Taylor Sampson left Brandon at dawn Friday to be among the first in line for the opening of Trader Joe's second grocery store in Florida.
Her best friend, Kristin Aguilar, came from Largo, enduring traffic and morning sickness from being about four months pregnant.
"It took us an hour and 15 minutes to get here, but I'm coming back once a month,'' Aguilar said, loading her cart with chocolates, frozen food and produce. "Yes, I'm a little crazy.''
Ask these young moms what they love about Trader Joe's and they point to the lamb vindaloo frozen entrees, Soyaki marinade sauce and sweet apple chicken sausage. Of course, they swoon over the Two Buck Chuck bottles of wine.
In fact, they only have one beef with Trader Joe's: It doesn't have a store in the Tampa Bay area.
"We want one so badly,'' said Sampson, 27. "I've been saying for years that we deserve one more than any other place in the state. It's not fair.''
Tampa Bay shoppers have been chomping at the bit for years to get a Trader Joe's, a California-based chain with more than 370 stores in 34 states. They argue that we have the demographics to support a store and a customer base already familiar with the concept. If Whole Foods and Fresh Market can make it, certainly so can Trader Joe's, they say.
Tampa Bay's retail ego took a blow when Trader Joe's picked Naples for its first Florida store. Then came Sarasota and, even more painful, Gainesville, which is up next to open a store. On Friday, the company even announced plans to open one in Tallahassee next year.
Are we really that unworthy?
Patience, patience, says Trader Joe's. Tampa Bay will eventually get a store. It's just a matter of finding an ideal site.
"They are looking in Tampa,'' said Linda Moffa, manager of the Sarasota store. "It's definitely a place they want to be.''
Trader Joe's was founded in 1958 by Joe Coulombe and later acquired by a family trust set up by one of two brothers behind the German discount supermarket chain Aldi. Privately held, it does more than $8 billion a year in sales and enjoys higher revenues per square foot than most comparable grocers. It offers more than 2,000 items under the Trader Joe's private label and introduces about a dozen new products weekly.
Tight-lipped by nature, Trader Joe's is particular when choosing locations and works behind the scenes to land deals. Communities must be well-educated, densely populated and fairly affluent. Sites must have good parking, loading space and accessibility for trucks.
And that's not always easy, even amid so many retail vacancies.
"They are very specific about what they want,'' said Jim Kovacs, managing director of retail services for Colliers International Tampa Bay. "It's like looking for a needle in a haystack. They need to find the right site and the right landlord that has the space available.''
A look at the Sarasota store might offer some clues. Located about 5 miles from Interstate 75 at 4101 S Tamiami Trail, it's on a busy commercial street kitty-corner to a shopping center with Best Buy and Barnes & Noble. It's around the corner from a Westfield shopping center and up the road from an upscale, gated community called the Landings.
The store occupies a former Rooms to Go that had been closed for a while. Trader Joe's remodeled the space and upgraded the loading dock. It has roughly 13,000 square feet — about a third the size of Whole Foods on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa — and 90 parking spaces.
About 200 eager shoppers stood in line for Friday's 8 a.m. opening. Crew members greeted them with leis and a band played near the checkout lines. Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell helped cut the ribbon and welcomed customers at the door.
Trader Joe's decision to expand in Sarasota was a "major statement'' for the city and its economic strength, she said.
"People are walking in almost shaking with desire,'' she said. "This is bringing people here from all over the state. One woman told me, 'Now I don't have to drive to Atlanta.' ''
And what really blew her mind? The first couple through the door were from Tampa.
Rumors have swirled for more than a year about possible Tampa sites. Among the widely circulated: Hyde Park Village near the south parking garage, S Howard Avenue near Choice Fitness and West Shore Boulevard near the future Container Store.
Brian Bern, a senior director with Franklin Street real estate services, said he heard through industry sources that Trader Joe's has a particular intersection in mind but hasn't been able to find a suitable site.
"It's going to happen sooner than later,'' he said. "There's no other reason why they haven't come to Tampa Bay. They just haven't gotten the right deal.''
Staying mum is part of Trader Joe's strategy to build demand and excitement. It typically hires small, boutique real estate firms to scout properties, and agents sign confidentiality agreements to prevent leaks about locations. Once an announcement is made, permitting could start right away, said Kovacs of Colliers International, which has represented Trader Joe's in the past.
Even shoppers in Sarasota expressed surprise that Trader Joe's choose them over larger cities in Florida.
"I can't believe Tampa doesn't have one. Tampa has everything,'' said Caroline Brown, noting that she has to drive to Ybor City to shop at Ikea.
She and her husband, Michael, dropped $94.22 on opening day and look forward to their next visit. Why live without chocolate roasted pistachio toffee if you don't have to?
Sampson, the shopper from Brandon, said she held off on shopping all week so she could stock up at Trader Joe's.
"This is probably the most fun I've had in a couple of weeks,'' she said. "This is really exciting.''
At the checkout, the clerk thanked Sampson for driving all the way from Brandon. "Come back and see us.''
No doubt, she will.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.