LARGO — A one-stop shopping center for people in the food industry has opened here, and that's exciting news for customers who have trekked miles across the bay bridges to shop at a similar store in Tampa.
Restaurant Depot is a 57,000-square-foot wholesale membership club with loyal followers in the food industry. Company officials expect some 3,000 first-time Pinellas County customers to sign up for the store's free memberships and another 1,000 who currently shop at the Tampa store to start shopping in Largo.
Restaurant Depot is not open to the public. Businesses that can shop there include restaurants, catering services, delicatessens, coffee shops, bakeries, pizza and sandwich shops, and nonprofits that serve food.
"Anybody in the business of serving a meal," with the required identification (licenses and tax-exempt numbers), can become a member and shop at the store, said Restaurant Depot president Richard Kirschner shortly before the store at 8750 Enterprise Blvd. opened Wednesday.
Restaurant Depot stocks 12,000 items, including a full line of name-brand and store-brand grocery goods, deli foods, flowers, wines, tableware, kitchen equipment, tools and ethnic foods ranging from fortune cookies to a whole lamb or goat.
A large section of the building that features fresh produce, fish, meats and frozen foods is kept at a wintry 34 degrees. Employees working there wear wool caps, jackets and gloves, and customers will want to bring their coats.
Branch manager Carlos Tineo said the store gives free reusable ice packets to customers transporting purchases that need to be refrigerated or frozen. Insulated bags that can keep items cool for up to three hours can be purchased, he said.
The company's Tampa store has been open for three years, Kirschner said. Recognizing the amount of time its Pinellas customers spent traveling to Tampa, the owners decided it was time to give them their own store.
The savings on gas and travel time is one reason regular customers living in Pinellas are happy to have the new Largo store, said Rich Danieli, Restaurant Depot regional vice president.
Small business owner Lisa Menze couldn't agree more. She has shopped for two years at the Tampa store for her dog treats bakery in Largo.
"I like the prices, the selection and the convenience," she said. When she finished shopping this month, she happily bid the Tampa store farewell.
"I said goodbye store, I won't see you again," she said, "because now I won't have to drive an hour to shop."
The evening before Wednesday's grand opening, 150 mostly first-time customers were invited to a preview. Doug and Sherry O'Dell, who own Doug & Sons Trailer Repair Service in Largo, walked along the wide aisles filling their cart with food and supplies. They give a lot of parties, Doug O'Dell said. It was their first time to shop at Restaurant Depot.
"I love it," he said. There's a "big difference" in its prices, and he said they would no longer shop at some of the other membership stores.
Sal Vitiello and his son John and John's wife, Season, were shopping for their Bella Italia Pizzeria & Restaurant. Sal Vitiello started the restaurant 31 years ago in the Bardmoor area of Largo. John Vitiello said he was surprised to see that some of the prices on goods at Restaurant Depot were better than his current suppliers offer.
Shoppers are not required to buy a certain amount to qualify for the free membership, and they can purchase one item or products in bulk at the same unit price.
"There is no minimum here," said Tim McDonnell, the company's Mideast and Southeast regional sales director. "You buy what you need."
Restaurant Depot is a division of Jetro Holdings, headquartered in College Point, N.Y. The privately owned company opened its first wholesale cash and carry store, Jetro, in 1976 in Brooklyn. Its focus is on small mom and pop grocery stores.
In the early 1990s, the business expanded to supply larger food service operators in a membership warehouse setting and opened Restaurant Depot in New York City's five boroughs.
Today it has stores in 27 states. There are now 10 Restaurant Depot stores in Florida — Largo, Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, Davie, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Miami, Hialeah and West Palm Beach.
Fifty people will be employed at the Largo store.