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Crowd gathers as Trader Joe's opens its doors in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Forty-five minutes into its first day, the newest Trader Joe's still wasn't quite like just another grocery store.

About 150 shoppers milled around the aisles in a cheery daze and checkout lines reached five people deep an hour after Mayor Rick Kriseman cut a red flowered lei at 8 a.m.

Sandra Prandy arrived at 5:30 a.m. By 6, she was joined by a couple more devotees of the store, known for its organic produce, unique foods and low prices. The new location, the 14th for Trader Joe's in Florida, is at 2742 Fourth St. N.

"I'm thrilled that there's one in St. Petersburg," said Prandy, a fan of the wasabi-covered cashews. Her daugher, a Trader Joe's customer in Portland, Ore., exposed her to the store a few years ago.

A quote from a greeting card bought at the Trader Joe's in South Tampa inspired LouAnn Watson to drive from her Tyrone area home and get in line on the dark, chilly morning. The card asked: When was the last time you did something for the first time?

"That's become my mantra," said Watson, whose shopping list included a package of three different flavored hummus spreads, fresh mozzarella balls in olive oil and frozen pot stickers.

But perhaps what she loves best are the old-school paper grocery bags with handles.

Although St. Petersburg police were called in to direct traffic, Friday's scene was calmer than the opening of the Tampa store last March. There was little congestion on the roads or in the 90-space parking lot, which has 20 more spaces than the one across the bay.

"We have been preparing for this like we were preparing for war," said City Council member Darden Rice, who represents the neighborhoods behind the store. "As a developer, Jay Miller has been working closely with the neighborhood associations, listening to everything they had to say about ingress and egress, landscaping, parking. It really sets this project apart."

Miller's J Square Developers paid $2.5 million for the land where Trader Joe's and the Vitamin Shoppe sit, and spent more than a year putting the project together.

Cindy DeCrow, who walked from her nearby home, said she has no problems with the store's impact so far.

"I like how, when you leave, you can't turn into the neighborhood; you have to turn toward Fourth Street," said DeCrow, who arrived before the store opened with friend Dianne Donahue. Both wore dresses they fashioned out of colorful, reusable Trader Joe's bags over their clothes.

Donahue said she has loved Trader Joe's since she shopped there in California in the 1990s.

"I've been writing on their website once a month for the past five years that they need to open a Trader Joe's in St. Petersburg," she said.

Terry Monteith's cart held tulips, blue cheese and Trader Joe's brand ginger snap cookies. "It has things that give you a little pickup in your menu," he said.

On a few basic items, prices at Trader Joe's were below those at Publix. Bananas were 19 cents a pound compared to 69 cents a pound. A dozen cage-free, large brown eggs was $2.99 compared to $3.69. A gallon of Trader Joe's milk was $3.59, 6 cents lower than at Publix. And a package of three peppers — green, red and yellow — was $4.29 compared to $4.99.

"I've been watching this place being built," said Carol Parker, "and I couldn't wait for my husband to go to work today so I could get in here and shop."

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at kssmith@tampabay.com. Follow @snowsmith on Twitter.

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