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Indie Closeup: Grocery Veterans Grab Golden Opportunity in Convenience

Simpkins-Esteves tandem leverages cross-channel experience to open Ocala, Florida, c-store
baseline market independent convenience store

When your best friend doubles as your next-door neighbor, there’s ample time to bounce all kinds of ideas around across the picket fence.

And, when you both have retail packaged food experience, the conversation tends to narrow. The conclusion: join forces and open a convenience store to serve an area seeking a higher level of “convenience.”

That’s how it shook out with Anthony Esteves and Austin Simpkins—Ocala, Florida, residents, besties and neighbors—who account for a combined 25 years of grocery and wholesale distribution experience.

“We’ve done this our whole lives and decided we wanted to do something on our own,” said Simpkins, a former manager for both Lakeland, Florida-based Publix and a regional beer distributorship.

Added Esteves, former regional sales manager with Warren, Michigan-based Lipari Foods as well as a wine distributor: “We’d always worked for someone else, but saw this golden opportunity. There had been a vacant space in a small strip mall—formerly a restaurant and bar. We jumped through some unexpected hoops to get the store off the ground, but never became discouraged. We have a ton of grocery experience, and saw 2023 as us being in the right place at the right time.”

Channel Surfers
The partners’ “brainchild,” said Esteves, is Baseline Market, a 3,000-square-foot “micro market” that celebrated a grand opening in mid-November. The store doesn’t offer fuel, and doesn’t intend to in the future, said Esteves, opting to stick to what they know and do best. Both worked at their existing jobs right up until the day Baseline Market opened on Nov. 11.

The store features just about everything except prepared foods, which could be in the cards down the road. The store mix includes health-conscious and specialty items such as Amish-jarred goods and locally sourced meats from Belleview Meat & Seafood.

Produce is locally sourced from DeLeon Springs. In keeping with their adult beverage selling background, it would be remiss if Baseline Market lacked a beer cave—it doesn’t, sporting an ample one at that.

Leveraging past relationships, Esteves stayed close to Lipari Foods, which is their primary wholesale-distributor when they’re not procuring food, beverages and more from the half-dozen local vendor-partners.

Other store items include deli meats, bakery department, full dairy and frozen foods. Esteves said they are exploring a hot food profit center, but the partners will need to expand the footprint to accommodate it.

Easy Riders
Baseline Market, located north of Tampa and south of Gainesville, Florida, serves a real purpose within the local community from a convenience retailing standpoint.

“This area was lacking convenience, with maybe one or two c-stores nearby and one dollar store,” Simpkins said. “There are a lot of Publix stores in the broad Florida region, but not one nearby that competes with Baseline Market.”

In short, the store sees modest competition, and is armed with a multitude of people to serve. There are “thousands of homes” in the immediate area—from a gated community and suburban neighborhood to a retirement community, Esteves said. On the footprint is a hair salon, a barber shop and pharmacy. “It’s a big supportive group: everyone wants everyone else to survive,” he said.

They both live in the neighborhood directly adjacent to the store, and their community, as well as nearby Rolling Greens Village, can access Baseline Market (named as it is adjacent to Baseline Rd.) by golf cart, thus helping alleviate parking logjams.

“Customers can ride their carts up here, get their groceries and not have to go anywhere else,” said Simpkins.

Lease Complication Resolved
At one point, they weren’t sure if the store would go live within the timetable they envisioned.

“The reason for the space going unfilled for up to six years was that the landlord wanted any new renter to build out additional space—and bear the cost. This despite the fact that the tenant might not need the extra space to begin with,” said Esteves.

“That was a hard ask, but fortunately our real estate broker renegotiated better lease terms, and we were not on the hook for that. We don’t intend to expand…unless we want to add a hot food counter.”

These days, Esteves and Simpkins have one key issue: carving out free time. From a staffing perspective, they are “it.”

“We have hired no additional staff [as of late December] because we want to get a handle on the operation first. We believe that hiring and training people would undermine that effort,” said Simpkins, about a store that’s open six days a week (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and closed Sunday.

Looking ahead to what’s on tap for 2024, Esteves said that providing delivery service would be well received by the thousands who live nearby—especially elderly residents who would appreciate the added convenience.

“We are mainly eager to stay the course of what we started, with nothing new in-store. But, eventually we might look to open a second location, as we’re not ‘settlers’,” he said.

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