GREEN: When Tyler Florence, celebrity chef and Food Network host, came to town to help open the new Giant Eagle Market District store on Thursday, hundreds lined up for a chance to take a photo with him and get an autograph.
Florence happily signed books, photos and even Pez candy dispensers for a pair of Akron collectors.
“He signed our chef Pez from [the movie] Ratatouille,” said Marian Rousek of Akron, as she and her companion, George Deisz, also of Akron, showed off the small plastic candy dispensers, depicting the character Chef Skinner.
“He said he’s never been asked to sign a Pez dispenser before,” Deisz added.
Akron residents Karen Hrdlicka and Beth Swift, co-workers at St. Luke’s Lutheran Community in Portage Lakes, were going in late to work, but their Florence books were autographed and they were wearing big smiles as they left the tent where he was appearing. The pair were first in line Thursday morning.
When Hrdlicka got an email from Giant Eagle about the store’s grand opening and Florence’s appearance, she knew Swift was the one person she needed to tell.
“I’m a foodie,” Swift said, noting that she has been a fan of Florence since he first began appearing on the Food Network 18 years ago. “He was very nice.”
Hrdlicka held a stack of catering menus collected from the store along with her autographed cookbook, and joked that because they planned to have the new store cater their upcoming holiday party, they really were on the job.
Florence’s appearance wasn’t the only attraction drawing in customers; the grand opening of the store itself has been much anticipated in the community.
Initially, the grocery store was just undergoing a renovation, but the Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle decided to switch gears and turn the location into one of its elite Market District stores. It is the second in Northeast Ohio, with a Solon store having opened in August. Additional Northeast Ohio locations are being planned for Strongsville and Cuyahoga Falls, in the Portage Crossing development on State Road.
The Green store is the only one that was converted from an existing Giant Eagle, a move that came the same day that Akron-owned Acme Fresh Markets announced it would build a new $10 million, 75,500-square-foot store in the Heritage Crossings of Green development, across the street at Massillon and Graybill roads.
Market District stores are a combination of traditional grocery store and gourmet emporium, with large offerings of prepared and restaurant-quality foods, including a wok station and sushi bar in Green.
Company spokesman Dan Donovan said the Green store is one of only two that have a Sizzling Wok station, where customers can purchase freshly made stir-fry dishes.
Florence helped store officials cut the ribbon at the grand opening Thursday, along with Green Mayor Dick Norton, who praised the 100 new jobs created with the store’s opening. The chef, who currently stars in the Food Network’s Food Court Wars and The Great Food Truck Race, said he has been working with Giant Eagle stores for about 10 years, and is happy to help promote the stores because of the fresh perspective they bring to the shopping experience.
“This Market District is really a community center and that’s what I really like about it,” Florence said. He said the stores draw folks in and are destinations where customers will want to go to explore all of the offerings.
Florence, 42, also is a culinary entrepreneur who owns three restaurants and a kitchen goods store in the San Francisco area. He recently started his own brand of wine, California Crush, sold exclusively at Target stores, and has authored 11 books.
His 12th book, Tyler Florence’s Test Kitchen, is expected to be released in the fall of 2014, at the same time he launches his newest venture, a tech company that will release a Test Kitchen app. Florence said he’ll conduct cooking demonstrations, which viewers will watch online, then reach out to him through social media with questions and comments about the dishes he is cooking or about foods they are having trouble cooking. He will respond to them in real time, offering more demonstrations to answer their questions.
Reaching out to fans
Florence is passionate about connecting with his fans through social media, because, he said, it offers the ability to connect with others “at the speed of thought.”
He’s about to begin taping the next season of Food Court Wars, in which the winner will receive a kiosk in a shopping mall and $10,000 to start up a food business.
Florence said he sees shopping malls as the next frontier for reshaping food offerings, noting that most mall food courts serve unhealthy fast foods. He believes the show has the potential to reinvent the food court in the way The Great Food Truck Race helped to popularize food trucks.
Florence praised the food truck culture as a way for young chefs and artisans to start a business without needing the kind of capital to open a restaurant: “You can spend $4 million for four walls or you can spend $15- to $20,000 on four wheels.”
Florence was troubled to learn that Akron had not yet welcomed food trucks on its streets. “It’s going to happen anyway,” he said, adding that no city government should turn its back on entrepreneurs who want to bring a new type of business to the community.
“You can’t stop commerce. You can’t stop a good idea,” he said.
The Market District donated a Thanksgiving turkey to the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank for every book that Florence signed on Thursday. Grand opening festivities continue through the weekend at the store, 1700 Corporate Woods Parkway, Green.