Monday, November 16, 2020

Food Lion, Tacos, and an Old Mansion

     As you could probably tell by the title, there's a little bit of everything in today's post. Some retail, some lunch, and an old mansion - everything you need to celebrate the second anniversary of the My Florida Retail Blog! Yes, My Florida Retail was launched on November 16, 2018 - two years ago today, in response to flickr changing its rules for photo storage. With my flickr content losing its home, that's how this blog came to be, and that's how we still are today. I never did anything to acknowledge MFR's first anniversary last year, as the blog was still recovering from my photo dump of old flickr content, and still finding its groove. Now that we've settled in here at My Florida Retail, it's time we celebrate! Admittedly though, I wasn't planning to do anything to mark MFR's second anniversary, until I visited this place. Driving home, I started thinking more about the places we'll be seeing today, and it really came together in my mind as the perfect way to celebrate the blog's anniversary. What we'll be seeing today is uniquely Floridian experience - the best way to celebrate this milestone for My Florida Retail! So how do a Food Lion, tacos, and an old mansion relate to each other? Let's find out!

Food Lion #887 / Kash n' Karry #1880 / Sweetbay Supermarket #1880
3410 US Highway 301, Ellenton, FL - The Shoppes At Ellenton

     Today's post takes us to Florida's west coast, to the small town of Ellenton. Located just north of Bradenton, Ellenton's claim to fame is a large outlet mall located at the junction of Interstate 75 and US 301. I opted out of visiting the outlet mall while out this way, choosing to photograph some of the area's lesser-known retail destinations. That brought me to this place, Ellenton's former Food Lion store. Built in 1990 during the peak of Food Lion's Floridian expansion blitz, this plaza also featured Rite Aid as a junior anchor next door. The Food Lion/Rite Aid pairing was common to see throughout Florida in the early 1990's, these plazas including some of the only stores Rite Aid opened from scratch during their short foray into the state. While the next door Rite Aid closed when that chain retreated from Florida in 1995, Food Lion survived here until 1999, when all Food Lion stores outside of the Northeastern corner of the state converted to the Kash n' Karry name. The Kash n' Karry conversion was nothing special, the store retaining much of its original layout after the conversion, like we saw here. Another light remodel would happen here in the mid-2000's, when all of Kash n' Karry's remaining stores were converted to the Sweetbay name. Unfortunately, this was not one of the 72 Sweetbay stores that would end up being sold to Winn-Dixie in 2013. The Ellenton Sweetbay was closed outright in February 2013 with 33 other Sweetbay stores, just months before the deal with Winn-Dixie was revealed. For 7 years this building sat dark, until local Hispanic grocery chain Acapulco Tropical y Mas decided to open a store here. Acapulco Tropical y Mas did a very thorough remodel to this building, removing just about every trace of its former occupants. The new Acapulco Tropical y Mas opened in January 2020 as the largest and fanciest store in the chain.

     I never knew anything about Acapulco Tropical y Mas until I discovered this place, but they're a Hispanic grocery chain with three stores in Manatee County - two and Bradenton and this one in Ellenton. As I said, this location in Ellenton is the flagship for the chain, the company's largest too. Since its founding in 2005, the chain has been owned by the same family, and has gained a large following in the area. You can read more about the opening of this store here, that article explaining the store's offerings and the history of the company in more detail.

     Food Lion's sideways facing vestibule was ripped out as part of the conversion to Acapulco Tropical y Mas, the change in color of the concrete walkway seeming to indicate where the old vestibule was once located. The vestibule gone, the entrance to Acapulco Tropical y Mas has been expanded, and lies flush against the front of the building.

     Entering the store and turning to the right we find the edge of the produce department and 'Plaza Mayor'. Plaza Mayor was a small corner dedicated to some vendor booths, selling a variety of items like clothing and cell phone cases. It's typical for Hispanic supermarkets in Florida to have vendor spaces like these somewhere in the store, giving the place a "one stop shop" feel.

     While Food Lion's/Kash n' Karry's/Sweetbay's produce department would have been located in the corner where Plaza Mayor is now, Acapulco Tropical y Mas expanded produce into the entire right side of the building, extending down to the back wall (which you'll see in the next photo).

     Turning around, here's an overview of the large produce department. The decor in this store was custom designed for Acapulco Tropical y Mas, and is quite nice and elaborate for such a small, family owned chain.

