Anyone wanting a taste of the orange-vanilla ice cream from Citrus Country Groves better hop to it. Before Easter, the two stores in Clearwater and Seminole will be closed.
As of Tuesday, only memories will remain of these businesses that have hand-packaged and sold citrus to locals and tourists for more than 60 years, originally under the name Orange Blossom Groves.
However, auto dealer Dick Norris, who bought the Clearwater property at U.S. 19 and Belleair Road and an adjacent lot in 2008 for $4.8-million, will retain Citrus Country Groves' iconic barn-like structure when he builds his new car dealership there.
"We're redoing the existing building, and when the construction is completed, it will be a state-of-the-art facility," said Norris' son, Doug Norris, owner and general manager of Dick Norris Buick-GMC.
Norris has two locations now, one in Clearwater and one in Palm Harbor. The Clearwater dealership will move a half-mile to the south.
While Norris is excited about finally breaking ground for the new dealership, people who work and shop at Citrus Country Groves are sad to see the place go.
The two stores currently have about two dozen employees. The Clearwater store's manager, April Groth, began working at the store 32 years ago. She has no idea where she or the other employees will find jobs.
"I've worked here since I was really young," said Groth, 51. "Originally it was Orange Blossom Groves, but citrus canker forced Al Repetto and orange groves out of business."
'A loss in the family'
In 1946, Repetto opened Orange Blossom Groves in what today is Seminole. Three years later he opened the Clearwater location. He also owned groves in Hillsborough County. But they contracted citrus canker in 2005, and about 27,500 trees were burned to stop the disease from spreading.
Jim Guedry, owner and operator of Citrus Country Groves, bought Orange Blossom from Repetto in 2005. Last year, Guedry sold the business to Southern Fulfillment Services.
"The reason we sold the business is because we lost the source of fruit coming from Pasco County," said Guedry, 56. "We closed our Pasco County citrus packing plant in June of 2008, but had enough fruit to keep going for a while."
SFS, with headquarters in Vero Beach, decided to close both the Clearwater and Seminole locations now that Norris is ready to break ground on his dealership.
"It's a terrible shame," said Betty Schuth, manager of the Seminole store. "Some customers come every day just for the ice cream. We have teary-eyed people saying, 'Where am I going to get my fresh juice?' We have customers whose parents brought them here when they were babies. It's like a loss in the family."
Repetto still owns the Seminole property, and it's not clear what will happen to it.
Customers will receive brochures next year and can still order fruit from Citrus Country Groves online or over the phone.
But Groth knows of only one other place in Pinellas County where people can get that Creamsicle-flavored ice cream.
"Yellow Banks Groves in Largo carries the ice cream, and I'm handing out their business cards to people who ask for it or fresh juice," Groth said. "People who live up North or in Canada have come here for decades. They're ready to drive home and are stopping in to tell us goodbye."
Renovation of the U.S. 19 building for the new auto dealership will begin in May.
"We hope to be open by late summer," Doug Norris said. "Our customers deserve a beautiful and more convenient location. We're looking forward to the move."
Although Citrus Country Groves will still ship fruit, the person-to-person service will be missed. So will the jars of hand-sliced fruit that employees package every day. The orange blossom perfume. Orange gum. And saltwater taffy in 150 flavors.
Those items will go the way of the uprooted orange trees that grew behind the Clearwater building until three years ago. People used to walk back there and pose for a Florida snapshot. No longer.
So goes another slice of Old Florida.