How Tampa Bay became a "foodie" paradise

Published Feb. 28, 2015

Do the words "locally sourced produce" make your pulse quicken? Is your Instagram page chockful of sexy snaps of you shopping for dry-aged beef in the hippest, selfie-coolest new market? Did you fake a sick day at work to celebrate the joyous arrival of a Trader Joe's to your city?

If you're from the Tampa Bay region, there's a good chance you excitably answered yes, yes and #heckyes to all of the above.

Let's be honest: These days, our puffed-chest posturing about who we are as a region is no longer linked to sun, surf, strip clubs and steakhouses. Suddenly, we're all "foodies," a newfound stance most evident at the myriad upscale markets and groceries now crowding our shores, a glut of which we've never seen.

You can't swing a Trader Joe's Korean-Inspired Bossam Pork Shoulder these days without hitting, well, a Trader Joe's or a Locale Market or a Whole Foods or Mazzaro's or Rollin' Oats or a fancy new Publix across the street from another still-pretty-nice Publix.

Even the myriad open-air markets pitching tents in every direction — including the bountiful North Tampa Market in Carrollwood and St. Petersburg's sprawling Saturday Morning Market, which is now one of the biggest in the U.S. — add to our food-centric vibe.

"It verifies what I felt when I first moved back here," said celebrity chef and University of South Florida graduate Don Pintabona, co-owner of Locale Market in St. Petersburg's Sundial retail center. "We are a foodie place now."

But what exactly does that mean? Is it a fad? Is it more about being hip, about the sharing and boasting of the experience, than being fed?

Maybe. But being trendy has never tasted so good.

• • •

So how did we go from a Kraft American Sliceville to the Land of Fancy Stinky Cheeses We Can't Even Pronounce?

First, let's look at national trends. High-end markets catering to refined, restructured tastes have been a major metropolitan movement for some time, not just in such major cities as New York and San Francisco, but also in gentrifying downtowns such as Baltimore, Portland, Ore., and Atlanta.

"Food is the new class signifier," said Dr. Elizabeth Strom, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of South Florida who specializes in urban revitalization. You used to show your social standing via a new Porsche or a mink coat, Strom says. "Now you do it by sharing the story behind the cheese you bought."

People are eating fancier, but there's something else going on: They're also eating healthier.

"There are two primary national trends: a movement around interesting food and a movement around healthy food," said Mark Johnson, market director for the Saturday Morning Market. "They complement each other but they're clearly different patterns."

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That desire for healthier food alternatives has reached a broader populace thanks to bestsellers such as Fast Food Nation or the documentary Food Inc.

"Every day people are getting smarter and smarter about food in general," said Frank Chivas, owner of such Tampa Bay restaurants as the Salt Rock and Island Way grills. Chivas is a local sourcer, with his own fishing fleet that allows his catch of the day to be fresh, not frozen. "It's what people want today. Everyone wants to eat healthy."

Eating stylish and eating smart have now converged here — finally.

"It's all coming together," said Tiffany Ferrechia, co-owner and director of Tampa Bay Markets, which operates several open-air markets, including ones in Hyde Park Village and Wiregrass, each blending organic local produce and inventive culinary twists. "For our local customer base, this is what they want: unique and to support small local business."

We've always had spectacular restaurants, especially in Tampa, with Bern's and the Columbia, and now Ava and Ulele. But the markets and groceries represent a different cultural shift. In St. Petersburg, on the Fourth Street N corridor alone, there is now a Trader Joe's, a Fresh Market and two Publix locations all within a few blocks.

"When I left Tampa Bay in 1980, it was all about chain places," said Pintabona, whose Locale, which has the shimmering feel of Boston's Faneuil Hall, is drawing tourists from all over the country. "So when a Trader Joe's or a Saturday Morning Market finally comes here, that says a lot about a community."

Consider this: The first official Trader Joe's opened its doors in Pasadena, Calif., in 1967. Forty-seven years later — 47 years! — Tampa finally got one. On Feb. 13, St. Petersburg did, too. Trader Joe's is notoriously selective about where it goes. But finally, Two Buck Chuck can be had on both sides of the bay. That signifies considerable change nationally and, even more so, locally.

"Trader Joe's has sophisticated market research," USF's Strom said. "They know how many people are seeking out organic goods."

Florida is always getting punchline-dinged for being outlandish and eccentric, for being America's version of the weirdo cousin you visit once a year. But the truth is that we're looking more and more like everyone else.

According to Census Bureau statistics, Florida is now the third-largest state in the country, surpassing New York, which sends more people to live in Florida than any other state. There's also a steady influx of people from the Midwest. The truth? We've never been a bigger melting pot and we're just getting meltier.

Add an economy that's getting healthier in a region that is shedding its graying "God's waiting room" image. Older consumers are brand loyalists; millennials, however, go where the action is. And for Tampa Bay, the action is edible. "Food awareness has matured to a level that rivals anywhere in the U.S.," Pintabona said.

"We were late to the game," Strom said. Call it awareness, call it snobbiness. But what we are about has been reframed: "Now even people in Florida want more than Outback Steakhouse."

Contact Sean Daly at Follow @seandalypoplife.