and opened an international food store with his friend, a Civil Engineering student from the University, called Hop n’ Shop.
Al-Heeti faced some tough decisions regarding his ethnicity while coming up with the name Hop n’ Shop.
“They didn’t want to give the impression that we were from the Middle East,” Al-Heeti said. “I was very against this.”
Meanwhile, Al-Heeti and his partner also opened up a restaurant named Basmati but sold it to Indian owners who proceeded to get rid of the Middle Eastern cuisine. After selling Basmati, Al-Heeti opened Jerusalem Restaurant, which under new ownership, is still running on campus today. In 1999, he closed Hop n’ Shop after selling both Basmati and Jerusalem.
“I just love it and I’ll continue to do it. When you love something, it will keep you going on,” Al-Heeti said.
Champaign-Urbana is his second home, and he took over Strawberry Fields to keep it in the community.
“I didn’t just look at this as a business to make money out of it, but also to connect with the community,” Al-Heeti said.
Al-Heeti treats his customers and workers as friends and considers the Champaign-Urbana community to be as close to an extended family as he has, as most of his relatives are still in the Middle East. When tragedy struck Al-Heeti in 2005 and he lost his brother, he felt supported by the locals.
“He was a physician and a year and a half younger than me. He was my friend. During the American occupation he had been killed. The whole town stood up with me and comforted me,” Al-Heeti said.
Saib Rasheed, Al-Heeti’s son-in-law and manager at Strawberry Fields, respects Al-Heeti as a boss and a father-in-law, but said that Al-Heeti has high expectations.
“It’s not an easy job. He has high standards. He wants to give a good impression to the Champaign-Urbana community and doesn’t want to negatively affect that,” Rasheed said. “He is working hard to keep up the image and reputation and make customers happier than before. He has a special way to deal with customers, he deals with them as friends.”
Rasheed’s wife and Al-Heeti’s eldest daughter, Roaa Al-Heeti, considers her dad to be a support system for her family.
“He’s always willing to listen to us and support us, but also be our mentor when we need a little advice or guidance in various areas, schooling or career or whatever they may be,” Roaa Al-Heeti said. “He’s always there for us. He’s very into what is going on with the family, how we could make things better.”
Al-Heeti also believes her dad has a unique eye for business.
“He watches everything. He has an eye for details, eye for the big picture. He’s always calculating, always doing the math, always looking at things at various angles. He’s aware of all the issues,” she said. “He’s also focused on individuals and that sincerity has brought him loyal customers. They think of him as the man who will talk to them about their families and will remember him.”