VALRICO — Dave Watkins admits he had a little bit of culture shock when he left a big-box grocery store background in the Chicago area and moved to Florida to work for the Fresh Market as district manager.
Sure he relished the typical weather change that most snowbirds have come to enjoy, but for Watkins, a bigger change came in the way the specialty grocery retailer operates. He said he needed to purge much of his past knowledge and embrace a new way of doing business.
"From the classical music you hear when you walk in, to the smell of the fresh-baked bread, it's a unique experience," he said. "We are about creating an entire environment."
For the first time, residents in east Hillsborough will have a chance to familiarize themselves with the Fresh Market concept when the company celebrates the grand opening of a Brandon area store at 3468 Lithia Pinecrest Road, in the Lithia Crossing shopping center at 8 a.m. on Wednesday.
Before opening this location, locals had to travel to Tampa, St. Petersburg or Clearwater to taste the more than 30 freshly baked breads, 14 pies or 200 cheeses.
Watkins says Fresh Market produce is approximately 70 percent organic and 30 percent conventional, but perhaps a more striking number is the more than 900 private house brands the store offers, including the one that started it all: the Anything Goes sauce. It's a barbecue-type sauce added to beef, chicken or just about anything, as the name says.
"Other places, it's the bargain stuff," store manager Darren Drenner said about private brands. "Here, it's the best stuff."
"All of our products are specially formulated to our recipe," said Watkins, who pointed out the company has won awards for its specialty foods.
The new 24,400-square-foot store, with aisles clearly marked to find everything from teas and ethnic foods to cereals and spices, also will have new amenities such as a soup and salad bar and fried chicken, not available at some other locations.
Floral department and gift baskets complement a sweet tooth for indulgences such as Moose Munch candy and SkinnyPop popcorn. Beer and wine selections will be available when final permitting is completed.
The opening of this location created 92 jobs, including a full-time butcher who will cut aged beef and trim antibiotic-free chicken to order. Beef is ground daily. Chefs prepare sushi and the deli team creates individual prepackaged meals for $5.99 or family meals for $20 that includes a whole chicken.
Drenner said the store's philosophy calls for every associate to be trained to handle any customer request, instead of staffing a customer service desk, which you won't find. The associates can even recommend cooking tips. The staff also is encouraged to sample all the items in the store, a perk Drenner said is open to its customers.
"We are very picky about the quality of our store" Drenner said.
The Fresh Market also prides itself in donating leftovers. The new store has partnered with ECHO of Brandon and Nativity Outreach Food Bank to supply items such as bread and frozen meat as well as produce to Big Cat Rescue.
Don't expect a customary ribbon cutting at the grand opening. Instead, line up to see the staff crack a 90-pound wheel of Parmesan cheese and share samples. Customers also are invited to taste other food, watch chef demonstrations and enter drawings for Fresh Market gift cards.
The first 1,000 customers will receive a sample-size bag of the company's gourmet coffee, possibly including one thing Watkins didn't leave behind in Chicago: Intelligentsia, a popular roast from the Windy City.
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]