Tourists are heading to Naples, the Florida west coast town best known for its upscale beachfront resorts and stunning sunsets, for a brand new reason:
To go grocery shopping.
But this isn't a quick trip to grab bread and milk. Foodies are flocking to Trader Joe's, the California-based market chain with a cult following craving its eponymous-branded eats, funky vibe and colorful reuseable tote bags.
Naples is home to Florida's first Trader Joe's, in a recycled Borders bookstore on the Tamiami Trail commercial strip. And devotees statewide are making a pilgrimage there, some driving hundreds of miles for value-priced goodies -- like the store's signature Charles Shaw "Two Buck Chuck" wine, so called because it initially was priced at $1.99 a bottle.
Jodi McCullough, a manager at the Naples store, said customers routinely reveal they are from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Tampa. Buses loaded with Trader Joe tourists have "just kind of shown up," McCullough said. "I think that people have waited so long for us to come to Florida that they are excited we're finally here."
Between 2,000 to 3,000 shoppers are piling daily into the store since it opened Feb. 10, she said. Parking can be challenging.
McCullough said Trader Joe's own unique products, which comprise 80 percent of the inventory, are the big draw, although she couldn't pinpoint any single best-selling thing. Oh, and it's a fun place, she said, with ecletic décor and free samples.
Some fans are making their Trader's trip a weekend getaway. Blaine Wagner, a Tampa technical support worker, recently posted a query on a TripAdvisor.com: Anyone know of a good hotel near Trader Joe's?
He's planning an overnight stay soon, and will check out Naples' restaurants and shops when he isn't wandering the produce aisles. Trader Joe's has "such a huge selection of items you don't find at other places," said Wagner, who got to know the chain through out-of-state business trips.
Randy Smith, CEO of Naples Transportation and Tours, said his trolley tour narrators now point out the store along with the other sights as they pass by, eight times a day. While he hasn't booked any private groups yet, Smith said he wouldn't be surprised to see nearby hotels start offering Trader Joe's excursions along with Everglades airboat rides and sunset cruises.
He thinks the local tourist industry should take advantage of Trader fever while Naples' Florida monopoly lasts. The company has announced it will open a Sarasota store later this year, and it's rumored others will follow.
South Floridians have been lobbying hard for their own grocery market mecca.
The West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority produced a film where high-profile community leaders answered the question "what would you trade for a Trader Joe's?" Nadine Whiteman, a Hollywood nurse, has 1,200 signatures on a plea at ipetitions.com for a Broward store.
So far, however, she's resisted the two-hour trip to Naples. "I love Trader Joe's but I don't know if I would book a hotel room to go there," she said. "And what would I do if I bought frozen food?"
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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