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Mohammed AL-Heeti knew everyone was sad about Strawberry Fields closing.
“I remember many years ago when I came here from Iraq, we went there. Many were upset. They weren’t making money,” he said. “July 2014 we started visiting then. The concept of us buying Strawberry Fields was an idea.”
Luckily for the greater Champaign-Urbana area, AL-Heeti decided to open up Strawberry Fields, Inc. again. The grand opening was held on this past August. Many were in attendance to celebrate, including mayors from both cities: Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, who cut the ribbon and Champaign Mayor, Deb Frank Feinen, who assisted. The celebration lasted through the weekend, and saw hundreds of customers come to take advantage of the great specials and wonderful promotions.
AL-Heeti is not a stranger to the specialized food industry, however. Back in 1991 he and his partners opened a store called Hop and Shop, a combination of international and convenience food items, right where Silver Creek restaurant is located today. Over time, they refined their inventory to international foods, and let go of the convenience product. However, they needed a new place to sell their items.
“Sometimes you get an angel without your knowledge,” AL-Heeti said. “John Barr, owner of Barr Real Estate made it possible for our store-World Harvest-to open on University Avenue.”
World Harvest opened January of 2000. The store was a hit. It filled a niche in the multi-cultural area that is Champaign-Urbana.
“I travel to a lot of food shows from coast-to-coast to get just the right items for our customers. I get ideas to see what would be good in our store. World Harvest is unique in this area,” he said.
Al-Heeti said he thought World Harvest was it. His company was in a good place, he had great customers, and his staff prided themselves with excellence in service.
“But, everyone was sad about Strawberry Fields,” he said.
He said they made the decision to buy the business.
“I was debating on keeping it open or giving it a fresh start,” AL-Heeti said.
It became obvious they wanted to have a new beginning for the store with many years of history in downtown Urbana.
“We contacted an architect to approve our design. I was the general contractor. It took us longer than expected. We had to get new equipment, freezers and coolers. Only two pieces were left from before. The bakery was intact, though, and that was good,” he said.
The store has a bakery in house, plus a café. It also has fresh, organic produce, high end dairy and other grocery items. There are health and beauty aids, plus homeopathic items, essential oils, supplements, teas, medicinals and other health items. A little of World Harvest success has taken up some of the shelf space, too, like quality international foods, gourmet items and high-end sweet things like jams, great coffee and fine chocolate.
“Our café is taking off. Alaa Alshook, our chef, cooks like he’s cooking at home. No mass production. He is very careful, has high quality ingredients. He makes amazing cakes that are gluten free. He can cook anything,” AL-Heeti said.
In fact, Alaa can cater major events, small or large. He makes meals to go, as well.
“Every day is different. He makes up a new specialty menu daily,” AL-Heeti said.
The bakery is in production daily.
“Our bread, we use the same recipe as before. We make Iranian barbari bread. Plus, we’re adding new items every day. We have pastry items fresh daily. Then, confections by Sarah Heller with her business, “Sugar by Sarah.” We also have specialized olives and cheeses. World Harvest’s manager, Bobbie, cheese is her baby,” he said.
AL-Heeti refers to Bobbi Bone, whom he said takes great pride in her work.
“There’s a lot of people coming in here now that want to see what World Harvest is about now that Strawberry Fields is open,” Bone said from the sister-store, located at University Avenue in Champaign. “They want to see what we’re doing. I learned through the customers over the last four years, and I do my very best to give them what they want.”
Coffee barista Clayton Deering said he enjoys working for AL-Heeti at Strawberry Fields.
“Come on in and have some great food and drinks,” he said, as he conjured up a latte with a flower motif in the foam that resembled art more than a cup of Joe.
AL-Heeti wants customers to know that the same great customer service they experience at World Harvest is what they will get when they walk in the threshold of Strawberry Fields. He said this as he was standing at the door, greeting customers and showing them the new Strawberry Fields.
“Come on in. We will take care of you,” he said to people as they entered the store.
AL-Heeti said that Strawberry Fields is open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“We have the coffee bar, pastry for breakfast, hot food from the café from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch, then 5 to 7 p.m. for dinner. On Sunday, we have hot food from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Salads and sandwiches are also available,” AL-Heeti said.
Strawberry Fields is located at 306 W Springfield Ave, Urbana. Call 217- 328-1655 or visit their website at strawberry-fields.com.