Leader of Strack & Van Til started as a stock boy and bagger.
by Barbara Eastman
One of Jeff Strack’s fondest childhood memories is going to visit the grocery store founded in 1959 by his German-born grandfather, Ernie Strack, and his partner, Nick Van Til. Jeff’s dad worked in the business and started bringing Jeff to the store before Jeff was in grade school.
Jeff says, “My grandfather opened the Royal Blue grocery store in 1929 in Griffith. Many years later his accountant introduced him to Nick Van Til and suggested a partnership. They opened their first store in Highland, where they shared a 10-foot-by-11-foot office for 25 years. They knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and, in all those years, they never had a significant disagreement. What the business has become would be beyond their wildest imaginations.”
The summer between eighth grade and freshman year, Jeff started helping out as a stock boy and bagger. After high school he went to Indiana University, working at the store during vacations and holiday breaks. After graduating from IU with a bachelor’s degree in business, he began working full time at Strack & Van Til. He later earned an MBA at Purdue Northwest.
So that Jeff would learn every aspect of the business, his father and his partners created a five-year training program. Jeff started at the ground floor–unloading trucks, stocking shelves, bagging groceries, and working in the meat and produce departments–to learn every aspect of the business. In May, Jeff was named president and CEO of Strack & Van Til.
The company has expanded to 25 stores in Northwest Indiana and 12 in Illinois under three banners: Strack & Van Til, Ultra Foods, and Town & Country Markets. Jeff believes Ernie Strack and Nick Van Til would be pleased.
“I think they’d be delighted at our expansion,” he says, “but I think they’d be most proud of the fact that we have preserved their original vision: to put the needs of people first. They believed that if we took care of our people, and that includes both our customers and our employees, we would be successful.”
Jeff feels a responsibility to every one of Strack & Van Til’s more than 5,000 employees and its associates, who work for businesses that work for his company. “What I mean is that people who work for the companies that provide our uniforms, our industrial floor mats, our plumbing and electricity, our refrigeration, our vendors and delivery people–all of these people need us to continue to be successful because it has an impact on their household incomes.”
Being at the helm of Strack & Van Til is a 24/7 prospect but Jeff says he loves it. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had, and I get a lot of satisfaction in knowing that I am carrying forward the legacy of my grandfather and father. From my grandfather’s first grocery store to Strack & Van Til today, the business has changed so much he would hardly recognize it.
“For example, people are looking for healthy options and convenience, so we focus on fresh and prepared foods. With ‘grab and go,’ we offer prepared entrees or assembled ingredients for a dish, which the customer finishes at home. We are also testing ‘click and collect,’ a model where the customer orders and pays online, and we fulfill the order and have it ready for pick up. In addition, we have great bakeries and offer full-service catering.”
As the business continues to evolve, Jeff says, “I feel privileged and proud to expand our brand and advance the legacy of my grandfather and Nick Van Til–to put the needs of our customers first and to deliver value every day on the finest quality groceries, perishables, and freshly prepared foods.”