As a little girl in Costa Rica, Heidi Esquivel would make salads for her parents because it was all that was in the house.
She would pour her heart and soul into each bowl of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, often cutting up red peppers to make them look fancy and shaping other simple vegetables to look like beautiful flowers.
“I wanted to make my mom and dad proud,” Heidi says. “It was my way of saying ‘I love you,’ with food.”
It took years for Heidi’s artistic skills to manifest themselves as a caterer specializing in elaborate and gorgeous charcuterie and cheese boards, but today, as the owner of Yummy Tablas at the KRATE at the Grove Container Park in Wesley Chapel, she has found her calling.
Although she started her business online during the pandemic, and grew a large following thanks to Instagram — “my best friend” she calls the social media app — she now has fulfilled a dream by owning a store of her own.
“To see the people come through the door, to see the faces, the reaction, it’s just wonderful,” Heidi says, pointing to a couple sitting outside, enjoying a glass of what she calls “the best wine at the KRATEs” on the outdoor patio. “It’s her birthday, so he brought her here for a little glass of wine. She is so happy. Those moments make me so happy.”
Developer Mark Gold says he didn’t start the KRATE just to fulfill his own personal dreams — he did it in part to help make the dreams of others more accessible.
When he announced his project in October 2019, offering converted shipping containers as business opportunities with monthly rents starting at around $1,500, he instantly received a flurry of emails and phone calls from small business owners. Or, in the case of Heidi, prospective first-time folks who couldn’t otherwise afford to rent a space for a business of their own.
In fact, roughly 30 percent of the nearly 50 businesses that make up KRATE at the Grove are run by first-timers.
“I saw the price and the whole thing looked so cute, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can afford that!,’” Heidi says. “I came here right away and fell in love with the whole project. And now, I’m here.”
Before that, Heidi had struggled for years waiting for her opportunity, cleaning homes and working in construction. When she went out with husband Ronnie, a physician she married five years ago, and people asked what she did, she was mortified.
“It was so sad, it was embarrassing,” Heidi says. “I just didn’t want to continue saying that. I wanted to be somebody…I was almost 40 and I needed to find my passion.”
While entertaining friends and family, Heidi always presented her food with flair. Her guests always raved about her displays, and Ronnie also encouraged her to start her business online.
Her concept of “grazing boards,” where friends and family could gather around while nibbling on meats, crackers, cheeses, fresh fruit and honey and jam, struck a chord with people during the pandemic, when people were stuck at home.
“My friends were right,” she says. “It just took off.”
But, when she read the first story about the KRATEs in the Neighborhood News, she knew a “little shop” is what she really wanted.
“Mark Gold was excited about it, and I’m so excited about it, too,” Heidi says. “To have people come and have some cheese and a glass of wine, share memories, laugh, tell stories, spend time with family….that’s what I’m really excited about.”
Heidi’s path is similar to Tracy DiMillo’s, who had built a large local following — in two different states — with her decadent desserts. She, too, was entertaining a friend when it was suggested in October 2019 that she open her own place.
“She asked me if I had read about this guy who just bought The Grove and was going to do containers,” Tracy says. “She sent me the link to the story, I read it on a Sunday, emailed them on Monday and was in their offices talking to them on Friday.”
On Dec. 6, 2019, Tracy and her husband John signed a lease for Urban Sweets, a KRATE container specializing in cupcakes and layered desserts.
It was a long journey for Tracy, a stay-at-home mom of three (now grown) children looking for an outlet.
It started in 1999 with a cake decorating class at Jo-Ann’s Fabrics in Brandon, but soon, Tracy was teaching the classes. A Tampa Palms resident at the time, she sold her desserts locally and online as Creative Cakes. When John, a salesman for a major alcohol distributor, was transferred to Fairfield, CT, she jumped on the just-taking-off cake pops craze with The Pop Shop, making and selling the treats out of a commercial kitchen.
The Dimillos moved back to Florida in 2015, with Tracy unsure what to do next. She baked for neighbors and parties and thought often of opening her own shop. She even had business cards made for Urban Sweets in 2018, “just to put it out into the universe and keep my dream moving forward.”
The Dimillos were fans of Sparkman Wharf, a smaller container park on Channelside Dr. in downtown Tampa that opened in late 2018. While strolling around the container park that year, she fell in love: “I told John I see myself in a container at Sparkman.”
A year later, however, Gold rolled into town. Like Heidi, Tracy also read the article in the Neighborhood News and was gobsmacked.
“If you have a dream, let’s make it happen,” Gold said at the time. “This is your mom-and-pop opportunity, your dream….I want to help people come to us. Let me help you.”
Those words hit Tracy like one of her cookie butter cake parfaits hitting your taste buds.
“I read it and I could swear he was talking to me,” Tracy said. “He said things like he was appealing to new business owners, appealing to smaller business owners….after wanting to open a store for 15 years, I just thought, this is it. I felt like it was a lightning bolt.”
In fact, that’s the exact phrase — “lightning bolt” — she used in her email to Gold to describe her interest. She didn’t even have her sugary concoctions thought out yet. But, she had a name, that box of business cards and she was ready.
“I just knew, after 23 years, I felt like I knew what people liked.”
Urban Sweets opened in late May to positive reviews. With a few thousand people to please for the KRATES’ opening day on June 4 (see page 20), Tracy was eager for her official debut as a business owner.
“It’s a dream come true,” Tracy says. “I know that sounds super cheesy, but that’s how I feel.”
Monica Russo has shared a similar dream for just as long, imagining herself as a clothing buyer since she was a little girl.
For years, she envisioned being a children’s clothing buyer for a big department store like Nordstrom or Dillard’s (and she worked at both for a time).
Pregnant and bed-ridden during Covid-19, Russo decided to become a buyer…for herself. In 2021, she started a website, MaeBerry Co., that sold children’s clothing and accessories.
Later that year, a friend told her about the KRATE at The Grove, and thought she should go all the way and open her own shop. So, she contacted the KRATE’s management, was put on a waiting list, and after twice declining because she wasn’t sure she was ready, she took the keys to her KRATE in January.
“I knew when they asked a third time, I had to do it,” Monica says. “I just went with what my heart was telling me.”
The decision has been the right one. With help from dad George Leach, who assisted getting the business going and chips in with babysitting, husband George Rocek and daughter Alyssa, who is 17 and works in the shop, business has been bustling.
Monica says business at MaeBerry Co. has been so good, in fact, she wishes she had chosen a larger container. Her eco-friendly infant and children’s clothing, many made with soft, breathable and chemical-free bamboo, and by high-end companies like Posh Peanut and Itzy Ritzy, have been popular among shoppers.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Monica says. “So far it’s been everything I have dreamed of.”