The end came sooner than expected for 33 Sweetbay supermarkets throughout the Tampa Bay area. The closures of "underperforming stores" were tentatively scheduled for mid-February, but all were shuttered by 5 p.m. Wednesday.
"The worst part was when you went in there and saw everything closed," said Al Gibbs, standing outside the Midtown St. Petersburg store he used to frequent. "When you went inside and saw the empty shelves, and the place cut off, it took something out of you."
Two young men walking up to the same store stopped and wondered where to go next.
"It was always busy," Oshae Ford said. "I used to love going in there, everybody used to be there, see all of my family members...Now it's just closed down, I was surprised to see it closed."
The Midtown location created the most concern because it served a part of the city that did not have a local supermarket until recent years. Mayor Bill Foster told FOX 13 News he has met with Sweetbay officials and was told closures were irreversible. He also met with executives of Publix supermarkets.
"It doesn't fit their business model," Foster said, adding discussions continue with other competitors to take over the Midtown location.
However, St. Petersburg also lost two other Sweetbays, displaying the impacts of all 33 closures. At a location on 62nd Avenue South, a handful of employees clocked their final few hours before shutdown.
"When we heard the news, it came down like a ton of bricks, like one second I have a job, I was going to get promoted, the next second you don't have nothing," said Jamal Scott said.
Scott thinks he may be hired by another grocer. Marsha Heinicke said she will have to retire.
"It hurts me to think they can kick me out after 29 years of service," Heinicke said, adding all of those years were at the same store.
The city is sending out fliers touting the availability of all three vacant retail spaces. Sweetbay itself is helping look for tenants willing to pick up unfulfilled leases.
Landlords and other real estate professionals are also well aware of the opportunities.
Every closure also impacts dozens of smaller retail neighbors.
"At this point I don't know what to do," said Nancy Phem, who owns a beauty salon next to the SweetBay on 9th Avenue North. "Maybe there's some hope, maybe something coming, I don't know."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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