Late in 2014, hearts around C-U broke when Strawberry Fields announced it would be closing and selling. But shortly thereafter, it was announced that Mohammad Al-Heeti, owner of World Harvest, was the buyer with plans to expand the store’s café, give it a facelift, and expand the products. The new Strawberry Fields opened earlier this summer, but celebrated its Grand Opening last week.
The store looks more or less like it used to, with some changes. Instead of walking directly into the store, you enter through a vestibule with shopping carts at hand. You then enter the store near the fresh bread and former café/seating area, on the north side of the store. This area is now a dessert display case, featuring a variety of items, many vegan, and Sugar by Sarah macarons.
The refrigerated section is in the same spot, and of the same size, more or less. There’s a section for fresh cheese (featuring Ludwig Farmstead Creamery and Prairie Fruits Farm). A new addition is an olive bar, which, in my opinion, has been sorely lacking in C-U. It looks awesome. Across from the refrigerated items is an extensive bulk foods section — it takes up the entirety of one side of the aisle. The frozen foods section seems quite extensive — not nearly as extensive as World Harvest — much more extensive than previously. Fresh produce is still semi-limited, but the stuff that was there looked good.
Dry grocery product is plentiful, and the healthcare and vitamins section is compact, but well stocked.
The most dramatic change is the café. On the south side of the store, where the health and beauty products used to be, now sits a café and seating area.
The café area encourages you to sit down and enjoy your meal. The area isn’t cluttered, there is plenty of light, and it’s relatively quiet. There are six hot options that vary from day to day, but generally it seems that there is rice, a meat option, at least two veggies, and something vegan or vegetarian. The cold options include a large variety of cold salads, many of which are vegan, and one refrigerated case of desserts (most of which are also vegan). The lunch plate is $6.99 and comes with rice and two items. Individual items are $2.49; two items $4.99.
On my first visit, I had some chicken with lemon, served over rice. The chicken was tender, and well seasoned. On another visit, I had the roast beef with purple potatoes. The beef was warm, earthy, and tender. On both occasions the rice was perfectly cooked. The falafel was very moist, and the flavors well balanced.
In terms of savory cold items, the salads look great. The spicy vegan bulgur salad ($3.99) wasn’t so much spicy as it was tangy and flavorful. Crunchy peas and celery added some pizazz to the soft and chewy grain. The meat hand pie ($1.99) was just okay—it was a little dry after reheating, but the flavors were warm and earthy.
The vast selection of vegan baked goods is almost too much to handle. They all look great, and are clearly labeled. Some items contain eggs or gluten or nuts, and these are all noted. I had a slice of vegan lime-coconut cake (with mint frosting, $3), a roasted apple and coconut egg roll thingie ($1.99), and a vegan cookie sandwich (with frosting in the middle, $1.50). The cake was subject to a crime of vegan baking: weird texture. The use of large coconut flakes within the batter may have been to blame for this. And, quite frankly, the addition of mint was just a bit too much for me. I would have preferred a lime frosting. The roasted apple and coconut roll sounded promising — roasted apple? Oh yes. — but it was cold and in need of reheating. Into the microwave it went, for just a few seconds, but that made the roll part chewy and undesirable. The roasted apple insides were good, but the shredded coconut didn’t add much in flavor or texture. The winner for me was the vegan cookie sandwich. The chocolate chip (cocoa nibs) and nuts in added some texture and flavor to an otherwise un-buttery (un-fatty) cookie. The chocolate frosting was yummy.
There are plenty of vegan baked goods from which to choose, including muffins and scones, cupcakes, and other little pastry. I’m convinced that the quality of baked goods will increase as traffic in the store picks up and there’s a better understanding of demand and customer preferences.
The reopening of Strawberry Fields is to be celebrated. It’s a fantastic resource for many things natural, organic, and vegan. My fear is that it will become very cluttered like World Harvest. Since the two stores serve very different purposes and needs, I’m balancing my fears of dusty shelves with the hope that there is enough turnover to keep store items fresh. (But seriously, those freezers are already stocked to death like those at World Harvest.)
I’m also optimistic about the café; the food I had was pretty good, and prices and seating and parking are such that I’ll add Strawberry Fields to my lists of potential lunch spots. It’s nice because it’s close enough to campus that it isn’t too much of a hassle, but far enough away that you’re not elbowing students as you try to check the menu.
Strawberry Fields is located at 306 W Springfield Avenue, Urbana. The store is open Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Hot food in the café is available Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.