On opening day of the area's first Trader Joe's store, everyone got a lei.
Everyone got a parking spot, too, even if it meant walking a few blocks.
Trader Joe's opened Friday, fulfilling a longtime dream of many locals eager to have the gourmet grocer close to home.
About 125 people waited outside as doors opened at 8 a.m. to cheers and the music of a steel drum band. News helicopters buzzed overhead.
"I feel like I've been waiting forever," said Christian Estrada, 30, of Tampa.
Estrada and Amy Riddell arrived at midnight to ensure they were first in line. They had shopped at the Trader Joe's store in Atlanta and couldn't wait for Tampa to get a store.
"Everything is amazing and delicious and affordable," he said.
Isabel Acosta said she had never waited in line for a store opening but decided to make an exception for Trader Joe's and arrived in the pitch dark at 5 a.m.
The extent of her TJ's love? "To infinity and beyond!"
Like a lot of shoppers, Acosta, 35, of South Tampa said she used to drive to the Trader Joe's stores in Sarasota and Naples every three to six months to stock up on food and, of course, Two Buck Chuck. Now that there's a store nearby, she'll be able to go more often.
Her only wish was that the store at 3808 W Swann Ave., just west of Dale Mabry Highway, was a little bigger. It has 12,300 square feet, about average for a Trader Joe's store, but about a third the size of a traditional supermarket.
Tampa police directed store traffic, blocking off the entrance with cones when the 70-space parking lot was full. Officers told motorists to "find legal parking somewhere else," until spots opened in the lot.
Customers parked at neighboring businesses and along city streets. Several parked across the street at Rod Dewell's house. He posted a sign with a lei attached advertising $5 parking for Trader Joe's customers. By mid-morning, he had seven customers.
"For right now, it's been a smooth day,'' Dewell said. "I'm pretty impressed.''
Many people were dropped off or walked from Einstein Bros Bagels and Burger King, which gained some business from the Trader Joe's shoppers. The restaurants weren't cracking down on parking violators but planned to monitor the situation over the weekend, when traffic for the Tampa Bay AirFest 2014 at MacDill Air Force Base could add to the congestion.
Lisa Weiss said there was less traffic on the first day than she expected. Having lived in San Francisco, she's familiar with the California-based retailer and is thrilled about having one in Tampa.
"Absolutely excited," she said. "I plan to walk."
Similarly, resident Steve Hysell said he didn't experience any problems with the initial crowds. But having lived there for 38 years and through other large developments such as LA Fitness, he's used to traffic anyway.
"If you try to move around this neighborhood around 4 or 5 (p.m.), forget about it," he said.
John Pedrero, 50, of Seminole Heights watched the shopping frenzy from across the street at Einstein's and was amazed by all the people walking by with leis and Trader Joe's shopping bags.
"It just looks so jammed in there," he said. "The parking lot is about half the size of what it needs to be."
Mary Salcido and Christina Patrick drove from Plant City and parked at Christ the King Catholic Church a few doors down. "I'm Catholic, so it's fine," Salcido said with a smile.
A mother of six, Salcido said she had been trying to get a Trader Joe's here for 13 years. Every Christmas, her parents in Oregon send her care packages of the store's spices, snacks and other goodies.
"It was hard to live here without a Trader Joe's," she said. "I would call the corporate number and nag them."
Shoppers flocked for the specialty products and affordable prices. About 80 percent of the items are sold under the Trader Joe's private label, from Joe-Joe's cookies (the store's version of Oreos) to Joe's O's cereal (Cheerios) — all made without preservatives or artificial flavors.
Nearly everyone had been to a Trader Joe's somewhere else and knew exactly what they wanted, from the dried Just Mango Slices (unsulfured and unsweetened) to the Sea Salt and Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds. Moms talked happily about how having a Trader Joe's in town meant they could "assemble dinners" instead of cook them. The few husbands in the crowd wondered what the hubbub was about.
Crew members walked throughout the store straightening shelves and answering questions. Two members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, Tampa's favorite group of pirates, greeted people at the door, then searched the store for grog, settling for Trader Joe's famed Charles Shaw wine, a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck (which actually sells for $2.99 a bottle).
Bill White and Ben Hetrick of St. Petersburg came with friends, including one who took the day off just to attend the grand opening. They love Trader Joe's happy-go-lucky culture and can't wait to get their own store later this year in St. Petersburg, along Fourth Street between 27 and 28th avenues.
"The prices are right and the wines are cheap," White said. "It's a good atmosphere and so much fun."
As shoppers left, many snapped photos with crew members and their leis, and at least one young girl in a grass shirt danced the hula. The steel drum band played the song by Bob Marley, Is This Love.
It certainly was.
Times staff writer Jimmy Geurts contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.