Photo: Mark Wemple
Clay Donato, 28, founder of the Bulk Nation grocery store chain, is from Toronto, where bulk-food shopping has long been popular.
Around Florida Roundup
Miles of aisles at Florida grocery stores
Tucked between Dollar Tree and Ross Dress for Less in Clearwater, the 5,500-sq.- ft. Bulk Nation store has only a few traditional grocery shelves; instead, the store features some 2,000 bulkfood bins filled with nuts, grains, granola, candy and other products. The store sells 35 types of flour and 96 forms and flavors of chocolate. Customers choose the amount they want and pay by the ounce.
“If you’re trying out a new recipe that calls for a pinch of sesame seed, you can come in, buy a pinch and not pay a penny more than you need,” says Bulk Nation founder Clay Donato. “We think customers find value in that.”
Donato, a former tennis player at IMG Academy in Bradenton who played on the professional circuit, opened his first Bulk Nation store three years ago in Brandon. He now has eight locations in central and southwest Florida. “If you’re going to be successful in this market, you’ve got to carve out a niche and be good at it,” he says.
Bulk Nation is among a dozen grocery chains that either have started in Florida or expanded into the state over the past decade. Along with smaller stores like Bulk Nation, larger chains including Safeway are hoping to carve out niches in a state dominated by Publix’s 771 Florida supermarkets — joining other grocers that have been in Florida for awhile.
The trend reflects more than an effort to capture business from Florida’s growing population. Paul Rutledge, first vice president of real estate company CBRE in Tampa, says specialty grocers are popping up across the country, trying to appeal to shoppers seeking different experiences. Young people in particular consider grocery shopping a form of entertainment, he says.
Publix, which continues to expand, appears in no danger of being dethroned. The Lakeland company is tapping the college campus market with a new store at the University of South Florida in Tampa. And after expanding to North Carolina in 2012, Publix is now entering Virginia, its seventh state.
Ultimately, Rutledge predicts, not all the newcomers will make it. “A lot of people have pushed in and gotten their nose bloodied,” he says. “There are going to be some casualties.”
Publix faces a host of competitors trying to carve out niches in Florida.
» Aldi (93 stores statewide): The German discount grocery chain keeps prices low by cutting out the frills. Aldi stores have no deli, butcher shop or bakery. Customers pay a 25-cent deposit to use a cart and pay a small fee for carryout paper or plastic bags. The vast majority of products are store-brand items. Aldi expanded to Florida in 2008 and expects to have about 100 stores statewide by 2017.
» Trader Joe’s (17): Owned by the same German company that owns Aldi, Trader Joe’s operates small, tiki-themed stores that carry a limited assortment of packaged and perishable foods — including many organic items. The chain, which appeals to an upscale clientele, has developed a cult following of sorts with its offering of high-quality, low-price store brands. At the 2012 opening of Florida’s first Trader Joe’s in Naples, hundreds of people waited in line to get in.
» Whole Foods (26): The highend Texas grocer has added in-store dining options, including counter-top beer and wine service, to lure more customers. It’s now bringing a new chain of smaller, lower-cost stores to Florida, hoping to shed its “whole paycheck” image. The state’s first 365 by Whole Foods Market will open next year in Gainesville.
» Fresh Market (44): The upscale Fresh Market stores focus on organic produce, prepared foods and high-end cheeses and meats. Apollo Global Management, a New York private equity firm, bought the Greensboro, N.C., company for $1.4 billion last spring. A quarter of Fresh Market’s nearly 180 stores are in Florida.
» Earth Fare (4): In 2010, Earth Fare, a natural foods grocer based in Asheville, N. C., opened its first Florida store in Tallahassee. It now has stores in Gainesville, Jacksonville and Seminole. Stores feature a “boot patrol” program that asks customers to notify the company if they see any products containing unhealthy ingredients.
» Fresco Y Mas (1): Winn-Dixie recently launched a Hispanicfocused concept store called Fresco Y Mas in Hialeah, featuring bilingual signs, a Latin bakery and a Cuban coffee stand.
» Lucky’s Market (4): The Niwot, Colo., grocer describes itself as “organic for the 99%.” It made its Florida debut in Gainesville in early 2015 and expanded to Coral Springs, Naples and Orlando. Backed by Kroger, it has at least four other Florida stores in the works: Melbourne, Neptune Beach, Plantation and Tallahassee.
» Sprouts Farmers Market (1 opening): The Phoenixbased chain is Whole Foods’ largest direct competitor. After going public in 2013, the company targeted the Southeast for expansion and is expected to make its first foray into Florida with a store in Tampa. Two more stores reportedly are planned for the Tampa Bay area.
» Sedano’s (34): One of the largest independent Hispanic grocery store chains in the U.S., Sedano’s was founded in Hialeah in the early 1960s and has more than 30 stores across central and south Florida.
» Safeway (3): Earlier this year, Albertsons converted its remaining three stores in Florida to the Safeway banner. Safeway, owned by the same private equity firm that owns Albertsons, tried to crack the Florida market in the 1980s with Save and Pack stores before selling the Save and Pack name to Kash n’ Karry, which eventually was absorbed by Sweetbay Supermarkets (now Winn-Dixie and owned by Southeastern Grocers). The new Florida Safeway stores include a Starbucks and sushi bar.
» Save-A-Lot (149) : The discount food retailer, based in Earth City, Mo., goes head-to-head with Aldi, Walmart and dollar stores. Save-ALot has more than 140 corporate and licensed stores statewide.
» Chamberlin’s (6): The first Chamberlin’s store opened in 1935 in downtown Orlando, selling herbs, teas, whole-grain flours and powdered supplements. In 1999, owner Dale Bennett sold the central Florida chain to an Oklahoma buyer
Average Store Sizes (square feet
» Costco: 143,000
» Publix: 45,000
» Walmart Neighborhood Market: 42,000
» Whole Foods: 38,000
» Fresh Market: 21,000
» Trader Joe’s: 12,500
Source: Florida Trend research