ST. PETERSBURG — Purple, yellow and blue Post-it Notes surround the office phone at Price Busters Food Center. They have words scribbled on them: the names of tonics, herbs or a specific brand of ginger beer.
"We always have a hunt going," said Roxanne Sapp, owner of the independent grocery store at 2333 34th St. S. If a customer asks for a product she doesn't carry or has never heard of, she and her employees write it on a Post-it Note and research it to try to find a supplier.
About half the store's shoppers are customers of Caribbean descent. Price Busters has established itself as the local go-to for Mauby (a bottled drink made from tree bark), sugar cane, burnt goat heads and more than a thousand other products favored by customers who keep tastes of the Caribbean in their Florida lives.
This independently owned market is an example of how really knowing and really catering to customers is key to making a business thrive.
"It's a niche," Sapp said. "You have to compete with the other grocery stores. If you can't offer something different then you can't tread water."
When Sapp and her husband bought the single store three years ago, they looked at the area's demographics and assumed they would carry products for white, Hispanic and Southern black customers. They had served similar markets at other stores in Fort Myers.
"As we started speaking to people in the store the first day we were open we kept hearing these wonderful British accents," Sapp said. They quickly found suppliers of foods familiar to Caribbean palates and continually enhance the product lines.
"Everybody has been asking for chocolate balls because this is how they make hot chocolate," said store manager Lucretia Skinner, holding a small plastic bag with two golf-ball sized balls of chocolate and cinnamon leaves. "If customers come in and ask for something we'll Google it to find out more about it."
But it's not as simple as just finding the supplier.
"We do have problems getting things," Sapp said. "I don't think the rest of the world realizes the diversity of Tampa Bay. The suppliers have so many customers, more than they can handle on the east coast (of Florida), so they have no need to drive across that alley."
So Sapp and Skinner look for smaller distributors that need the business enough to make the drive or will mail products to the store. Sometimes Sapp and her husband drive across "that alley" and get products themselves.
"We have a number of customers from Africa," added Sapp. They introduced her to the wonders of red palm oil. It is high in antioxidants, vitamin A and vitamin E and is believed to protect the body against cancer, cataracts, arthritis and heart attacks. Sapp now regularly sautes vegetables and meats in red palm oil.
"We have wonderful customers," she said. "Everyone is so happy to share their recipes, their ideas and their culture."