     From further within the produce department, here's a look back toward Plaza Mayor.

     In addition to the large produce department, a very, very large meat and seafood counter occupied the back right corner of the store, taking up nearly half of the store's back wall. Most Hispanic-oriented grocery chains in Florida put a heavy emphasis on produce, meats, and seafood, and that was no exception here. The meat and seafood service counter at this store was one of the largest I've ever seen, most supermarket's butcher counter a fraction of the size of this one.

     Here's another photo of the meat and seafood counter, showing the main signage in more detail.

     Beyond the service counter, coolers of pre-packaged meats lined the back wall, with some overflow going into the coffin cooler before me.

     Heading into the first grocery aisle, we find some piñatas hanging overhead, which I thought was a neat way to display those.

     More piñatas hanging over aisle 2, home to cooking oils, rice, and beans.

     Produce displays spilled out into the front aisle, a small glimpse of the front end visible behind them.

     Looking across the front of the store, we see a few more grocery aisles, with the deli/cafe in the background.

     A few more photos down the grocery aisles as we work our way toward the other side of the store.

     Here's a look at some of the meat coolers along the store's back wall.

     The meat coolers run almost all the way to the back left corner, stopping just shy of that for a small rack of groceries and the corridor to the restrooms (that corridor in the back left typical of a late 80's/early 90's Food Lion).

     Interestingly, the entirety of the dairy department is located in the store's second to last aisle, the frozen food coolers located behind the dairy coolers in the next aisle.

     Acapulco Tropical y Mas sacrificed some of their salesfloor space to construct a large bakery and tortilleria along the left side of the building. One of Acapulco Tropical y Mas's biggest claims to fame is their in-store bakery, known for their fresh pastries and house-made tortillas. As for the tortillas, those are made behind these windows, where you can watch them being made in front of you.

     Frozen food coolers line the inner part of the last aisle, with bakery cases lining the opposite side, followed by a cooler for refrigerated bakery products and grab and go foods from the deli/cafe.

     There was no shortage of pastries to try here. Many Hispanic supermarkets in Florida tend to skimp on the baked goods, settling for small selections of prepackaged products in order to offer a larger cafeteria, but that was not the case here. While it all looked good, I had already bought my dessert for lunch at my previous stop, so I had to muster some will-power to not buy any additional cookies or cakes while I was here, as much as I wanted to (as we all know, AFB has a weakness for bakery treats).

     Here's the reverse view of the frozen foods/baked goods aisle, as seen from the deli.

     And speaking of the deli, here it is! Acapulco Tropical y Mas's deli and cafe occupy Food Lion's old combined deli/bakery space. Acapulco Tropical y Mas expanded this corner greatly, relocating the bakery down the aisle (like we just saw) to make room for the cafe.

     This store had a small traditional deli counter for sliced meats and cheeses, a rarity to find at a Hispanic market around here. In addition to the traditional deli fare, the main attraction to the deli was the prepared foods, which took up the majority of this corner of the store.

     The prepared foods wrapped around the corner from the deli into the cafe, which was called Nuestra Sazon Hot Food (which translates to Our Flavor Hot Food). One thing Acapulco Tropical y Mas did not skimp on was selection, as there were many options of traditional Hispanic fare to find here.

     Here's a straight-on look at the cafe, which had a dedicated register located just out of frame to the left. A small seating area was located in front of the cafe, a popular lunch spot on this afternoon (Taco Tuesday, to be exact). Since it was Taco Tuesday when I visited here, Acapulco Tropical was running a taco special to mark the occasion (a weekly special, from what I understand). It was a good deal, so tacos for lunch it was! (And how tacos relate to this post.) We'll talk tacos more in just a moment, but let's wrap up our tour first... 

     Around the side of the cafe was the service desk, above which appears to be windows from upstairs offices. I'm not 100% sure on this, but I don't think Food Lion had upstairs offices in these 90's stores, so I want to say those offices were added by Acapulco Tropical during their remodel. This whole corner looks to have been rebuilt, so that theory seems likely.

     Before heading out, here's one last look across the front end. There were 6 total registers in here, which is about the same number Food Lion and its successors would have had.

