Strawberry Fields met with loyal customers upon reopening

By Mariah Schaefer

Strawberry Fields reopened its doors Thursday under new management after closing in December.

Saib Rasheed, store manager, was there along with Strawberry Fields employees to greet customers.

They did not have to wait long for someone to enter the store; Phyllis Williams of Urbana arrived shortly after 7 a.m. to purchase groceries. She was the store’s first customer.

Williams bought a loaf of bread and went on to sign a dollar bill for the store to keep, an act she said was part of a tradition whenever a store opened.

“I wanted to be here; I wanted to be early at least and let them know that this is so wonderful,” Williams said.

She said it felt amazing to be the first customer and that she went into the store as soon as it opened to let people at Strawberry Fields know that she appreciates them.

Mark Wetzel, an Urbana resident and aquatic biologist, bought the first cup of coffee at the store’s café.

“So many residents really look forward to coming here over the years, and it’s nice that this can continue,” Wetzel said.

He said he has been a Strawberry Fields customer since the store first opened in 1974.

“When this place closed last year, I thought, ‘You know who could make this happen would be Mohammad Al-Heeti, who owns (World Harvest International and Gourmet Foods),’ and I went and told him that I had this thought soon after he announced he was going to open it up, so I thought this was premonition,” Wetzel said. “I just had this idea; I didn’t tell anybody, but it happened. Once in a while you have a thought that comes true.”

Rasheed said they started to remodel and prepare the store for reopening in January. He said when former owner Paul Dohme announced on Strawberry Fields’ Facebook page that the grocery store was for sale, Al-Heeti contacted him and negotiations began.

He said during the transition process, former employees helped Al-Heeti and Rasheed by volunteering their time.

“Then, we decided to hire most of them, so now we have about 12 or 13 of the old crew,” Rasheed said. “They have a good experience; they are really good workers, so that’s why they were hired.”

One of the employees is Clayton Thompson, cashier at Strawberry Fields. He worked at the grocery store for a year and a half before it closed. He said it’s really great to be working there again.

“It’s nice; I have a lot of good memories of this place, and it’s good to be helping this part of the community again and selling this type of groceries,” Thompson said. “I really like the grocery business, and I like being able to interact with different people every day.”

Many changes have been made to the store. Thompson said they added a nicer system for getting in and out of the building with new doors.

“We also cleaned the place up a lot and gave it a new paint job, which, in my opinion, brightens the place up and makes it feel much more comfortable,” Thompson said.

Rasheed said the grocery variety was expanded. Instead of the former three aisles, Strawberry Fields now has five as well as 10 end caps.

Former manager Jack Wallace will return to the grocery store and work at the vitamin section.

There is also a café with a seating area at one end of the store. Bakery goods such as sweets from Sugar by Sarah and Persian pastries are new additions to the selection.

For the pastry section, Rasheed said every member of the former crew returned, so that area will remain similar to what it was before.

Rasheed said it took about three months to figure out the setup for the store. It offers a wider variety of products than before, in all categories including food, the café, bread, pastries, groceries and produce.

“The goal is to get everything (customers) need in one place,” Rasheed said. “I’m hoping the community will love the idea.”

[email protected]