TAMPA — Even after 1,200 stores, Publix is still is finding new firsts.
Thursday ended what's been a decades-long wait for University of South Florida Tampa students and alumni when the grocery chain opened its first-ever store on a college campus. USF President Judy Genshaft said the dream and demand for an on-campus grocery store has been on the top of students' request lists for years.
"Not beside, not across the street, but on our campus," Genshaft said from a lectern set up outside the store ahead of its early morning ribbon-cutting ceremony. "This a change-maker in our community and we can't be more proud."
Colleges in Arkansas have their own mini-Walmarts on campus because the store is headquartered in that state. So, it's only right a Florida campus would be the first to get its own Publix. In the last few years especially, retailers have started zeroing in on the college market. Target has built several small storefronts near campuses, including one right up against Florida State University in Tallahassee that opened in July. Even in Gainesville, the Publix near the University of Florida that opened in 2017 is just off the edge of campus. That's most commonly the case, which is why the new USF Publix stands out.
Publix is leasing the land at 4425 E Fletcher Ave. from the university, with a contract agreement of 25 years, according to USF chief operating officer John Long. The campus' new "Village" dorms with 2,000 beds is just a few hundred feet away. USF Tampa started the school year with an all-time high of 6,300 students living on the campus, which sprawls out between E Fletcher and Fowler avenues.
Long said the campus had put out a bid to the nation's leading grocers to fill the spot and Publix came out on top.
"We wanted somebody who has strong staying power and a sizeable balance sheet," Long said.
Publix openings attract some of the Lakeland-based chain's most loyal fans. Students — yes, college students — were willing to fight the December chill to wake up before 7 a.m. to be among the new store's first shoppers.
The store's layout is similar to the model Publix debuted in downtown St. Petersburg last year. At 28,000 square feet, it is slightly smaller than the average footprint. But it caters to the student shopper and has a focus on prepared foods. There also is a large school supplies aisle, USF branded T-Shirts and bags and a decent cooler selection for any last-minute Bulls tailgating.
While there is a large aisle and cooler space set aside for beer and wine, the store didn't have alcohol available yet. A Publix spokesman said alcohol will be in stock in the next few weeks.
Even at 7:15 a.m., the sub shop line was already five-people deep.
Before Publix, USF students on campus could shop in what the university calls "pods," tiny stores that carry only basic essentials. Beyond that, there is a Publix near the campus' southern edge on E Fowler Avenue.
Junior Dana Garnica Uzcategui was browsing the cereal aisle minutes after the sliding-glass doors opened Thursday.
"Well, I'm done with exams," she said, "and I have nothing left in my fridge."
The 20-year-old lives just off campus, but said the store was easier to get to than others in the area.
Long said one of the main reasons the university has been vying for its own grocery store was so students could live without a car and retrieve groceries without having to walk or bike with several bags through busy intersections.
A bus stop is in front of the store to service routes to off-campus apartments. There are also about 150 public parking spots in front of the store. Of the roughly 140 store employees, more than 50 attend USF.
"Really, it's a win-win," said Long.
Not only does Publix get to tap in to the some 40,000 potential shoppers traversing campus a day, but USF has some impressive bragging rights at a time potential students are paying close attention to campus amenities.
"Great amenities nationally are becoming more readily available," said Long.
And what a school has compared to what another doesn't could sway some students' minds in choosing where to spend the next four years.
All Eyes photo gallery: Publix opens on USF Tampa campus
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.