Another local splash in retail’s resurgence
John Hielscher/Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Tampa residents Amy Riddell and Christian Estrada showed up at 3 a.m. Friday to make sure they would be the first customers inside the new Trader Joe’s in Sarasota.
When the grocer’s doors opened five hours later, the store was still dark, but they were first in, so they did not seem to mind.
“When we first heard about it months ago, I was like, ‘We’re going the night before and be there first for the opening,'” Estrada said.
As longtime fans of the quirky grocery chain, they expect to return once a month for the fresh food they say cannot be found anywhere else — along with bottles of the store’s $2.99 Charles Shaw wine, known affectionately to customers as “Two-buck Chuck.”
“It makes it worth the drive,” said Estrada, who with Riddell received a gift bag as inaugural shoppers.
With a ceremonial cutting of a lei — no traditional ribbons here — at 7:50 a.m. by “store captain” Linda Moffa and Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell, the trendy grocery officially opened its second Florida store at 4101 S. Tamiami Trail.
The store joined a resurgence of retail in the region that has brought Costco and other notable merchants. Eagerly awaited for months by avid foodies and the cost-conscious alike, Trader Joe’s opening was reminiscent of Costco’s debut, where throngs made sure they were present for the moment when the doors opened.
“Trader’s fans are crazy,” said Cindy Bloom, a radiologist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital who shopped at Trader Joe’s for more than 20 years in California, when visiting family. “There is something about it. You just get addicted to the store, the feel of the store, the type of food they have.”
More than 250 poured into Trader Joe’s during the first 15 minutes it was open, greeted by a gauntlet of Hawaiian-shirt clad employees — called crew members in Trader’s parlance — who clapped, high-fived and placed colorful leis around shoppers’ necks as the surf-music classic “Wipe Out” blared throughout the store.
Along with last month’s opening of Costco at Sarasota Square Mall, Sarasota now has a pair of national retailers that analysts say generate cult-like followings.
‘A Trader Joe’s evangelist’
Estrada and Riddell were not the only out-of-towners to travel to Sarasota for the opening.
Pals Mandy Delacruz and Helen Branham drove in from Orlando, arriving at 5:30 a.m. with hopes of being first in line.
They wound up fourth.
“I’m a Trader Joe’s evangelist,” Branham said. “Someone tells me they don’t know what it is, I gotta let ’em know.”
They have visited the Naples store a few times, enjoying the nuts, spices, oils and other items for sale. That store opened in February, where the duo were second in line on the first day of business.
“It’s the uniqueness of the food, and prices that fit my budget,” Branham said.
More than 1,500 people applied to join the crew at Trader Joe’s in Sarasota. Only 50 to 60 were hired, and 80 percent were local residents.
The 11,200-square-foot “neighborhood” grocery, formerly a Rooms To Go furniture store, carries 3,600 items — including fresh-baked breads, specialty coffees, international frozen entrees, deli items and staples like milk and eggs.
Retail analyst Jeff Green said Sarasota represents an ideal fit for the eclectic grocer.
“Every place is a good place for a Trader Joe’s,” he said. “It appeals to young and old, it appeals to moderate to higher incomes, and its aggressive pricing appeals to all socio-economics these days.”
Aaron Dickey, a self-employed Sarasotan who arrived at 7:15 a.m., was the first customer to check out. He had previously shopped in Trader Joe’s stores in California and Nevada. “I knew where to go and what to buy. They’ve got good food at affordable prices and a good selection,” Dickey said, adding that he expects to be a regular.
Atwell was impressed by what the store means for local economic development efforts. “When Trader Joe’s brings in people from everywhere, you’ve got a great community. This is what we need,” she said.
Like Branham and Delacruz, Sarasota residents Pat and Mary Clisham hoped to be first in line when they showed up about 4:15 a.m.
“We couldn’t wait to come,” Mary Clisham said. “I’ve been counting the days.”
She is retired, while Pat drives for the Sarasota County Area Transit system. Both are members at the Bath and Racquet Club behind Trader Joe’s, so they expect to shop regularly for items like unsalted nuts, sunflower seeds and wines that they like.
Bloom, who did not anticipate the line of at least 50 people in front of her when she arrived at 7:30 a.m., said she has noticed that some prices have increased. Even so, the organic produce, wines and other items she cannot find elsewhere will bring her back about three times a week, she said.
Beating out bigger cities
Sarasota beat out larger Florida cities, including Tampa and St. Petersburg, for the chain’s second Florida store.
A third is planned to open by the end of the year in Gainesville, but no others have been announced.
The new store features Trader Joe’s signature decor, which mixes cedar-covered walls and Hawaiian motifs. Wall murals decorated by crew members offer a nod to the region’s beaches, circus heritage and cultural life.
Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s operates more than 370 stores in 34 states. In addition to Sarasota, it opened stores Friday in Foxborough, Mass.; Newington, N.H.; and Plano, Texas. Thirty more are slated to debut this year.
The company posted $9.5 billion in sales in the year ended July 1, up $1 billion from the prior year, according to Supermarket News, a trade publication.
Trader Joe’s stores are known for their profitability, with industry estimates topping $1,000 in sales per square foot, more than double that of traditional grocery chains.
The company is owned by a trust in Germany set up by the late Theo Albrecht, who died in 2010, for his children.
The grocer, which started in 1958 as Pronto Markets, took its current name from founder Joe Coulombe.