North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce (NTBC) CEO Hope Allen gets asked about a lot of things about our area.
People want to know what is being built and where, what new businesses are coming and what roads are getting fixed.
But, the question she gets asked the most?
When is Whole Foods or Trader Joes or Sprouts coming?
“Every day,” she says, laughing. “Every. Single. Day.”
It started the first day she took over at the NTBC (formerly the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce), and the questions about Wesley Chapel landing a green, or specialty, grocer continues to come, even more frequently than before.
The answer, for the time being, is Earth Fare, one of the newer entries into the local green scene. The 24,000-sq.-ft. green grocery store recently broke ground at the corner of Wesley Chapel Blvd. and S.R. 56, across the street from Tampa Premium Outlets.
Earth Fare may not have the name recognition of a Whole Foods, but it has the kind of green credentials that people seem to be craving more and more these days. It was founded in 1975 in Asheville, NC, and now has 46 locations in 10 mostly southeastern states. The Wesley Chapel location will be the third in the Tampa Bay area, joining stores in Seminole and Oldsmar.
Earth Fare sells mostly natural and organic foods, and the store says it does not carry any items that contain high fructose corn syrup or any artificial fats, colors, preservatives or sweeteners.
Nutrition Smart, located on Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. (across from the Shoppes at New Tampa plaza, just south of S.R. 56) can lay claim to being the first green grocer in Wesley Chapel, but it is a much smaller location without the variety of groceries and prepared foods offered by the more popular chains, like Whole Foods, Sprouts and Trader Joe’s.
But, Whole Foods, Sprouts and Fresh Market are located in Carrollwood, while the closest Trader Joe’s and Greenwise — Publix’s own spinoff green grocery store — are in South Tampa.
“I think the green grocers are a big deal to Wesley Chapel because of our age,” Allen says. “The general age of a Wesley Chapel resident is 37.5, with children and an above-average income. Those demographics tend to find the healthy lifestyle and more healthy eating options appealing.”
While Earth Fare will be the first major green entry into the Wesley Chapel market, it won’t be the last. Another specialty grocer remains in the plans as an anchor store for the Shops at Wiregrass mall expansion, or connector site, which will include a movie theater as well.
“There is a certainly an interest in a Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or Fresh Market in our area,’’ says Greg Lenners, the general manager of the Shops at Wiregrass. “It’s a topic that does come up quite a bit, and you can see the interest just by looking at social media.”
Lenners is likely referring to the Wesley Chapel Community and Wesley Chapel Network Facebook pages, where posts asking what new business local residents would like to see are often their most popular. Those posts are dominated by locals asking for a green grocer.
“Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are the ones people most ask for,” Allen says, “but Sprouts and Earth Fare are new concepts that folks aren’t as familiar with, but they should be. I think those will be the first ones to get here.”
A Sprouts, in fact, was announced last week for the Trinity area of Pasco County.
As Wesley Chapel’s population continues to grow, the area is likely to become more attractive to specialty grocers, who are a choosy lot. “The reason they are not here already is they are very selective,” Lenners says. “They look at the density of the demographic. We’re not there yet to meet their criteria, but we are getting there.”
Lenners has no doubt the area can support multiple green grocers. He points to the success of the Shops at Wiregrass’ twice-monthly, outdoor Fresh Market, which features local artisans, organic produce and plenty of specialty items.
Fresh Markets are held on the first and third Saturday of every month on Paseo Dr., the main street running down the center of the Shops at Wiregrass. Lenners says it is second, only to the mall’s popular Symphony of Lights show every winter, as the most popular attraction at the Shops.
“The success of Fresh Market is what really sparked the interest in putting a green grocer in the connector site,” Lenners says.
It is likely, however, that the next green grocer in our area after Earth Fare will be a few miles south on BBD, in New Tampa.
Plans for The Village at Hunter’s Lake project, to be located across BBD from the Hunter’s Green community (less than two miles south of the Pasco County line), include plans for New Tampa’s first green grocer. While neither the Wiregrass connector nor the Village at Hunter’s Lake have broken ground, the New Tampa project is further ahead.
According to Mike Kinsella, the senior vice president and senior market officer for Regency Centers, won’t say whether or not he has already signed a contract with a green grocer, but he says one is definitely coming.
“Obviously, there is a big need in the community,” says Kinsella.
The Villages at Hunter’s Lake will include a 30,000-sq.ft. New Tampa Cultural Center, a 214-unit multi-family project called The Haven at Hunter’s Lake and a community park with a dog park and a retail strip center, in addition to the green grocer.
When Hillsborough County approved the $2.02-million sale of the 17.6 acres of land for the Hunter’s Lake project in 2014, it was done with an eye towards finally building a cultural center for the area. But, Hillsborough County District 2 Commissioner Victor Crist says he also envisioned the kind of boutique shops that would make the area stand out from others, including a unique grocery store in an area dominated by multiple Publix supermarkets.
“It’s something we’ve been working on for five years and it’s great to see it coming to fruition,” Crist says. “We want to fill it with unique and specialty beauty, health and entertainment venues that are different from the usual that you find everywhere else.”
That store in Wesley Chapel will help scratch an itch residents there have had for years, and the Hunter’s Lake store may do the same for New Tampa residents. According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), organic sales topped $47 billion in sales in 2016, up $3.7 billion from the previous year. Organic food now accounts for 5.3 percent of total food sales in the U.S.
