The founding families of Strack & Van Til plan to operate 20 of the Highland-based chain's 22 remaining grocery stores.
The Jeff Strack-led Indiana Grocery Group, which consists of the Strack family, the Van Til family and a few others, bested Jewel-Osco on Tuesday in an bankruptcy court-supervised auction in a New York City law office. The auction stretched on for hours, well into the evening, before they found out they prevailed.
"It's an incredible feeling," Jeff Strack said. "There were so many times during this process where you start to question if it's worth all the hard work. But there was the amount of emails and letters we got from employees, vendors and customers. When there was any doubt about going forward, I would look at and read those emails and letters. When they said we were the highest and best bid, it was a huge relief and it was true excitement. It was a wide range of emotions.
Strack said he couldn't wait to get back to Northwest Indiana to share the news at the company's corporate headquarters on 45th Street in Highland, where the jobs are being preserved. He visited the grocery chain's flagship store at 45th Street and Cline Avenue in Highland on Wednesday, and plans to visit other supermarkets soon.
The Indiana Grocery Group is acquiring the headquarters, 20 stores and a central commissary in Valparaiso. The only open stores that are not part of the deal are Ultra Foods on Indianapolis Boulevard in Highland and in Kankakee, Illinois, which are still up for auction.
A judge must approve the sale Tuesday. Strack said no issues were expected.
"Until it's all over and we have our company back 100 percent, we're going to proceed cautiously and continue to do the right thing, as we have for the last six months," Strack said.
German immigrant Ernie Strack and Griffith native Nick Van Til, who both quickly rose through the ranks of the local grocery business, partnered to build their first modern supermarket on 45th Street and Cline Avenue in Highland. They grew the one store into Northwest Indiana's largest local grocery chain, with as many as 38 stores at one point.
In 1997, Central Grocers acquired a controlling share of 80 percent of the Highland-based grocer. The Joliet-based cooperative filed for bankruptcy in May after racking up $225 million in debt and failing to find a buyer.
Strack said both the Strack and Van Til families were troubled by the bankruptcy, the closing of 14 Ultra Foods and the layoffs of nearly 1,900 workers.
"It wasn't fun. It was something that was really heart-wrenching," he said. "As we were going through that, I'm a big believer in opportunities. And this was an opportunity for both families to once again come together as my grandfather and Mr. Van Til did in 1959. This is an opportunity for us to come back and get our stores back. What I didn't want to happen was, 10-15 years from now to have regrets that I didn't try. The Strack family and the Van Til family, we see this an a great opportunity for us to continue in business, and to continue to be an important part of Northwest Indiana."
The bid was fraught with uncertainty. Even on Tuesday afternoon, Strack still didn't know whether Indiana Grocery Group or Jewel-Osco would emerge as the high bidder.
"It's been up and down," he said. "It's been a roller coaster. I tried not to get too high and I tried not to get too low during the process. But in the end, I gave it everything I had to accomplish what we hoped to do."