     Before we have lunch, let's take a moment to check out the former Rite Aid next door. In the years after Rite Aid closed, this space become home to a Dollar General. Dollar General remained in this space until 2013, when they relocated to a freestanding building across the street. After sitting empty for a few years, work has begun to convert the old Rite Aid into an American Legion post, which will be relocating from a much smaller space in the storefront to the right of this. All these years later, the Rite Aid design of the exterior remains original - the most distinctive trait being the half windows with the double door at one end, one way to differentiate a Rite Aid storefront from its other drugstore competitors.

     Everything we see here is original to Rite Aid's 1990 opening. Considering how short-lived Rite Aid was in Florida, and how few of their Floridian stores were new-build (as most were acquired SupeRx stores), I've always been intrigued by these stores. For fun, let's take a peek through the door and see what's going on inside:

     As you can see, the American Legion was moving along with their renovations, however, I did notice one fun little surprise in here - look at the floor. Under all the construction dust and random furniture you'll see an old while vinyl tile floor with an orange stripe running across it. That floor is from Rite Aid, the tile pattern you see being the one that complimented Rite Aid's interior of the time (this store would have been a near clone to what you'll see at that linked image). Amazingly, that tile pattern lasted through Dollar General until now, although the floor's future is up in the air considering the American Legion's remodel. If you think new-build Rite Aid stores in Florida were rare, Rite Aid interior decor relics in Florida are much rarer! I thought it was neat seeing the old floor tiles, even if they might not be sticking around here for much longer.

     After hitting a high finding some Rite Aid relics, my tacos were getting cold, so it was time to have lunch. I would have eaten my tacos in the dining area inside Acapulco Tropical, but prior to my visit, I discovered a neat little park across the street (its location relative to the plaza we just toured in the image above). I thought the park would be a more interesting lunch destination, so we'll jump in the car and head over there: 

     Arriving at the park (the history and significance of which I'll discuss in more detail in just a moment), I found this little pavilion with picnic tables nestled amongst the scrubland - the perfect place for lunch.

     Pictured above are those tacos I keep mentioning - looks good, right? I ordered two grilled chicken tacos and one steak taco, served in the more traditional Mexican street taco style than the Americanized Taco Bell style. The traditional style features grilled meat in a soft corn tortilla shell, topped with onion, cilantro, and lime. If you're interested in reading more about the differences between traditional tacos and American tacos, this is a really nice article comparing the two. I had a really nice lunch - and for only $3 too thanks to the Taco Tuesday deal! While the tacos themselves weren't spicy, that salsa they came with had a really big kick to it. Thankfully, I unknowingly purchased the cure for the fire in my mouth at my stop prior to this:

     Helpful tip: a brownie is a great way to remove the spicy sensation from your mouth after eating hot salsa! (The wide variety of things you'll learn on My Florida Retail!) This brownie didn't come from Acapulco Tropical, but from another chain unique to this area that I'll be profiling on AFB sometime in early 2021. Certainly an eclectic lunch in an eclectic setting on this afternoon, but I loved every single moment of it.

     Not that I've had my lunch, it was time to explore this little park. Officially, this place is called the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park. This park is home to the Gamble Mansion, which was built between 1845 and 1850 as the plantation house for this land, which was once used to farm sugarcane. The Gamble Mansion is the oldest structure in Manatee County, and one of the oldest structures overall in Southwestern Florida. The mansion was named after Major Robert Gamble, a former military official in the Seminole Wars of the mid-1800's. At the end of the war, Major Gamble was deeded 160 acres along the Manatee River for his contributions to the war, upon which he would build his plantation and homestead. This area along the Manatee River would later become home to other sugar plantations, laying the basis for what would become one of Florida's major agricultural industries (and is still a big industry here to this day).

     The Gamble Plantation was a successful operation until the years going into the Civil War, during which Major Gamble was forced to sell his plantation to a new owner due to mounting debts. In 1864, in the latter years of the war, Union troops would destroy the Gamble Plantation's main sugar mill (which was located just up the road from here, and is an offshoot of the main park today). I did drive by the ruins of the sugar mill, but didn't have the chance to explore those in more detail (as the ruins themselves are overgrown and surrounded by a large fence so no one disturbs them). The Gamble Mansion's biggest claim to fame happened shortly after the end of the Civil War, when the confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin took refuge at the mansion. Being pursued by Federal troops as a conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln, Benjamin hid at the plantation for a period en-route to fleeing the country to escape persecution in what he felt would be an unfair trial. After changing hands a few times in the late 1800's, the Gamble Mansion began to fall into disrepair. Fearing the mansion would be demolished or destroyed, the Judah P. Benjamin chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) began to raise money to save the mansion. In 1925, the UDC had raised enough money to buy the mansion and surrounding property, which the organization then donated to the State of Florida so the mansion could be preserved as a memorial to its most notable occupant: Judah P. Benjamin.

