Its shelves stacked with everything from rice cookers to imported dried foods to a variety of fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood, the new Lotte Plaza Market only ran out of one thing during its grand opening on Friday.
Hundreds of customers arrived early for the most-anticipated New Tampa grand opening in recent memory, and those that didn’t ended up following customers to their cars to help them unload their groceries, in exchange for their cart.
“It’s crazy,” said Lisa Mui Lynfatt, a nearby Tampa Palms resident. “But this is a big deal.”
Lynfatt said even before the store opened, her youngest son had told her, “Mom, we are going to be going here a lot … like every week.”
Lotte Market, a 49,000-sqaure-foot Korean-owned superstore, is the first Asian market of its kind in New Tampa and Wesley Chapel. It has five food court-style eateries inside, a Tous Les Jours bakery and even a Korean beauty shop.
What looked like a throng of Hollywood paparazzi squeezed in to take pictures of the ribbon cutting as if they were at a movie premier.
Once the ribbon was cut by Alvin Lee, the president of Lotte Plaza Market, the doors were opened and the rush was on.
It was a sight to behold.
The crush of eager customers weren’t here just for the food, they had come for the experience.
They grabbed circulars on the way in, three different kinds in the language of their choice — Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese.
Most had their phones out, taking pictures and Facetiming friends and family.
Others audibly gasped and smiled, while one couple exchanged high-fives.
The grand opening couldn’t have gone any better for Lee, whose new store filled the vacant space that hadn’t been occupied in seven years, when it was a Sweetbay, before it became one of New Tampa’s most notable eyesores.
The New Tampa store is just the second tier 2 store that Lotte has built, an upgraded version of their previous stores. There is only one other, in Sterling, Virginia.
More, in Jacksonville and Miami, are on their way.
“The type 2 platform incorporates all new design language,” Lee said. “In terms of the layout and equipment, we just redid the whole thing. And the customers’ response has been just tremendous.”
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For the Asian community, a large, clean market with items that you can’t find anywhere else is a godsend. Many said it was a superior experience to the older Orlando store.
Lisha Dong, president of the Chinese-American Association of Tampa Bay and New Tampa resident, said she was thrilled to have an Asian market near her home.
“This area has a large Asian population, so something like this is huge,” she said. “We usually have to drive far for this kind of food. I’m so glad it’s here.”
Dennis Tipper and his wife, Hyeon, who wasted little time filling their cart, drove just over an hour from Lake Alfred for the opening. Joyce and Dan Katowski braved the morning traffic to make the 45-minute trip from their Westchase home.
Joyce, who is half-Korean, couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. Her first experience at a Lotte store was in Fairfax, Virginia, near where the Maryland-based grocery store was founded in 1976.
“I’ve been waiting for this forever,” she said. “I’m absolutely thrilled. When I saw it was finally opening, I said, ‘Honey, we’re getting up early Friday morning.’”
Dan nodded. “It has definitely met our expectations.”
Asked what was on her shopping list, Joyce said “Everything,” but said the sliced meats, many of them marinated, were a staple of many of the Korean dishes she makes at home.
“I think what really sets us apart is the quality and the freshness of our fresh departments such as the marinated meats,” said Lee. “I know for a fact you can’t find it anywhere in Florida except for our store in Orlando. We have close to 40 different marinated meats … and that has been one of our most popular products at our store.”
Its selection of fish is also unmatched. It is fresh, and for many, fish like silver pomfret and red perch will likely be new options they can’t find elsewhere.
While most of its customers are Asian, Lee says those that aren’t are looking for fresh and exotic options to enhance their home menus.
“The Asian community comes here for sort of their staples. It’s sort of a like a back home type of feel,” said Lee. “But you’d be surprised. About 20% of our customers are non-Asian. I think everybody’s looking for variety, and a healthier sort of option. And Asian products are, I think are definitely healthier. A lot of vegetables, a lot of lean meats, seafood. And those are the types of offerings that we want to bring to the table for the Tampa community.”
As for shoppers like Lynfatt, the variety is what makes Lotte great.
“My friends and I were supposed to meet up today at Thinh An Kitchen and Tofu a restaurant (in west Hillsborough),” she said, “but I think I’m going to call them and say let’s just meet here (at the food court).”