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Meet the Whole Foods ‘forager’ filling Tampa’s new store with local grub

Joanne Neugebauer is stocking Midtown Tampa’s new grocery with Tampa Bay beer, coffee and kombucha.
A new Whole Foods in Midtown Tampa will open on July 7.
A new Whole Foods in Midtown Tampa will open on July 7. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jul. 6

When shoppers visit Whole Foods Market’s newest Tampa store on Wednesday, they can grab an exclusive blend of Buddy Brew coffee or an exclusive IPA from Coppertail Brewing. They might pick up some dark and milk chocolate pirate ships created just for the grand opening, courtesy of Delray Beach’s 5150 Chocolate.

“When you walk through the store, you will feel the local presence, just in a bigger way,” said Joanne Neugebauer, Whole Foods’s Florida “forager” — the company’s term for a local and regional business coordinator. “The goal of the store is really to celebrate Tampa.”

That may not be the message you’d expect from a company owned by Amazon, one of the world’s most dominant corporations — especially one setting up shop at the $500 million Midtown Tampa development just south of Interstate 275 along N Dale Mabry Highway.

But as it settles into its new Tampa home, Whole Foods is pushing the local angle hard. The company has pledged to stock more than 800 products from 160 Florida suppliers, some of them well-known in Tampa Bay — Green Bench Brewing Company, Sunny Culture, Mother Kombucha and so on.

They’ll have a lot more room to do it. At 48,000 square feet, Midtown’s Whole Foods will be the largest in Tampa Bay, much larger than the 33,000-square-foot store at 1548 N Dale Mabry Highway, about a mile up the road from the new one. The old store will close July 6, and the new one will open July 7. Shoppers won’t miss a day.

Exactly how the store plans to pull off the move, company officials aren’t saying. A Whole Foods spokesperson declined to answer questions about transporting perishables, stocking the shelves, training new staff and even dismantling the old store.

Neugebauer emphasized that regulars at the old store may find it easier to come across local products in this one, as the added space means larger departments and more room for stand-alone displays and forward-facing labels.

“How many products we have stays the same, because its part of our everyday assortment, but you can build a much larger display,” she said.

Joanne Neugebauer is Whole Foods' local associate coordinator, or "forager," for 30 stores in its Florida region. She's shown promoting a Whole Foods-exclusive flavor (the Lemon Rose) from St. Petersburg probiotic drink maker Sunny Culture.
Joanne Neugebauer is Whole Foods' local associate coordinator, or "forager," for 30 stores in its Florida region. She's shown promoting a Whole Foods-exclusive flavor (the Lemon Rose) from St. Petersburg probiotic drink maker Sunny Culture. [ Whole Foods Market ]

Neugebauer oversees 30 Whole Foods stores in Florida, including locations in Tampa, Carrollwood and Clearwater. (Another store is in development in St. Petersburg, but nothing’s been formally announced.) An Ohio native based in Fort Lauderdale, she believes her transplant’s mindset has helped her tap into what Florida shoppers might want to buy.

“I get more excited about Florida products, because I didn’t grow up having amazing Key West shrimp or mangoes in my backyard,” she said. “It actually makes my job more fun, because I still have all that excitement about discovering things that other people may take for granted.”

813 Midtown Hazy IPA, a collaboration between Whole Foods and Tampa's Coppertail Brewing, will be available at the grocery's new chain at Midtown Tampa, opening July 7.
813 Midtown Hazy IPA, a collaboration between Whole Foods and Tampa's Coppertail Brewing, will be available at the grocery's new chain at Midtown Tampa, opening July 7. [ Coppertail Brewing Co. ]

Her job involves scouting for unique Florida products at trade shows, farmer’s markets and incubator kitchens, but there’s also a lot of helping small businesses navigate the supply chain on the scale of a company like Whole Foods.

“The beauty of Whole Foods Market is you don’t need to start out in all 30 stores in the region,” she said. “You can start out in a much smaller market — say, just the three stores in Tampa — and really grow at a pace that makes sense for the brand. The goal is to make sure that whoever we partner with is a win-win partnership.”

At Midtown, that means highlighting Florida products — just doing so on a little bigger scale.

“The mission stays the same,” she said, “whether it’s a small store or a large store.”