SPRING HILL — Brittany and Kris Tyler read the labels thoughtfully and nodded. They plunked the cans of organic fruits and juices into their shopping cart, then pondered over the green diapers — "a lot of stuff for her," said Brittany, gesturing toward her 20-month-old daughter, Kenley.
The Spring Hill couple, members of Hernando County's Secret Cash Mob, shopped with their peers on a recent Saturday morning at Gator Nutrition, a shop of healthy food, supplements and lifestyle goods on Beverly Court, just off Commercial Way.
Although Chris Ruppe launched the shop 17 years ago, the Tylers had been unaware of its existence.
That's the premise of the cash mob organization, said founder Shandelle Johnson: to introduce shoppers to local businesses and provide an economic stimulus for independent, homegrown retailers. Shoppers are asked to go on the scheduled spree "armed with a $10 bill."
"Mobs are a new trend where people in the community meet at a local business and buy their goods or services," explained Johnson, 48, owner of Travelin' Dreams Travel, a home-based business in Spring Hill.
The "secret" in the group's name refers to keeping their monthly destination to themselves until they walk through the door.
Anyone with a Facebook presence can join. Some 600 area residents have done so over the past 17 months.
Any member may nominate by email a business to hit. The nominees are listed on the mob's website, with members asked to cast votes. The business that garners the most votes becomes the mob's target.
"After a hit," said Johnson, "we blast their pictures all over Facebook" as a way to advertise the business without cost.
"The most mob hits was 93 people," Johnson said, adding that "it's dropped off since then. Recent gatherings have been 12 to 15. Even if we get 12 members, the business gets $120 in their pocket they wouldn't have had."
Ruppe, 48, with no knowledge of the shopping group, appeared stunned at members' entrance, then was thrilled as he punched sums on his cash register.
"It's awesome," he said.
The mobsters have hit, among others, Paesano's Italian Bakery and Market, Murphy's Market, the Coffee Barn in Brooksville, Greek City Cafe, Kate's Gifts, Whistle Stop Station, Cupcake Heaven, Donnelly's Deli, Bagels and Beyond south of Brooksville, and the Hernando County Farmers Market.
Said member and Spring Hill resident Debbie Hovey, 51: "I hadn't been to most of them, didn't know them before. And I've been back since."
"We want to support our local economy, keep the mom-and-pop stores," said Travis Birt.
Birt and his wife, Emily, consider themselves a mom-and-pop enterprise with Excelsior Computer Services operating out of their Spring Hill home.
Brittany Tyler, 24, said she has shopped at Murphy's Market a couple of times since her foray there with the mob.
Ringing up sales, Ruppe said, "People don't usually walk in here not knowing the lifestyle."
For the uninitiated, Johnson said, "To be a member, I ask that they friend me on Facebook, say they want to be a member of the mob."
That gives them access to the nominating and voting process, and announcements of upcoming shopping targets.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]