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The scoop

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  • | 11:00 a.m. October 7, 2016
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With growth of 175% this year over 2015, Bulk Nation has found a niche in the food industry.

The specialty bulk food grocer recently opened stores in Lakeland and Clearwater, with plans to open several more in Central Florida by year's end.

The chain's stores have 3,000 specialty foods, from hard-to-find items to classic favorites, that customers can buy in any quantity. The foods include an array of different types of exotic flours, seeds, spices, teas, coffee, cookies, dried fruits, granola, pasta and even dog treats.

The company's calling card, says Bulk Nation President Clay Donato, is its unique product list. At least “90% of our items you won't find anywhere else,” says Donato.

A popular item, for example, is local honey. Grab a container and fill it up to any amount you want. Granola, energy bars, protein powders and classic comforts like gummy bears are also big sellers by the scoop.

A Canadian-born former pro tennis player who was a two-time All-American at the University of North Carolina, Donato says he was drawn to bulk shopping after seeing how common it was in Europe. “It's an increasing trend,” he says. “A lot (of shopping) is going to self-serve where you can get the amount you want.”

Other grocers are doing it, too, some on a smaller basis, such as Whole Foods or some candy shops. “We're not the only ones preaching that it's a great way to buy,” Donato says. “We are buying in large, loose quantities and not paying for packaging, so we are passing that savings on to the customer. Our pricing is extremely competitive.”

There have been some growing pains along the way. In 2013, Donato took over a Bulk Nation store in Sarasota, only to close it a short time later and move it to Brandon. Being in large shopping centers with big-box retailers is best for having a new concept, he says. The Sarasota store, while near a busy intersection, didn't have that kind of traffic. The Lakeland store is in between a Target and a Best Buy.

“Visibility is key,” Donato says. “Lakeland is a great market in between Tampa and Orlando.”

The company's immediate goals are to penetrate more of the Florida market. The next group of targeted cities includes Kissimmee, Tarpon Springs, Clermont and five in the Orlando market.

“We want to grow our brand awareness,” Donato says. “Most people don't know who we are. We want to create a spider web effect. We have our core stores and then web out from there.”

Each store employs about a dozen people and Bulk Nation, Donato projects, will have up to 200 employees by the end of the year.

Marketing is Bulk Nation's biggest hurdle. “What is the real definition of 'bulk?' Our job is to educate the consumer,” Donato says. “It's a battle we fight when opening each store. It's an educational process.”

Word of mouth has helped grow the customer base. Donato also runs ads in local newspapers every other Friday with coupons. On Tuesdays, seniors, military and students can receive 10% off. When a store has a grand opening, a portion of the sales will go to the local YMCAs. Donato sits on the board of the Brandon YMCA and feels it's important to give back to the communities in which the stores have a presence.

Bulk Nation's diverse shoppers and wide selections have also contributed to its success. “People are looking for healthy choices,” he says. “We sell a little bit of everything.”


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