ST. PETERSBURG — Melissa Bonilla closed her eyes as she leaned over to breathe in the pungent scent of bell peppers, cucumbers and other vegetables laid out in crates.
"Mmm, that smells good," she said.
The fragrance, she would later explain, is only one of the reasons that Bonilla in 2007 made it a weekly ritual to drive 45 minutes from her Palm Harbor home to meet a friend here at the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market for breakfast.
"It's the fresh food, the music, the people, the fact that you can bring your dogs," Bonilla said. "It's a great way to get the community together."
So, as she has so many times before, Bonilla traveled this weekend to witness the opening day of what has become, after 11 years, the largest farmers market in the state.
Hundreds of people gathered at Progress Energy Park on Saturday and squeezed down aisles past one another — pets, family and friends in tow — to partake of food, artwork, massages, handmade crafts and more offered by some 200 vendors who will rotate each week through 130 spaces.
The market runs through May 31.
"It's got a great vibe and a great crowd," said Bonilla's friend, Heather Dorsten of St. Petersburg. "It's one of the things that make St. Petersburg unique."
It's also got a great history, said vendor Jerry Szkoruda, who fondly recalls how he grew his Jay's Marketplace clientele from a single stand at St. Petersburg's first event in 2002 to a company that today ships jars of olive salad statewide.
Many patrons, he said, have come to regard the market as a one-stop shop where they might visit a booth like his for olive salad, then pair it with fresh bread from a nearby vendor and sit down to enjoy a live act.
Ashley Shumard, 28, of Tampa said the music is the biggest draw for her mother-in-law. But she, her husband and several friends who stopped by the market for German bratwursts after completing Saturday's annual Komen cancer awareness run in nearby Vinoy Park said they most love the diverse food options.
"A lot of the farmers carry things you can't find other places," Shumard said.
The healthy, high-quality fare is also what prompted Tampa's Thai Gourmet Market owner Petta Brown to become a vendor. Sweat dotted her brow as she served up noodles, curry, rice and dumplings to what she said was a "steady" line of customers.
But Gina Trendler of South Pasadena said Saturday's crowd was nothing compared to what it'll be like weeks from now when tourist season kicks off.
Her niece Kristi Mezick, visiting the market for the first time from Sarasota, said she intends to be one of those tourists.
"There's just such a variety here," she said, showing off a newly-purchased sun hat and a red picnic basket already threatening to overflow with beef jerky, rolls and other market goodies, "and you're shopping local. What more could you want?"