For a foodie, there's not much more exciting than a sparkling new market stocked with Icelandic-style yogurt and seedless red grapes the size of ping-pong balls. And when the new store is perceived as redressing a longtime slight, the newness is that much sweeter.
Such was the pervasive feeling last week at the opening of the Fresh Market on a corner of town that once was a mecca for gourmet food lovers. It has been more than a dozen years since Fancy's drew specialty-food seekers to 30th Avenue and Fourth Street N. In the years since, people have bemoaned the loss of those pillowy baguettes and the best tarragon chicken salad around.
Gourmet food has returned just across the street from the old Fancy's, which is now a bicycle shop. On opening day, shoppers poured into the 22,000-square-foot store by the dozens. In the produce section, the softball-sized artichokes, their stems jammed into a giant mound of ice chunks, drew lots of attention. They were gorgeous and green and $4.99 each. A worthy splurge, said one shopper. It's about time St. Petersburg got something like this, said another. Still another shopper was playing hooky from work to get an early morning peek. Obviously, she didn't want her name published.
The Fresh Market is not new to the Tampa Bay area. Clearwater has had one since 1998, and there are two in Tampa; one opened in 2001 and another in 2006. The St. Petersburg store is the chain's 100th and the 24th in Florida. The next one to open is in South Beach.
Even in the middle of a dire economy, the Fresh Market remains steadfast to its goal of providing experience and freshness to food lovers, even if the prices can be beat at nearby grocery stores. There are two large Publix markets a few blocks north and a Sweetbay about the same distance to the west. For most shoppers, Fresh Market's prepared foods and specialty items augment their BOGO-heavy big shop at a grocery store. A similar cheese selection can be found at Mazzaro's Italian market on 22nd Avenue N. Rollin' Oats Market & Cafe on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N also carries some of the same products. Still, the Fresh Market parking lot was waiting-space-only on opening day and in the days after.
Shoppers in North Pinellas and certainly in Tampa might wonder: What's the big deal? After all, they have had their Fresh Markets and even a Wild Oats-turned-Whole Foods for a while. The big deal, South Pinellas shoppers will tell you, is that they feel like they have arrived. Maybe now folks who look at locations to open upscale chain markets won't automatically bypass St. Petersburg for other cities.
Might they even get a Trader Joe's, the California specialty food store that has yet to come to Florida? Okay, calm down.
Next-door neighbors Nancy Godfirnon and Priscilla Murtha live two blocks north of Fresh Market and have been anticipating the opening for some time. They heard the noise from the demolition of the Cocoanut Grove shopping-dining complex last year and wondered, as the buildings were leveled, what would go there. A bank? A convenience store? Another drugstore?
A Fresh Market! They couldn't wait.
"I just love the presentation" of the food, Murtha said, clutching a small cup of complimentary coffee. "And the building looks like it's part of the neighborhood. We knew they were getting close when they started landscaping."
Did you see the artichokes? she asked.
The Fresh Market will be a mecca for cooks looking for harder-to-find ingredients — a bottle of silver dragees for decorating confections is $9.99 — and people seeking a quick meal fix or a hostess gift to take to a dinner party. (Consider the wide selection of chunky salts in grinders.) There is much research these days that says Americans are turning to prepared foods more and more rather than cooking from scratch. The Fresh Market has taken heed and has oodles of foods ready to eat plus other items that just need to be cooked such as margherita pizzas and rolled-and-stuffed chicken breasts. The Chilean sea bass en croute gave us a pause, though. Chilean sea bass is on every conscientious person's do-not-eat list because it's overfished, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. A surprising choice at a store that stocks so many products that carry environmentally enlightened messages.
Lisa Banzanella Smith of St. Petersburg isn't one who'll be buying a lot of prepared foods. She's a cook-from-scratch person who is happy to spend the money she'll be saving on gas to go to the Clearwater Fresh Market on special ingredients here. Like hazelnuts. Her friends and family should look for them in cookies this Christmas. She was scouring the aisles on opening day, seeking inspiration.
It's true that many items can be found in other stores and often at better prices, but the Fresh Market knows how to romance food lovers. Fresh-cut flowers in riotous colors. Eleven types of dried chilies, including moritas, chipotles and cascabels. More than 30 items on the antipasto bar, including stuffed grape leaves, roasted garlic cloves and cherry peppers stuffed with prosciutto. White asparagus, watermelon radishes and heirloom tomatoes. Handmade corn tortillas.
And then there's the note at the bakery counter about the creme brulee, saying that it's caramelized to order "so that the caramel has that characteristic crunch when you bite into it."
Only a food lover — and the folks at the Fresh Market — understand how cool that is. Creme brulee caramelized to order? Right in the neighborhood? Foodie goose bumps all around.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.