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Another choice for health foodies: Sprouts


Published:   |   Updated: August 4, 2013 at 10:52 AM

As luxurious as it is, the rap on Whole Foods Market is that shopping there will cost your Whole Paycheck.

Truly, they have the widest variety of organic, all-natural and other foods for the health-conscious around here. But there's a wide gulf between prices at Publix and those at Whole Foods.

There's a new competitor jumping into that gulf called Sprouts Farmers Market that's expanding like crazy, and the good news for fans of healthy foods is that they're scouting for locations in Florida.

With stores roughly the size of Whole Foods, Sprouts specializes in more affordable organic, all-natural and healthy foods, with far more of the store footprint devoted to fresh produce and bulk items, with low aisles and rustic fixtures that make the whole place feel like a farmers market. They focus on super-friendly customer service, they have no aisle numbers (someone will walk you to the item you need) and there are no self-service checkouts.

They've started gingerly in Florida, according to my sources in real estate, hiring agents to search for potential locations and first looking at commercial warehouse spaces. That's because grocery stores typically expand with a hub-and-spoke pattern - where massive distribution warehouses accept deliveries from vendors and then send out trucks in the dark of night to resupply stores.

We've reached out to Sprouts headquarters in Phoenix, and it's a dicey situation right now. First, they give coy responses that they're "always on the lookout for the next great place to sprout." (Har, har.) Second, and here's the catch, the company is expanding so quickly that it just filed paperwork in Washington for an initial public offering of stock. That puts the company into what's called a "quiet period" when it isn't allowed to say much - if anything - beyond what's in a colossal, 300-page prospectus that's really meant for investors who want to read up on all the gritty financial figures.

By the time you read this, they'll have "gone public" and likely raised about $333 million.

But we're devoted people here and delved into the document ahead of time, and it's a treasure trove of the company's strategy details.

Firstly, it is very well backed in talent and finances. The company traces its roots to 1969, when Stan Boney and his brothers opened Boney's Marketplace in Southern California, which later became Henry's Farmers Market. Henry's was sold in 1999 and Stan, his son Shon and two family friends set plans in motion for what would become Sprouts, "with the goal of making affordable healthy foods, vitamins and other products available to everyone."

The first Sprouts opened in 2002 in Chandler, Ariz., and by 2010 there were 54 stores with more than $620 million in net sales. Then the real turbocharge came in April 2011, when Apollo Funds invested in the company and it bought out Henry's and its Sun Harvest stores. As of last month, Sprouts had 163 stores in eight states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. But here's the rub. "We believe the U.S. market can support approximately 1,200 Sprouts Farmers Market stores," the company's prospectus said, "including 300 in states in which we currently operate." Some quick math will show that they plan to enter more states - fast.

David Conn, executive vice president of the real estate services company CBRE, said Sprouts' main opportunity is offering a more affordable option than Whole Foods, and "I'm sure their growth plans are likely to ramp up in a number of markets, and it's likely that Florida is one of a number of markets that is under consideration."

Moving in that direction, Sprouts hired a real estate broker for the Tampa Bay area with The Shopping Center Group.

Colliers broker Jim Kovaks said, "They're organic for the everyday person. I'd definitely want to see one in South Tampa." But he thinks Sprouts will first go to a neighborhood where "more affordable" is a more valuable distinction, like Carrollwood, Brandon or Clearwater. Whole Foods has come down in prices, Kovaks said, and the store is working to leave behind the "Whole Paycheck" stigma. But there's still a big opportunity for a company like Sprouts.

In theory, Sprouts could take over some former Sweetbay locations, but it likely would have to subdivide the space because the average Sprouts is roughly half the size. Maybe it can go halvesies with a bank or walk-in clinic.

Ellenton worth the drive?
Today marks the last day of Florida's tax-free back-to-school shopping holiday. We happened to be at Ellenton Premium Outlets last week, and like most malls, it was bracing for a riot of shoppers. So here's some math to keep in mind for people in Tampa. Gas now costs about $3.47 per gallon. It's 41.2 miles to Ellenton. Using the handy CostToDrive.com calculator, and selecting the mileage of a 2012 Honda Pilot, that means a round-trip visit will cost you $12.64. Driving a Nissan Altima will cost you $9.48, so let's split the difference: $11. Given the sales tax in Ellenton of 6.5 percent, you'd have to spend about $170 on clothes, shoes or other eligible goods to break even. Spending $250 would theoretically save you $16.25 in taxes - minus your gas cost. Whatever you do, before driving to Ellenton, go to the mall's website and print out coupons. They're available for 15 or 20 percent off lots if you join the "VIP Club."

Pursuit of the Frankendoughnut
Cry havoc, and release the Bakers of War! Chefs in Tampa are launching themselves whole-heartedly into a Frankensteinian crusade to create evermore outlandish pastries. It began with the cronut, a form of circular croissant that's flash-fried like a doughnut. They're angelic. Piquant in Hyde Park launched the first cronut volley, but whoa there, says Datz Dough. They claim their "Creme Brulee" doughnut trumps any cronut in town. It's a square-shaped doughnut with a cloud-like creme filling and blowtorched sugar top. Now Piquant has just launched a counter-attack with a guava jelly-filled cronut, not to mention a creme and blackberry version. All are edible proof that the Lord above favors the little adventures of us humble humans. But I'd suggest calling ahead to reserve yours. Some items sell out in minutes.

Track bags in-flight
A friend in the newsroom recently traveled to Afghanistan for an assignment. He made it. His bags didn't. For anyone who travels, that's a story with some resonance. Enter a neat new generation of gadgets that you'll wish you invented: The Luggage Locating Beacons. We point out one recent entrant called TrackDot. It's a puck-sized gadget that runs on AA batteries. Put one in your checked bag and it will ping your phone with its location whenever it arrives at a new airport. (Don't worry, it goes into "airplane mode" when in flight.) The TrackDot itself costs $49.99, plus an $8.99 activation fee, and - here's where they get you - a yearly subscription of $12.99. Works on iOS and Android.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

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