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How local Nature's Food Patch is growing in face of Lucky's, Whole Foods and Sprouts

Stuart Barden, of Dunedin, stocks refrigerated shelves with Kombucha with co-worker Ron Smith, of Dunedin, while working at the new Nature's Food Patch at 966 Douglas Ave, on Tuesday. The store is located on the first floor of the Artisan Apartment Homes building in downtown Dunedin. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Published Aug. 23, 2018

DUNEDIN — Nature's Food Patch's roots are in Clearwater, but after 30 years in business the organic grocer has finally grown to a second location in north Pinellas County.

It couldn't come at a busier time. There are more niche grocery stores in Tampa Bay than ever before — chain speciality stores, that is.

Being an independent local grocer isn't easy with steady competitors like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods and new players such as Lucky's Market and Sprouts Farmers Market. Despite the expansion of speciality chains near its turf, Nature's Food Patch opened its second location about 15 minutes away from its Clearwater spot last week.

"It's pretty rare these days to see an independent that's actually expanding," said the local store's director, Rebekah Santiago.

But they're starting to grow again, according to Lindy Bannister, a manager with the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association. "We're really seeing a resurgence in certain areas," she said. "The ones that are doing well are really connected to their neighborhoods."

Read more: Here's why Tampa Bay has so many grocery stores, and what that means for shoppers

After Amazon bought Whole Foods last year, the industry took a pause for about six months, according to Bannister. Now independent stores are refocused on their communities and knowing their customers best to beat out the big guys.

Nature's Food Patch in Dunedin is tucked under an apartment complex in a mix-used building on Douglas Avenue. It has about 6,000 square feet of retail space, a little under half the size of the footprint at its main location.

The store fits a lot inside: fresh produce, grab-and-go, aisles of nonperishables, frozen foods, and packaged bulk items — all organic with highlighted niche items for special diets.

Santiago said Nature's Food Patch is thriving because it's embedded in the community, listening to shopper's needs and staying ahead of organic food trends.

That last one is key, according to Bannister, whose group represents Nature's Food Patch and 224 other independent store banners.

She looks to Kashi cereal as the perfect example: Fifteen years ago, it was sold only by independents. Now it's at Publix, Walmart, Target and everywhere in between. The small stores' job is to find the next "it" health foods.

Independents are nimble, able to bring in products quicker than the big guys with dozens to hundreds of locations.

Santiago's pick for the next big thing since sliced bread? Paleo bread.

Both locations stock loaves from Kara Lynn's Kitchen in Clearwater. They're low-carb, gluten-free and fit into Paleo and Ketogentic diets. A lot of its shoppers have strict diets, or are looking for local produce and products.

Madeleine Pukinskis walked to the Dunedin location on Tuesday to pick up some Swiss Chard and spices. She's been shopping at the Clearwater location since she moved to Florida a decade ago.

"I like that it's a local business," she said. "We need to culture those things."

Previous coverage: Lucky's Market opens in St. Petersburg, lures shoppers with low-priced organic produce

Nature's Food Patch opened in 1987 under its current name, but operated as a co-operative starting in '76. The idea for a second location has been kicked around for years, but everything aligned once the Artisan apartment's design included retail space.

Right now, Santiago said the store is still in a "soft opening." They're testing out which items work best in that location.

Most the stores Bannister's group represents are solo stores and the largest has 14 stores. Still, she said, opening a second store is no small feat with specialty chains on the rise.

Santiago has heard rumors a Lucky's could be coming to Clearwater where Alberstons used to be, but she said it wouldn't change the store's strategy.

"We're grass-roots and we're going to focus on that," she said. "Because that's what we do best."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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