TAMPA — For hundreds of Hispanic shoppers, walking in to the two new Fresco y Más stores on Wednesday was like coming home.
Live Latin music blared, Fresco dancers con Fondo Blanco danced clad in feather headpieces, and shoppers stopped their carts in the aisles to shake their hips.
Customers chatted in Spanish and English, while bilingual employees handed out food samples and free maracas.
"I've had shoppers say, 'Finally' — that they've been waiting for this," said Sheldon Road Fresco y Mas store manager Jose Martín. "They want more stores."
Oh, no carnaval dancers at your grocery store, either? Who needs coffee if this is how you're starting your morning. #Frescoymas @TB_Times pic.twitter.com/4oue0tBq8F— Sara DiNatale (@sara_dinatale) April 11, 2018
Martín saw shoppers waiting as early as 4:30 a.m. at his location. The scene was similar at the other Tampa Fresco y Más that opened at 8 a.m. on Armenia Avenue in West Tampa.
Both stores — the first Fresco y Más locations outside of South Florida — were converted from Winn-Dixie stores by the company that owns both chains, Southeastern Grocers.
Just arrived to opening day at the new Fresco y Mas on Sheldon Road in Tampa. Look at this line! Staff is handing out free maracas as people wait. @TB_Times @TBTimesBiz pic.twitter.com/ks8jHNRpi2— Sara DiNatale (@sara_dinatale) April 11, 2018
If Wednesday's opening was any indication, Tampa shoppers seem just as smitten with the Hispanic chain as Miami-area shoppers have been since the first of 22 stores opened two years ago.
The Tampa stores each gave out 500 gift cards to the first 500 shoppers in just over an hour. Lines to get inside stretched through both shopping centers as cars struggled to find parking.
Eva Millan, 32, darted to the produce section as soon as she stepped through the sliding glass doors. Her 3-year-old son followed behind, pushing a child-sized grocery cart to carry her spoils.
Yucca, malanga, calabasa... examples of new produce that were not carried at Winn-Dixie but are now staples at Tampa's two Fresco y Mas locations. @TB_Times pic.twitter.com/qqjy5ySetK— Sara DiNatale (@sara_dinatale) April 11, 2018
"I like what I see," she said, as she put a root vegetable yucca into a plastic bag. She can find yucca at bodegas or fresh markets, she said, but not at 58 cents per pound.
In the Sheldon Road store's prepare food section, Christian Vargas, 36, didn't care that it was 9 a.m. He was having oxtail, black beans and rice. The meat was so tender, it fell of the bone.
"I'm a bachelor," Vargas said. "I get a lot of hot, prepared foods ... This is my new spot."
Vargas, who moved to Tampa from Puerto Rico as a child, said the bulk of those meals came from a nearby Spanish market.
"I could see some smaller places closing because of this," he said. "But it's a good idea — it's like half of Town N' Country is Hispanic."
Nearly 28 percent of Hillsborough County is Hispanic, according the latest available data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Barbara Cabrera, 51, hoped the large store would help smaller markets "dream bigger," rather than run them out of business.
When a butcher placed a huge whole beef round into her cart, Cabrera clapped her hands together and smiled.
"This will last me a month," she said, referring to cooking for her family, "and it's only $26."
She rummaged through her cart to show off a few other favorite items: Cuban crackers, a yogurt drink, malanga, a root vegetable. She looked at the store as a meeting place, a melting pot and a path for her community to find work and build a career while embracing their cultures.
"Cuban, Puerto Rican, Guatemalan, Italian, whatever," Cabrera said, "we need to come together and learn from each other. This is an opportunity to do that."
Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @sara_dinatale.