Exploring the history behind Tampa’s Oceanic market

Oceanic got its name from from its original purpose helping sailors docked at Port of Tampa.

click to enlarge The June 17, 2021 cover of Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. - Design by Jack Spatafora
Design by Jack Spatafora
The June 17, 2021 cover of Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.


There’s one answer you’ll always hear when you ask any Tampa Bay chef to tell you which Asian markets they shop at.

“Oceanic.”

Together with the Sanwa Farmer's Market 4.5 miles away on East Hillsborough Avenue, Oceanic Oriental Market is hands down the most respected and recognizable Asian grocery store in the Bay area. But it wasn’t always like that.

Opened in 1980, Oceanic—at 1609 N Tampa St. in the shadow of I-275—got its name from from its original purpose as a shop where sailors and ship handlers docked at the nearby Port of Tampa could interface with Oceanic employees who would assist in getting them everything they and their vessels required before heading back out to sea.

“They would need things but they didn’t know the city. There’s a whole industry that supplies ship kitchens and crews,” S. Cheong Choi told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “They would come up, and we would say, ‘Hey, you need printer paper? You need baking soda? What do you need? We know the city and will help you out.’”

That lasted about a year or two, then Choi’s dad, T.C., together with his brother Chan and other family members, decided to get into retail. They sold that part of the business, and the most aggressive expansion of what Oceanic carried on shelves—and the amount of shelf space—happened in the late-’80s and early-’90s.

Choi would’ve been about seven years old by then. He remembers the space’s entrance being on the Tampa Street side of the now 110-year-old building and the room being about the size of a small convenience store with a significantly larger warehouse area in the back. The hot food, produce, whole cuts of meat, fresh fish—all hallmarks of the Oceanic experience now—were still a ways away. Choi, now 45 years old, definitely recalls working there, but can’t recollect how he felt about it.

click to enlarge Chinese New Year at Oceanic market in Tampa, Florida. - Oceanic Supermarket/Facebook
Oceanic Supermarket/Facebook
Chinese New Year at Oceanic market in Tampa, Florida.


“Like any immigrant business, you don't question it, you just go to work with your family and hang out. That's just life,” he added.

His family did just well enough to live in the district for H.B. Plant High School in South Tampa, and while he studied transportation and urban restructuring in China and Belgium, Choi eventually moved back home to make his living at the 20,000-square-foot concrete building. He still runs Cafe Hey—co-founded with his classmate Anne Scott during the lowest point of the 2007 recession—which has its entrance on the other side of the building near the intersection of Kay and Franklin Streets. The cafe’s business is picking up steadily with rising vaccination numbers—and a monthly block party has even returned, bringing with it live music, art and food vendors—but coronavirus shutdowns affected Oceanic in a different way.

“Not that it wasn’t weird for everybody else or anything, but for a business that continually stayed open for everything including all major holidays and even family things, it was a little weird,” Choi said.

click to enlarge Before expanding in the late-'80s, Tampa's Oceanic market—pictured here in June 2021—was the size of a small convenience store, with a significantly larger warehouse area in the back. - Ray Roa
Ray Roa
Before expanding in the late-'80s, Tampa's Oceanic market—pictured here in June 2021—was the size of a small convenience store, with a significantly larger warehouse area in the back.


But Oceanic and its staff—which includes two of Choi’s sisters and his uncle Chan who is the herbalist—kept serving a community that was both looking for fresh food and any of the other scores of creature comforts and specialized Oceanic products that come off one of three weekly trucks that travel from as far as New York and California.

“[The pandemic] did hurt us. I don't know that it hurt us more than anybody else, but it definitely forced us to rethink how we did things,” Choi said. The store, now being run by a third generation of family members, started taking and fulfilling orders over the phone, through email and the Facebook page; the practice continues to this day despite the shop being open for in-person shopping.

“We're a family-run business. We’re here to serve the community, and that community goes beyond the Asian community,” Choi explained. But Oceanic’s persistence presence shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Choi is blunt about the 2015 scare over the Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) then-fast-tracked plans to expand I-275 and demolish the building in the process. That particular expansion stalled after pushback from transit advocates who want less roads and more real solutions for moving folks around Tampa Bay. But you wouldn’t be paranoid for thinking that FDOT could one day try again to expand the highway, ending Oceanic’s now 41-year-run in the process.

“That’s always in the shadows. FDOT can play the long game. They have deep pockets and more time than I know what to do with,” Choi said.

In response to that 2015 push for interstate expansion, Cafe Hey regulars Michelle Sawyer and Tony Krol—Mergeculture artists who also run a gallery on the block—painted a dramatic 1,200-square-foot mural on the southern wall facing I-275. The center of the work is a depiction of the neighborhood at the turn of the century; you can see old streetcars—the original, arguably more efficient, people movers that used to get people around one of Tampa’s first neighborhoods.

As Oceanic comes out of the pandemic it will continue its humble mission to serve its neighborhood—even the folks who sleep under safety of the bright lights which illuminate the sidewalk overnight. And as sure as the highway hums nearby, and those ships keep pulling into the nearby port, chefs and residents will continue to walk through Oceanic’s doors looking for the things they need to make their work and lives at home just a little bit more whole.

click to enlarge Oceanic—at 1609 N Tampa St. in the shadow of I-275—in Tampa, Florida. - Ray Roa
Ray Roa
Oceanic—at 1609 N Tampa St. in the shadow of I-275—in Tampa, Florida.


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About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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