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How Tampa Bay became a "foodie" paradise

Do the words "locally sourced produce" make your pulse quicken? Is your Instagram page chockful of sexy snaps of you shopping for dry-aged beef in the hippest, selfie-coolest new market? Did you fake a sick day at work to celebrate the joyous arrival of a Trader Joe's to your city?

If you're from the Tampa Bay region, there's a good chance you excitably answered yes, yes and #heckyes to all of the above.

Let's be honest: These days, our puffed-chest posturing about who we are as a region is no longer linked to sun, surf, strip clubs and steakhouses. Suddenly, we're all "foodies," a newfound stance most evident at the myriad upscale markets and groceries now crowding our shores, a glut of which we've never seen.

You can't swing a Trader Joe's Korean-Inspired Bossam Pork Shoulder these days without hitting, well, a Trader Joe's or a Locale Market or a Whole Foods or Mazzaro's or Rollin' Oats or a fancy new Publix across the street from another still-pretty-nice Publix.

Even the myriad open-air markets pitching tents in every direction — including the bountiful North Tampa Market in Carrollwood and St. Petersburg's sprawling Saturday Morning Market, which is now one of the biggest in the U.S. — add to our food-centric vibe.

"It verifies what I felt when I first moved back here," said celebrity chef and University of South Florida graduate Don Pintabona, co-owner of Locale Market in St. Petersburg's Sundial retail center. "We are a foodie place now."

But what exactly does that mean? Is it a fad? Is it more about being hip, about the sharing and boasting of the experience, than being fed?

Maybe. But being trendy has never tasted so good.

• • •

So how did we go from a Kraft American Sliceville to the Land of Fancy Stinky Cheeses We Can't Even Pronounce?

First, let's look at national trends. High-end markets catering to refined, restructured tastes have been a major metropolitan movement for some time, not just in such major cities as New York and San Francisco, but also in gentrifying downtowns such as Baltimore, Portland, Ore., and Atlanta.

"Food is the new class signifier," said Dr. Elizabeth Strom, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of South Florida who specializes in urban revitalization. You used to show your social standing via a new Porsche or a mink coat, Strom says. "Now you do it by sharing the story behind the cheese you bought."

People are eating fancier, but there's something else going on: They're also eating healthier.

"There are two primary national trends: a movement around interesting food and a movement around healthy food," said Mark Johnson, market director for the Saturday Morning Market. "They complement each other but they're clearly different patterns."

That desire for healthier food alternatives has reached a broader populace thanks to bestsellers such as Fast Food Nation or the documentary Food Inc.

"Every day people are getting smarter and smarter about food in general," said Frank Chivas, owner of such Tampa Bay restaurants as the Salt Rock and Island Way grills. Chivas is a local sourcer, with his own fishing fleet that allows his catch of the day to be fresh, not frozen. "It's what people want today. Everyone wants to eat healthy."

Eating stylish and eating smart have now converged here — finally.

"It's all coming together," said Tiffany Ferrechia, co-owner and director of Tampa Bay Markets, which operates several open-air markets, including ones in Hyde Park Village and Wiregrass, each blending organic local produce and inventive culinary twists. "For our local customer base, this is what they want: unique and to support small local business."

We've always had spectacular restaurants, especially in Tampa, with Bern's and the Columbia, and now Ava and Ulele. But the markets and groceries represent a different cultural shift. In St. Petersburg, on the Fourth Street N corridor alone, there is now a Trader Joe's, a Fresh Market and two Publix locations all within a few blocks.

"When I left Tampa Bay in 1980, it was all about chain places," said Pintabona, whose Locale, which has the shimmering feel of Boston's Faneuil Hall, is drawing tourists from all over the country. "So when a Trader Joe's or a Saturday Morning Market finally comes here, that says a lot about a community."

Consider this: The first official Trader Joe's opened its doors in Pasadena, Calif., in 1967. Forty-seven years later — 47 years! — Tampa finally got one. On Feb. 13, St. Petersburg did, too. Trader Joe's is notoriously selective about where it goes. But finally, Two Buck Chuck can be had on both sides of the bay. That signifies considerable change nationally and, even more so, locally.

"Trader Joe's has sophisticated market research," USF's Strom said. "They know how many people are seeking out organic goods."

Florida is always getting punchline-dinged for being outlandish and eccentric, for being America's version of the weirdo cousin you visit once a year. But the truth is that we're looking more and more like everyone else.

According to Census Bureau statistics, Florida is now the third-largest state in the country, surpassing New York, which sends more people to live in Florida than any other state. There's also a steady influx of people from the Midwest. The truth? We've never been a bigger melting pot and we're just getting meltier.

Add an economy that's getting healthier in a region that is shedding its graying "God's waiting room" image. Older consumers are brand loyalists; millennials, however, go where the action is. And for Tampa Bay, the action is edible. "Food awareness has matured to a level that rivals anywhere in the U.S.," Pintabona said.

"We were late to the game," Strom said. Call it awareness, call it snobbiness. But what we are about has been reframed: "Now even people in Florida want more than Outback Steakhouse."

Contact Sean Daly at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife.

Our field guide of Tampa Bay shoppers at upscale markets

By Sean Daly, Times Staff Writer

A good way to get shouted down in Tampa Bay is to demean the glory of the Publix "Pub sub." Or blaspheme Trader Joe's by saying it isn't worth the stampede. Or dare utter that Locale is — quelle horreur! — overrated.

Tampa Bay is passionate about where it shops for food. Hold on: Did we say passionate? We meant BONKERS. Never before have there been so many high-end markets and fancy-dancy groceries on both sides of the bay. You know where you love to buy groceries, and you know why your place is better than everyone else's place.

