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Tampa gets look at Trader Joe’s gourmet, oddball items

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2014 at 06:40 AM

TAMPA — A woman rolled into the parking lot of the new Trader Joe’s Wednesday afternoon, spotted someone she thought was an employee, and yelled a question out her car window.

“Do you know what time the store opens Friday?” she said.

Told by a reporter it opens at 8 a.m., she clutched her hands to her chest, beamed and let out an “I can’t wait.”

Such is the anticipation surrounding the opening of Trader Joe’s’ first Tampa Bay-area store Friday morning. Trader Joe’s has a loyal following that loves its collection of gourmet, organic and oddball groceries. Few other stores are likely to carry shrimp corn dogs, for example.

Aimee Pawelek, store manager — or store “captain” in Trader Joe’s speak — on Wednesday gave The Tampa Tribune an advance tour of the new store, at 3808 W. Swann Ave. in south Tampa. The company is planning its second local store in St. Petersburg.

The Tampa store, which will be open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, shoots for a comfy nautical feel, with cedar planks covering the walls, wooden cash register stands and a Gaspar’s Galley in the store’s rear, where people can try samples of the store’s various coffees and entrees. The opening free samples are Mandarin orange chicken and Japanese-style fried rice.

It’s hard to sum up Trader Joe’s in a few words. It has many organic foods, but isn’t strictly a natural or organic food store. It has many gourmet items, but it doesn’t have the reputation for higher prices associated with, say, Whole Foods.

For example, a 10-ounce package of its store-brand hummus runs just $2.99, and its iconic Charles Shaw wine runs just $2.99 a bottle. The wine is affectionately known as two-buck Chuck, although it’s actually just shy of three bucks, Pawelek said.

She described Trader Joe’s as a unique neighborhood grocery. It carries 3,000 store-brand items and a smaller selection of name-brand ones. Some of its eye-catching goodies: cowboy bark, made with dark chocolate, pretzels, nuts and its brand of Joe Joe’s sandwich cookies; chocolate-covered potato chips; English cheddar cheese with Italian truffles; and cookie butter made with a ground-up type of European cookie called Speculoos.

Customers who pop in on Friday and throughout this weekend likely will fight to find parking. The store has only 70 spots, so it has hired off-duty Tampa police officers to direct traffic and keep the peace.

A next-door business, South Beach Tanning, has put up new signs warning that its lot is for its own customers only and that violators could be towed, a manager said. And, an enterprising neighborhood resident, Rod Dewell, said he’s hoping to start up a makeshift pay lot at the home he rents along Swann Avenue across from the new Trader Joe’s.

Dewell hadn’t checked with his landlord about that by Wednesday afternoon, which could be a problem, he admitted. Anyway, city of Tampa attorney Julia Mandell cautioned that people can’t just throw up a pay lot without checking with Tampa City Hall first.

“Nobody can just do it,” Mandell said. “They have to go through a permitting process of some form.”

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Twitter: @msasso

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