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REI, Mast General, White Castle and other stores and restaurants we crave in Tampa Bay

Six years ago, when Ikea announced plans to open its long-awaited first store in Tampa, tbt* published a list of other cultishly coveted retail and restaurant chains we'd like to see come to Tampa Bay.

You know what was on that list? Crate & Barrel. H&M. Trader Joe's. Bass Pro Shops.

Today, we have a Crate & Barrel in Tampa and not one, but three H&M stores at local malls. There's a Trader Joe's in Sarasota; it's only a matter of time before Tampa gets one. And thanks to a controversial $6.25 million county subsidy, a Bass Pro Shops should open in Brandon by fall 2014.

And there's more. Since 2007, Tampa has seen an influx of national chains: Big-box outlets like Buy Buy Baby, Dick's Sporting Goods and HHGregg; restaurants like Ocean Prime, Texas de Brazil and Pinkberry; specialty stores like Lululemon and The Art of Shaving. From Aldi to Wawa to Zara, you name it, we've got it.

When Tampa's first Container Store opens on Saturday, it'll check off a big, empty box on the wish list of many Tampa shoppers. All the hubbub got us wondering: Are there any other chains that we're still dying to see here in Tampa Bay? With all of these stores opening in the past six years, is there anything we're still missing?

We asked around, and here are a few suggestions we heard.

Retail stores

REI: The sporting goods and outdoor-gear giant has more than 100 stores around the country, including one in Jacksonville that opened this month — the chain's first in Florida. The stores sell memberships offering consumers discounts, deals and even cash dividends. We've heard rumors they're looking at Tampa Bay.

Five Below: Dollar stores are so 2009. Nowadays, kids want a store where everything costs $5 or less. Based in Pennsylvania, this retailer of child, teen and tween merchandise — decor, games, crafts, electronics, sporting goods — has expanded to more than 200 stores in 18 states, including Georgia. Can Florida be far behind?

World Market: Like HomeGoods, this chain sells stylish gifts and decor for consumers looking to strike a price balance between Crate & Barrel and Tuesday Morning. It has more than 250 locations, including 13 in Florida. The nearest is in Winter Gardens, east of Orlando.

Mast General Store: Imagine a department store-sized Cracker Barrel gift shop with a greater focus on quality and diversity. That's Mast General, a huge and homey general store with a mind-boggling array of foods, apparel, toys, sporting goods and gifts. There are only a handful of locations throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains, but the company is not averse to expansion — a Mast General will open in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2015.

Mexx: For a while, it looked like this could be the next Zara or H&M. This Dutch apparel giant, which has hundreds of stores around the globe, was purchased in 2001 by Liz Claiborne, but it never found stateside success, and was sold to a private equity firm in 2011. There are plenty of stores in Canada, but only one in America.

West Elm: If you like yuppie outfitters Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma, you'll probably dig their sister furniture store, West Elm. We asked for one in 2007; six years later, we're still waiting. The closest one is in Orlando.

Microsoft Store: We know, we know, Microsoft will never be as cool as Apple. We get it. But Microsoft Store openings are usually accompanied by private, exclusive concerts by the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Lenny Kravitz and the Black Keys. For that reason alone, we want one in Tampa.

Polaroid Fotobar: It seems like an antiquated notion, but Polaroid opened its first brick-and-mortar store in Delray Beach in February, and plans to expand, possibly in Florida. The shop blends Apple's clean aesthetics with its own retro appeal, allowing smartphone users to create prints on site that look like old-school Polaroids. They also sell film, cameras, high-tech prints and other products.

American Apparel: A few years ago, it was the hipster clothing line of choice. Today, it seems customers have caught onto the fact that American Apparel really just sells overpriced undies and leggings. The company has closed stores and reported a net loss of $37.3 million in 2012. Come to think of it, maybe we're better off without this one.

Food and restaurants

Ted's Montana Grill: Ted Turner's mid-priced steakhouse chain serves classic American comfort food with a twist: Bison meat is everywhere. Steaks and burgers are available in both beef or bison form. The menu even features a house wine called Bison Ridge, which, to the best of our knowledge, does not contain actual bison meat. But you never know. The nearest Ted's is in Estero.

Wegmans: And you thought shopping was a pleasure at Publix. The privately owned Wegmans has about 80 stores from upstate New York down to Virginia, and in 2012, The Atlantic called it "the anti-Walmart," citing "cult-like loyalty among its customers." The secret? Happy employees. Every year, Wegmans ranks near the top of Fortune's list of the best companies to work for.

White Castle/In-N-Out Burger: Every corner of the country has its own fast-food chains, but whether you're a West Coast expat or a stoner on a mission, you know that when the right mood hits, nothing can compare to a Crave Case or Double-Double. On the flip side, Florida does have plenty of Chick-fil-As. You win some, you lose some.

Au Bon Pain/Dean & Deluca/Paris Baguette: Dean & Deluca's nearest location is in Charlotte, N.C. Au Bon Pain, on the other hand, actually has more than two dozen Florida stores — it's just that most are in Miami. That's tough news for fans of delectable sweets, pastries and grab 'n' go meals. Paris Baguette is a similar Korean chain that's rapidly expanding into California and the Northeast. Pretty soon, retirees may start demanding it here, too.

Peet's/Tim Hortons: You can get Peet's coffee most everywhere, but its stand-alone cafes are found almost entirely on the West Coast, making it California's answer to Dunkin' Donuts. As for Tim Hortons? Just ask the Canadian on your street if it's any good.

Guy's American Kitchen and Bar: C'mon. You know you're curious.

Contributing: Susan Thurston, Robbyn Mitchell, Stephanie Hayes, Katie Sanders

REI, Mast General, White Castle and other stores and restaurants we crave in Tampa Bay 03/14/13 [Last modified: Sunday, March 17, 2013 12:35pm]
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