“I think overall, I could speak for the State of Florida and say the competitive nature of the green grocer concept is more significant today than it has ever been,” Kinsella says. “There are a lot of candidates out there.”
The reason is simple — people are more aware of their health than ever before, creating a more determined quest for better, cleaner, more natural foods.
“I think people are trying to eat more healthy,” Kinsella says. “They are looking for something different.”
Asked if he has a preference for which green grocer lands at Hunter’s Lake, Crist says “Any one of the big three would be fine.”
Here’s a brief description of some of the potential options for future green grocers in Wesley Chapel and New Tampa.
EARTH FARE (currently under construction on S.R. 56) — We checked out the Seminole location, and can conclude it will be a welcome addition to the Wesley Chapel area. Earth Fare has a small-town, country market feel, and a seating area to enjoy a great selection of hot foods with a sign that says “Have A Seat, Stay Awhile.” The store offers organic and non-organic produce, fresh seafood and meats, and you can make your own nut butters or fill up from their giant liquid canister offerings of Apple Cider Vinegar, Grade A Dark Color Maple Syrup and more as part of Earth Fare’s many bulk offerings. The store has an extensive Wellness & Beauty section, too, even self-serve scoop-your-own tubs of bath salts and body scrubs. There is a nice craft beer and wine section (you can even get organic wine in cans, if you’re into that), and a salad bar, juice bar, organic breads and fresh gluten-free pizza. We ended up with some chicken ginseng soup, Asian beef balls in a Thai chili sauce, and plenty of free samples while contemplating a return for $5 Sushi Wednesdays.
WHOLE FOODS (closest current locations are at 3802 Northdale Blvd. and 1548 N. Florida Ave.) — Whole Foods might be the biggest name on the green grocer landscape, dubbing itself America’s Healthiest Grocery Store, and the fact that Amazon paid $14-billion for the company last year backs up its popularity. (You can actually order your food on Amazon.com and pick up at a station at the Whole Foods in Carrollwood)
You are greeted at the Carrollwood store by a display of healthy cleaning products, which you walk by on your way to a wall of bulk organic products that you may have to Google — Spelt berries hulled, buckwheat groats and paleo coconola, to name a few. And naturally, there are multiple types of quinoa.
The store offers a huge variety of mixed salads to take home, and the most impressive selection of mushrooms and bagged salads and spinach you will find. You won’t find things like Ragu spaghetti sauce, but will pay more for fresher, cleaner sauces like Rao’s homemade marinara. In fact, you won’t find many, if any, of the name brands you are used to purchasing.
All the eggs at Whole Foods (and most of the other green grocers) are from cage-free hens. The store also offers wines from nearly a dozen countries, and the selection of meats and cheeses is wide-ranging.
Almost every green grocer we visited has an olive bar, but one of the things that really sets Whole Foods apart is its salad, soup and hot, prepared food bars. The Carrollwood location’s featured country of the day was Indonesia the day we stopped by, which included curried jackfruit and rendang beef, or one could grab some Indian fare like Chicken Biryani or Cashew Chicken Curry, along with Latin, European and homestyle food offerings as well.
There also is a section for all natural vitamins and medicines. You might need to buy some to help cure your sticker shock.
SPROUTS Farmer’s Market (15110 N. Dale Mabry Ave. in the Carrollwood Commons shopping plaza; a new location also opened in February in Valrico) — Phoenix-based Sprouts lacks the polish of Whole Foods, but its open floor plan helps it succeed in providing more of a farmer’s market feel than other green grocers. In fact, the first thing you will notice when you walk in is a wide expanse of fruits and vegetables, most reasonably priced and much cheaper than at other green outlets. A sign told us that the day we visited, the store had more than 186 items of organic produce available that day.
Sprouts also offers more than 300 varieties of bulk items, including wooden barrels of nuts and large containers of things like dried Turkish apricots, as well as a nice selection of fresh meats and fish and breads.
TRADER JOES (3808 W. Swann Ave.) — Because of all the hype surrounding Trader Joe’s, we expected higher prices. But, not so. In fact, we hadn’t planned on buying anything but some things, like the broccoli, green peppers, mangoes, some cereals and crackers and breads were priced right and were too much to resist (and someone may have snuck a pack of bratwurst made with Trader Joe’s brand bock beer into the cart).
The Tampa store has a number of unique organic items, inexpensive wines and a wide selection of craft beers. And surprisingly, the Tampa Trader Joe’s offers a pretty popular selection of frozen items, including macaroni and cheese and even fish. Maybe it’s the fresh-cut flowers at the entrance that put everyone in such a good mood, but Trader Joe’s seemed like a pretty happy place. We can see why so many people fill out online petitions in an effort to bring one to their area.
The store on Swann Ave. is small, and the parking is terrible. But, it remains a popular locale there…and would likely be a hit here, too.
FRESH MARKET (13147 N. Dale Mabry Hwy.) — Fresh Market definitely seemed to have the highest prices of any of the green grocers we visited, including Whole Foods, which is saying something.
The Carrollwood location offers hot, ready-made food in the back, and it all looked delicious, but the prices really weren’t right. Is $12.99 for a pound of roasted carrots a bit much? Best to scout for weekly deals.
The store was dimly lit, certainly the least festive of the others, but the cuts of meat were visually appealing and tempting, and the selection of coffees and huge jars of candies nearly made for an impulse buy.
But again, it felt like better deals could be had elsewhere, and the selection of organic and natural foods really didn’t stack up to the others. Oh, and we did find a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch on the shelves, which just seemed weird.