TAMPA — Jose Martín noticed the growing demand for Latin foods as a store manager for the Westchase Winn-Dixie as soon as he started two years ago.
Martín saw a growing number of Hispanic guests push their carts through the aisles. He needed more than an international food section and the makeshift Hispanic display he made of canned goods.
In his own home, Martín watched his Puerto Rican family members struggle to get all the items on their grocery lists.
"Sometimes my wife would go all the way to Orlando," where there were there more Hispanic food options, he said. "But it’d be mostly going bodega to bodega. It’s limited."
One would have calabasa, but not malanga — green plantains, but no more boniato.
Those are now problems of the past, Martín said from inside his changing Winn-Dixie store at 8424 Sheldon Road last week.
This Wednesday that location and another Tampa Winn-Dixie at 4056 N. Armenia Ave. will reopen under parent company Southeastern Grocer’s Hispanic banner, Fresco y Más, which translates to "Fresh and More."
Martín called the chain the "Trader Joe’s of the Hispanic community." It’s packed with traditional prepared foods, loads of fresh Hispanic produce, familiar brands from Latin American and staples for Latin cooking — all advertised at affordable prices.
Already, the Hispanic-focused chain has been a hit in South Florida, where it has 22 locations since the first opened in June 2016.
Southeastern could use matching success in Tampa, as the grocery chain continues to restructure its debt following filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month with plans to close six under-performing Winn-Dixie stores in Tampa Bay by the end of April.
Another Fresco y Más will soon open in Orlando bringing its total number of Florida stores to 25.
"The expansion of Fresco y Más really reflects Southeastern Grocers commitment to its customers," CEO Anthony Hucker told the Tampa Bay Times. "We selected items that are authentic and cater to each neighborhood ... This really is a Hispanic store. Not an Anglo-Saxon store with a Hispanic set."
Hucker said the Tampa locations were chosen based on demographic data, which also helps decide their inventory.
The Tampa stores, for example, have a large makeup of Cuban and Puerto Rican items — while the Orlando store will have other items from the Dominican Republic, because of the population there, according to the store mangers.
The latest data from the U.S. Census reported 27.6 percent of people in Hillsborough County are Hispanic.
And many suspect that number has grown — especially after thousands of people were displaced following Hurricane Irma last year.
Despite the growing demand, the new Tampa stores won’t be without competition. Bravo Supermarkets, a Hispanic chain popular in New York that carries Krasdale brand foods, has three Hillsborough County locations.
There’s also the numerous small mom-and-pop bodegas that have been serving the local community for decades.
As the Hispanic items have started to roll out, store management has received a mostly positive reaction.
The chain’s director of operations, Jorge Cabo, was in the Westchase store last week as trucks began bringing in the new product lines. Many items were already on display.
The butcher’s shop had pigs feet and beef heart. The frozen section had tropical fruit pulp for juices and ready-made tostones.
"I just saw a woman hug a bag of plantain chips," Cabo said.
Illansy Ruiz, the chain’s director of prepared foods, was behind the to-go counter that same day showing employees his empanada recipes when the espresso machine to make Cuban coffee and Café con leche was delivered.
Ruiz, a trained chef from Cuba, created the chains’s scratch menu. He also helped curate a selection of meats, largely pork, for the Tampa locations. By late last week, the bakery and deli were nearly done, though Ruiz was still figuring out how best to show off a new Chorizo.
"We are trying to capture the feel of what Cuba used to be like before Castro," Ruiz said, beaming over his deli display.
Hucker said the majority of Fresco y Más workers are bilingual. The bright yellow signage is in English and Spanish. Employees will wear matching yellow shirts and the signature yellow Fresco y Más sign won’t replace the current Winn-Dixie sign until overnight Tuesday, right before the store’s grand opening Wednesday morning.
While both Tampa stores have been open during the transition, they will be closed tomorrow for the final parts of the renovations.
The store will still carry traditional American grocery items, but they’re easily overshadowed by barrels of coconut water, tubs of cooking wines, and 20-pound bags of rice.
Ruiz, who helped open the Miami-area stores, was looking forward to opening day. There will be store specials and a live band.
"Come when we open," he said. "When the music is going, with the yellow color all around, people go crazy."
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.