We've been watching you, Betty and Bob Bonkers. So herewith, a totally snarky, gently teasing and just-for-laughs study of who shops where, why you shop there — and how everyone in Fresh Market is wearing yoga pants.

Trader Joe's

Key Shopper: For a while, EVERYBODY EVERYWHERE.

Key Food Item: Two Buck Chuck gets all the pub, but Trader's Joe's Triple Ginger Snaps — made with fresh, crystallized and ground ginger — are so semantically, obnoxiously Trader Joe's, we're going with those.

Key Car in Parking Lot: For a while, EVERY CAR EVERYWHERE. Those lots are like Mad Max, dude. Two minivans enter, one minivan leaves!

Key Employee: Perky yet cocky, this worker wears his nautical title — mate, captain, crew member — with a Publix-dismissing pride. He also says "Ahoy" a lot. But it's a small price to pay for those crazy-good g-snaps.

Overheard at Trader Joe's: "You haven't livvved until you've tried the Trader Joe's Sprouted Organic California Rice. Did I mention it's organic? Because, you know, it's organic."

Mazzaro's Italian Market

Key Shopper: Takes great pride in correctly, and loudly, pronouncing "sfogliatelle" at bakery counter.

Key Food Item: Anything in the hallowed Cheese Room, where we're pretty sure half the names are made up. Lou Bergier Pichin? No way, Mazzaro's. That's totally your cousin's name.

Key Car in Parking Lot: Old-school Cadillacs. New-school Cadillacs. Plus whatever you and your hungover buddies drive on Saturday morning. That chicken parm sub has healing powers.

Key Employee: Those lunchtime deli counter guys are somewhat, ahem, intimidating.

Overheard at Mazzaro's: "This meatball is the size of my face." (Then you eat the whole thing in less than 30 seconds.)

Locale Market

Key Shopper: You, but only when you're trying to impress friends and relatives by saying "alligator andouille." Also, high-powered CEOs living in downtown St. Petersburg high-rises.

Key Food Item: The St. Petersburger, natch. We only wish Barry White were still around to croon those sexy ingredients: dry-aged beef, shredded romaine in "secret sauce," smoked Gouda, double-smoked crisp bacon, caramelized onions, mushrooms, American cheese, all on a brioche bun. Aww yeah . . .

Key Car in Parking Lot: There's no real parking lot. The high-risers walk there. Or maybe their butlers carry them. Whatever.

Key Employee: It's always cool when you spot celeb owners Michael Mina and Don Pintabona. It's never cool when you shout to your Aunt Shirley in the middle of the store, "That's Michael Mina and Don Pintabona!"

Overheard at Locale: "There's nowhere to sit. It's too crowded and expensive. The lines are long." "Then why do you come here?" "Because it's AWESOME."

The Fresh Market

Key Shopper: Tank Top Guy and Yoga Pants Woman, both of whom look way too clean and beautiful for having just worked out (which we're almost positive they didn't).

Key Food Item: Thai lobster salad. Buckets of it. Plus can we address the elephant in the room: For being a "healthy" place, there are a ton of gummy candies. We see you snacking on gummy sharks, Tank Top Guy.

Key Car in Parking Lot: A lotta Lexi. This place ain't cheap.

Key Employee: Whichever saint presses our smoked ham, Gruyère cheese and fig panini. That's a heckuva sandwich.

Overheard at Fresh Market: "I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you over Tank Top Guy trying to pick up Yoga Pants Woman: How long do I cook my antibiotic-free chateaubriand?"

Whole Foods Market

Key Shopper: Healthier than Fresh Market folks but not as obsessed about genetically modified organisms as Rollin' Oats folks. Customers are called "flavor enthusiasts." Yes, we're judging all of you.

Key Food Item: Engine 2 Plant-Strong Thai Basil Edamame Plant Burger. All together now: Mmmm.

Key Car in Parking Lot: Prius with an Obama sticker.

Key Employee: One of the rare people on the planet who can actually explain what gluten-free means. You don't know. Don't lie.

Overheard at Whole Foods Market: "Mom, can we PLEASE have Engine 2 Plant-Strong Thai Basil Edamame Plant Burgers for dinner again tonight?" "Oh, Bartholomew, you are spoiled, mister!"

Rollin' Oats Market & Cafe

Key Shopper: Your intense, communue-living Aunt Shirley from Seattle who once gave you carob chocolate and you never loved her the same way again.

Key Food Item: It might look like ice cream, but trust us: It's not. There's nothing cow-y about it.

Key Car in Parking Lot: Whatever it is, there's a peace sticker on that sucker somewhere.

Key Employee: Hemp-wearing graduate students who know exactly where the ear-wax candles are.

Overheard at Rollin' Oats: "I went out with that guy again. You know, Rance? The one who home brews his own kombucha?"

Publix

Key Shopper: All of us. Even Tank Top Guy.

Key Food Item: Savory tarragon chicken! Oh, and don't get us started on Publix-brand ice cream. The best, right? Anybody remember Santa's White Christmas?!

Key Car in Parking Lot: A 2007 Nissan Murano, disobeying the directional "arrows." You know what, too bad, it's every man for himself in this madhouse.

Key Employee: Adorable Deli Counter Lady, who offers you free samples of EverRoast chicken breast.

Overheard at Publix: "Hey Deli Counter Lady, why is the wait for cold cuts 37 minutes long on a Tuesday morning? Seriously, how am I No. 58 already? It's 8 a.m.!"

How Tampa Bay became a "foodie" paradise 02/27/15 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2015 7:04pm]
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