1. Business

Talk of a South Tampa Trader Joe's heats up again

TAMPA — Chatter that the red-hot specialty grocery chain Trader Joe's is coming to Tampa is getting louder and more specific.

Jason Donald, of the Cushman & Wakefield real estate firm, mentioned Trader Joe's at Tuesday's annual meeting of the Westshore Alliance Development Forum. Donald confirmed that he said, ''It's rumored that Trader Joe's has found a site along Dale Mabry.'' He did not offer specifics, saying he is under a confidentiality agreement not to discuss details.

Alison Mochizuki, a spokeswoman for Trader Joe's, said the company had nothing to confirm. The owners of the property said they had no plan to sell to the grocery chain.

Tampa Bay shoppers have begged for years to get a Trader Joe's, a California-based chain known for its speciality foods and Two Buck Chuck bottles of wine. They argue the area has the demographics to support a store and a customer base already familiar with the concept.

The current talk has Trader Joe's going into the site that currently holds the Shapes gym on Swann Avenue near S Dale Mabry Highway. Employees there said they had not heard anything about the gym closing.

The property at 3808 W Swann Ave. is owned by Swann Avenue Properties in Brandon. Elliot Raj, who Hillsborough County records show has filed an option to buy the property, would not confirm that Trader Joe's had chosen the building. But, he added, he knew Trader Joe's was looking to move into the heart of South Tampa and could decide within a week on whether to open a location there.

The purchase option does not list a price or specifically name Trader Joe's.

Robert Karshner, co-owner of Swann Avenue Properties, said he was aware of Raj's purchase option but did not know Trader Joe's was involved. He said he had not even heard of the store until this week.

Vince Julien, the other co-owner, said he had not been in touch with Trader Joe's and knew nothing about the plans for the site. Julien said if he and Karshner choose to exercise the option on the property, any investor would have to lease it back to them for 20 years.

"We have no intention to do anything with Trader Joe's,'' Julien said, stressing that any speculation was just rumor.

No construction permits have been submitted to the city of Tampa, and the property does not appear on multiple listing services as being for sale. An aide for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the mayor knows nothing about a potential deal.

The site is about midway between Whole Foods at Dale Mabry and Interstate 275 and the Fresh Market on Henderson Boulevard in the heart of affluent South Tampa. It has an 11,400-square-foot building and a large parking lot, a commodity in the densely populated, built-out area.

Speculation has been circulating for months that Trader Joe's was close to finding a site in South Tampa, most likely along or near busy Dale Mabry. People involved in the deal have been prohibited from talking about it publicly until a deal is confirmed.

Trader Joe's has been tight-lipped about discussing new locations but has said it is actively looking in Tampa. The chain has more than 370 stores in 34 states. Tampa Bay's retail ego took a blow when Trader Joe's picked Naples for its first Florida store. Then came Sarasota and, even more painful, Gainesville. Another is planned for Tallahassee.

Trader Joe's was founded in 1958 by Joe Coulombe and later acquired by a family trust set up by one of two brothers behind the German discount supermarket chain Aldi. Privately held, it does more than $8 billion a year in sales. That fits in between competitors Whole Foods (just under $12 billion last year) and the Fresh Market (about $1.3 billion).

Trader Joe's enjoys higher revenues per square foot than most comparable grocers. The stores average 12,000-15,000 square feet, about a third of the size of the 39,000-square-foot Publix GreenWise market on West Azeele Street in South Tampa.

The Swann property is across the street from Einstein Bros Bagels and next door to the now shuttered Berryism yogurt shop and Pipe World. South Beach Tanning Company is taking over that corner site.

Trader Joe's stores are often unveiled to wild adulation, with fanfare similar to a holiday parade. When Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell cut the ribbon on a store there last year, a line of about 200 shoppers surged in, past crew members handing out leis and the music of a band playing near the checkout lanes.

"People are walking in almost shaking with desire,'' Atwell said at the time. "This is bringing people here from all over the state. One woman told me, 'Now I don't have to drive to Atlanta.' ''

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.