     After acquiring the mansion, the State of Florida restored it to the style of a successful 19th century plantation house. Not only is the mansion significant in its ties to the Civil War, but it's also the last 19th century plantation house still standing in the Florida peninsula. That being said, there's lots of history to be found here, as can be seen by the inscription on this plaque (which stupid me didn't realize at the time was a two-sided inscription, this being the second half of it). For more detail on the Gamble Mansion and Plantation's history, this is a nice article about the site.

     After so much talk about it, here's our first glimpse at the mansion itself, as seen from behind as I made my way toward it from the picnic pavilion.

     The Gamble Mansion is a nice example of a Greek revival plantation house, with the stately columns and a wrap-around porch. The mansion contains 10 rooms and also has a cistern to provide the mansion with fresh water. While that might not sound like much today, this was luxury in the mid-1800's. Pictured above is the left side of the house, which faces the main driveway into the park grounds.

     Peeking through a window, here's a sample of what one of the rooms inside the mansion looks like. Due to the state of decay the mansion was in during the early 1900's (at which point the mansion was being use to store fertilizer - a not so glorious use), no original pieces or furnishings were left inside. All the furnishings inside the mansion today are authentic period pieces though, but collected from elsewhere to show what the mansion could have looked like during its heyday.

     The front of the mansion is seen here, the main door located in the opening between the double columns. The mansion faces out toward US Route 301, which was most likely the location of an old dirt trail in the mansion's early years (the origins of many of our major roads today, especially the early US Highway Routes).

     In 1937, the Gamble Mansion was officially declared the Judah P. Benjamin Memorial. Pictured here is the plaque posted next to the front door in honor of the dedication by the UDC, which you can read by clicking on the image to make it larger.

     Moving along to the right side of the mansion, the cistern comes into view. The cistern is that shingle roofed structure to the side of the building, with the pipe sticking out from it.

     The cistern was quite the feature for a home in the mid-1800's, providing the mansion with a constant supply of fresh water. The cistern can hold up to 40,000 gallons of water, the roof protecting the water from contamination by debris. I looked inside the cistern when I was here and there was still water in it, so over 150 years later, this thing still works.

     Here's an overview of the right side of the mansion. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the mansion wasn't open for tours (like it usually is), and most of the windows had slatted shutters over them that made pictures of the inside hard to get. However, there were a few exposed windows at the back of the mansion where we can get a few more glimpses of the inside:

     Pictured here is an opposite view of the room we saw at the beginning of our mansion tour.

     A small dining room, it appears. There was a much larger "grand dining room" in the center part of the house, but the slatted shutters covering the windows of that room made my photos of that turn out poorly.

     Not really sure what this room is supposed to be, but there are plenty of historic artifacts in here.

     The same room as the last photo, but seen from a different angle.

     Before we wrap things up, here are a few final photos of the mansion grounds.

     The mansion grounds were really quiet while I was here, although a few people did pop in and walk around the mansion as I ate my lunch. A grounds crew was mowing the grass at the far end of the property too, so there was that engine humming in the distance cutting through the silence of the day.

     As we saw today, you never know what you'll discover when you're out traveling along the highways of Florida. We had a little retail tour, some lunch, and a look at a historic mansion - a great way to celebrate two years of My Florida Retail! However, two years of this blog is nothing - AFB celebrates its 7th year on the web in a few more weeks, but there will be an entirely separate celebration to mark that occasion on December 6th. While there won't be a Food Lion, tacos, or an old mansion to celebrate that milestone, I will have something fun planned to mark the occasion with, so don't worry about that!

    Before wrapping up this post, I'd like to thank all the readers for your support, and the other contributors to this blog for getting us to where we are today! More to come soon, as we're always finding something to blog about here in Florida (and even beyond!).

So until the next post,