For centuries around the world — before glossy boxes and cans lined grocery store shelves — hungry folks have traveled to open markets for fresh food in barrels, on tables, in stacks and mounds.
Shoppers gathered what they needed, placed it in a sack, weighed it and paid the vendor.
"It's a natural way to shop," Clay Donato said. "It feels right. It's efficient. It's enjoyable."
It appears Donato is on to something.
Three years ago, Donato started Bulk Nation, a store based on the open-market concept of scooping up nothing more than you need.
Three years later, Bulk Nation stores are open in Brandon, Largo and Orlando, and four more are slated to open within the next year. Stores in Tarpon Springs, Clearwater and Lakeland are scheduled to open in the coming months and several other Tampa Bay area locations are in the works.
By the end of 2017, no less than 17 Bulk Nation stores are likely to be open for business.
"We're growing because we offer value to the consumer in many different ways: The product is fresh and you can buy as little or as much you want," said Donato, whose Brandon store is located in Regency Square. "The customer does not pay for more than they need."
Nuts, dried fruits, baking flours, chocolates, trail mixes, hard candies, spices, soups, protein powders, coffees, beans, pastas — it's all in bins at Bulk Nation alongside 2,000 more items in each of its 3,500 to 4,500 square-foot stores.
And Donato guarantees that everything is fresh.
"Our products are delivered straight from the truck to the shelf," Donato said. "We carry very little back stock, so pretty much what you see in the store is what we have."
The most popular items — sold at reasonable prices because the lack of packaging helps pass savings onto the customer — include the nuts (65 kinds), baking flours (32 varieties), raw honey (straight from the bee keeper) and candy (endless choices).
Donato, 28, says one of his biggest challenges involves the fact that the American consumer, after years of shopping for glossy packaged items, is basically unfamiliar with the Bulk Nation concept.
But he says he likes challenges and he's in this for the long run. He loves competition, an attitude he sharpened playing tennis as a youth at Bradenton's IMG Academy, then for the University of North Carolina where he earned All American status, and later as a professional.
"But in the back of my mind I always knew I wanted to try something like this," Donato said. "This is exciting.
"Slowly but surely the spider web of communication about our value continues to grow. The demand is there."
For customers like Sandy Kyros of Redington Beach, it's a concept that works.
"We were just walking by one day a few months ago and decided to try it out," Kyros said. "We keep coming back. You can control your quantities and the prices are reasonable. Just fill your bag with what you need and you're good to go."
Contact Scott Purks at [email protected]