Houck: For local flavor, steer clear of Thortons, Wawa
I heard a rumor that couldn’t possibly be true. First of all, I heard it on the Internet. Second, the rumor was that the new Thorntons convenience store and gas station at the pizza-slice intersection of Lithia Pinecrest Road and Brandon Boulevard was giving away free fountain drinks, coffee and frosty treats. This was news. I’m a big fan of liquids. And I’m always up for checking out a new convenience store. With a swarm of new Thorntons and Wawa stores opening this year in east Hillsborough County, my curiosity got the best of me.I jumped into investigative-reporter mode. I got into my truck immediately, using the cover story that I needed some gas. After spending much of my son’s college money pumping a full tank, I walked into the shiny, clean store, stood at the counter and said, “I heard a lie on Facebook that you’re giving away free drinks.” “That was no lie, a large man behind the counter said, handing me a customer redemption card. “Help yourself.” Remember the scene in “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” when the kids run into the room full of edible flowers? I was Augustus Gloop, thirsty and ready to drink. I had a phalanx of soda choices. There was a battalion of flavored coffee dispensers all standing at attention as if they had consumed too much caffeine. A few feet away was a wall of taps customers can use to make a Fizz Freeze, the Thornton’s version of the Slurpee, with such flavors as Cotton Candy, Root Beer Float and Pina Colada. So I poured myself a delicious breakfast of watermelon Fizz Freeze, bought a shame banana for 99 cents and headed to work. It was efficient and generous and, based on the many men in front of me with full cups and glasses at the cashier, a marketing coup. And it was an experience I could have at any giant, corporate gas station convenience store anywhere in America. Wawa is opening two stores this year in Brandon/Riverview/Valrico. Thorntons already opened its first store at U.S. 301 and Bloomingdale Boulevard several weeks ago. RaceTrac is transforming its menu of food inside its stores to match the upscale (for a convenience store) grub at Wawa and Thorntons. I’m all in favor of better food in more places. I think of it as seeding the clouds for hungry palates. But what you won’t get at those places is any sort of local flavor. Like I said, I’m sort of a convenience-store aficionado. I love mom-and-pop shops because of the odd variety of snacks and drinks they stock. Each one has its own personality that both reflects the neighborhoods they’re in and the difference between their businesses and the corporate chains. My fascination probably goes back to my childhood in St. Petersburg, when my friend Keith and I would violate Mom Law and sneak across busy First Avenue South and Central Avenue to the 7-Eleven on 64th Street to go buy Wacky Packages trading cards, Gatorade gum and Slurpees. When we were worried our parents would find out, we’d ride our bikes to the safer alternative: the Short Stop Food Mart at 64th and Fifth Avenue South. They had cool stuff, too, but it wasn’t as much of a thrill as crossing two streets of rush-hour traffic. There are stores in our part of Hillsborough County that remind me of the funky and tiny Short Stop. At the Rainbow Food Store on Bell Shoals Road, you can help yourself to a Styrofoam cup of Cajun-flavored jumbo boiled peanuts from a slow cooker. If you’re in need, you can buy an emergency package of V-neck t-shirts, too. At the Erindale Food Mart on Lithia Pinecrest Road just south of Bloomingdale Avenue, you’ll find a rack of Arizona Jack’s Super Giga Peppered Beef Jerky big enough to use it as a floor mat in your car. At Brummeyer’s One Stop on Turkey Creek Road in Plant City, a sign proudly boasts, “We make fresh Cubans.” That announcement carries more weight in a rural area than in, say, Ybor City. In that part of the county, there isn’t anything for miles that resembles a grocery, much less a sandwich counter. You can also get fresh Cubans, stuffed potatoes, empanadas and devil crab inside the Havana Café at the Quik Mart on Bell Shoals Road. To wash it down, they sell All-Natural Relaxation Bob Marley’s Mellow Mood black tea. Or, if you like, go for a can of Bang, the “potent brain and body fuel” flavored like lemon drops. You choose. While paying for them, you’ll be tempted by the wooden necklaces with the wooden emblem of a crucified Jesus. Those are next to wrist bands displaying a dozen Caribbean nations and the specialty condoms. The pink-ribbon breast cancer pens are down at counter level. I don’t know what will happen to these kinds of neighborhood stores when the invasion of the Wawas and Thorntons takes root. I’d like to think there is enough business for all of them. But then I remember the Short Stop and the 7-Eleven I grew up with. The Short Stop is still there. The 7-Eleven is now called M&S Mart. I wonder if they still sell Gatorade gum?