TAMPA — Years before Florida's grocery store scene exploded with options, a group of New York City area retirees saw opportunity.
After making their living running Hispanic stores up north, the group noticed shoppers in their new home looking for the foods and tastes of their cultures: plantains, yuca, tropical fruits — and a butcher who knew how to cut steak for Cuban dishes like Bistec de palomilla.
So, they took up their trade in the Sunshine State.
About 16 years ago, clusters of Bravo Supermarkets began to pop up. Bravo was developed by Krasdale Foods, a private New York grocery distributor that's been opening and supporting stores for more than century.
"A lot of store owners were moving to Florida part time, or full time," said Dennis Wallin, who heads Krasdale's marketing and merchandising arm. "It started evolving — from Bradenton, Miami, Port St. Lucie, Orlando and across to Tampa."
For the past several years, Tampa Bay has had three Bravo stores in Hillsborough and a single location in Dade City. But soon, Tampa will gain anther location and Brandon will get its first. In the next six months, Wallin said at least six more Bravo stores will open in Florida.
From 2010 to 2018, Hillsborough County's Hispanic population grew by about 37 percent, according to population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. About 29 percent of the county is Hispanic, at about 420,100 people, according to that data.
As a grocer in Florida, it's hard to beat Publix. The most successful strategy, then, is to be something different.
Florida has exploded with niche specialty stores that largely focus on artisan options, prepared food and beer on tap. At the same time, retailers are increasingly catering to the Hispanic community beyond Miami to stand out in a sea of options.
"The Hispanic population's buying power is increasing," said Andy Carlson, who heads brokerage firm JLL's Puerto Rico division. "Post-Hurricane Maria, everyone focused on Puerto Ricans who moved to Orlando, but there was a substantial number who moved to Tampa as well."
In the past couple of years, Southeastern Grocers has turned Winn-Dixie stores in Hispanic neighborhoods into their new Fresco y Más Brand. Miami has more than 20 Fresco y Más stores and Tampa got two of its own in 2018.
CVS introduced "CVS Pharmacy y Más" stores to Tampa last year after opening in Miami a few years prior. There's now three of the Hispanic CVS stores in the Tampa area, the latest one near MacDill Air Force base.
The stores all carry well-known Latin American brands and have bilingual staff and signs.
"I saw one of those CVS stores a couple weeks ago; maybe they're copying us," Wallin said with a chuckle. "There's more competition moving into Florida. We're prepared for that."
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Competition goes beyond the recent spur of Hispanic stores. The wave of new grocery builds in Florida is unlike what most of the country is seeing.
Florida led the United States with its share of all new grocery stores built in 2018 — nearly 10 percent of the total 17 million square feet worth of stores built last year, according to research by JLL.
Not far behind were California and Texas. Meanwhile New York, which still made the top 10 for most new grocery construction, had just under a 2 percent share of that 17 million square feet total.
So, it makes sense that Krasdale is looking to Florida once again. Already, there are about 50 Bravo Supermarket stores in the state. Wallin said after the new Tampa Bay locations are completed, crews will give the existing local stores makeovers. New stores are slated for Oakland Park, North Miami, Kissimmee and Florida City.
The location on E Bearss Avenue in the Skipper Palms shopping center should be open within the next three months. It has moved into a space Winn-Dixie abandoned in 2016. Bravo won't take over the entire 54,000-square-feet box. A Planet Fitness has already opened up next door.
Like other burgeoning specialty chains, Bravo's new store will be about 20,000 square feet and feature a curated assortment of foods and other items. Carlson said the new Bravo stores skew more toward Aldi — a discount grocer known for a streamlined shopping experience — than Publix.
"As with any retail, food is evolving," Carlson said. "It's all about experience. You can go anywhere to buy basic staples. That is what's going to drive repeat customers looking for something different."
The New York Times featured a Bravo's prepared foods and meals in Port St. Lucie last year because it's where Latin American players go to get a taste of home during spring training.
"The beauty of Bravo is it is set up for the neighborhood it serves," Wallin said. "If the store needs something, we'll get it for you."
This is something Fresco y Más has also done. Their Tampa stores have items that target Cuban and Puerto Rican shoppers, while Orlando stores target more Dominican Republic shoppers. It all depends on the area's demographics.
In the metro New York area, Krasdale has about 50 Bravo Supermarket locations and traditional grocery stores CTown and Aim. Though Krasdale handles store layout, design and ships in inventory, Bravo stores run similar to a franchise. They're independently owned and operated but collectively marketed and merchandised.
Wallin was promoted to executive vice president of Alpha 1 Marketing, Krasdale's merchandise affiliate, at the end of May. Nearly two decades ago, Wallin was in Florida as the first person from Krasdale to begin surveying the best locations to set up more stores.
He is back making regular Florida visits to work with store owners and scout for more Sunshine State expansion.
Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @sara_dinatale.