By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
FORT WAYNE, Ind. — The Hilger family is looking to its past to help secure its future.
The Hilger family farm market, a Fort Wayne-area institution for 36 years, will reopen March 31 after renovations designed to return the company to its core business. The market has been renamed Hilger’s Friendly Market.
“We’re getting back to the basics of a farm market,” said John Hilger, co-owner of the market, located west of Fort Wayne on U. S. Highway 30. “We can’t compete with Wal-Mart and Meijer. We’re going to be our own little niche out here.”
John’s father Henry started selling fresh produce from a tent on the site in 1971, and the first building was constructed in 1973. Later, they began selling gasoline and in 1987, built a restaurant next to the farm market.
While the outside of the building will look about the same to returning customers, the inside will be different, Hilger said. Gas will still be for sale, but the market will turn its focus away from its previous convenience-store appearance.
In addition to the market’s popular strawberries and sweet corn, Hilger’s will focus on a mixture of traditional farm-market goods and some unique items. The bakery will be expanded and offer items such as pumpkin, strawberry and tomato breads for market testing, Hilger said.
The meat market will remain and offer organic products, and the cheese shop will remain and sell herbs and spices. Hilger’s will also continue to offer their locally-grown pumpkins, summer and winter squash, cucumbers and peppers.
“We’re going to have specialty items you can’t get at the regular grocery store, such as rice flour and ground flour,” Hilger said. “The idea is for us to offer things that we can do better than anyone else.”
The market employs about 40 people, and is located on 42 acres. Overall, the Hilgers farm 784 acres in Allen and Whitley counties.
The market’s annual fall pumpkin festival, from Sept. 22 through the end of October, will remain, Hilger said. It features hayrides, a petting zoo, a straw maze and carnival rides.
“We want a trip here to be a major event,” said Barry Tippman, a partner in the business. “We want people to come and spend some time, to make it more of a family event.”
Hilger’s will also continue to offer field trips for area schoolchildren.
The restaurant will not reopen on a regular schedule this year. It is currently being used for parties and wedding receptions. “We’re looking for (restaurant) ideas right now,” Hilger said. “We’ve been doing a lot of research. We have to find a niche. It has to be something different.”
Entertainment would probably be a part of any new concept for the restaurant. “We have to do something to make people come out here,” Tippman said. “That might be a three- or four-hour dinner event with entertainment. We’re also going to be focusing on tourism.”
Many of the farm market’s customers have questioned the family about the closing and planned reopening, Hilger said. “We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of calls, asking us when we’ll be open,” he added. “No one wants to see the farm market go.
“We’re going to find that niche. We’re going to find out what they want from us, what they expect from us, and we’ll try to give that to them.”
This farm news was published in the March 28, 2007 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.