A tale of two Publixes: Downtown St. Petersburg's newest supermarket opens

Today's downtown opening puts two stores within a mile.
Published March 9 2017
Updated March 9 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The downtown Publix has some competition: another Publix.

The new Publix at 700 Central Ave. is set to make its long-awaited debut at 7 a.m. today. Downtown's second grocery store has a sleek new design and a robust grab-and-go section. It's also an 11-minute walk from its downtown counterpart at 250 Third St. S, which also opened to much acclaim back in 2003.

So does downtown St. Petersburg really need two Publix stores less than a mile apart?

Florida's largest grocer says yes.

"We know in this particular area of St. Pete there's a lot of businesses, a lot of people living nearby," Publix spokesman Brian West said. "This area is very conducive to walking traffic, so we wanted to make this store all about catering to those customers."

On Wednesday, there was a hint of deja vu, as if it were 2003 all over again. Fourteen years ago, the opening of downtown's first Publix meant a whole new plaza. Folks were excited about the Hollywood Video opening next door (it's now a branch of Bank of America). For those moving into the new condos downtown, it meant finally getting their own grocery store.

It was a renaissance of sorts, locals said, followed by a decade of new development. Now the redevelopment of downtown has reached a new level. The new Publix will serve an expanded downtown of even more condos, businesses and foot traffic.

"When the first Publix came, that was an indication that St. Petersburg was coming back alive," said Jim Kovacs, managing director of retail services with Colliers International. "With the second one, it clearly has arrived."

Kovacs, who has worked in Tampa Bay real estate for nearly 30 years, has noticed that Publix has a habit of locking down locations in up-and-coming areas before other retailers even think to buy there. It's a smart strategy, he said.

The new Publix is also opening in the Edge District, an area of downtown near Tropicana Field that city officials believe is poised for even more growth.

The Chihuly Collection, the museumlike collection of glass artwork by Dale Chihuly, moved to the area last year. Across the street from the new Publix, the Hermitage is leasing out its 348 luxury rentals.

The grocery chain expects those condo dwellers and those who work nearby will generate foot traffic, dropping by the new Publix for a "pub sub," sushi or quinoa salad from the antipasto bar.

This Publix will also have seating for lunch-goers — unlike the crowded and cramped Publix on Third Street S — so they don't have to take their food back to their offices. The new store is also about 1,000 square feet bigger than its older sibling, though still smaller than a traditional store.

Max Tuten drove his moped to the older Publix in University Plaza on Wednesday. The 26-year-old said he drives his two-wheeler to avoid the "total mess" of a parking lot. It's always slammed during lunch.

At first, he said the thought of a Publix nearby seemed weird to him. But then he realized that it would render his Publix less busy.

This is also not the first time Publix has put two stores so close together. The chain has done so in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg, on opposite ends of Fourth Street near 38th Avenue N.

But not everyone is sold.

"It's starting to change what everyone loves about St. Pete," said Brigitte Whitaker, owner of nearby Brew D Licious. She worries that the quirky small businesses that give St. Pete its character won't be able to handle an anticipated increase in rents.

"Amazing how you can have two Publixes across the street from each other," she said. "Does nobody else need a grocery store?"

In her former Palm Harbor neighborhood, Rebecca Kleyman, 68, watched the one Publix near her home grow to four. Kleyman moved downtown because she wanted to live somewhere vibrant and walkable. She lives between the two Publixes and suspects she will frequent both.

She's a big fan of the chain: "They make you feel like you want to be there all day."

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