Stacy Lester tried to remember what it used to be like. She walked to the window of her pub and looked out to the desolate shopping plaza. She has been trying to survive for so long, focused on getting through the day, she hasn't had the luxury to dwell. Slowly, it started coming back, the dry cleaners, the hair salon, the ice cream shop. Karate studio. Pet store. • And the Sweetbay, of course. • "That's wild," she said, her voice soft. "It was full." • With the recent closing of 33 Sweetbay Supermarkets in Florida — with two-thirds of those shuttered in the Tampa Bay area — Lester's experience might be the vision of what's to come for small businesses left behind in plazas without an anchor tenant. • "It's been tough," said Lester, co-owner of the Clubhouse Sports Cafe in Brandon.
She and two partners bought the beloved local hangout after previous owners closed in 2008. Their grand opening was that June. Sweetbay left eight months later, in February 2009. Now there are 10 vacancies in the plaza on Kingsway Road, with other holdouts scattered in between; the Dollar General, pizza place, Chinese takeout. Lester's staff of 20 dwindled to two cooks and seven servers, but she often has to cut their hours short. Lester, a 43-year-old divorced mother of three, works 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, doing many of the jobs herself, cooking, serving, bartending.
"It's a hard business," she said.
In Hillsborough County, six Sweetbay stores closed in Tampa and one in Plant City. The grocery's owner, Belgium-based Delhaize Group, said these stores were underperforming. There was little notice to other plaza tenants that relied on the grocery store traffic before the stores shut down in February.
Many merchants interviewed by the Times have said they haven't felt an impact yet.
"Not really at all," said Liz Melsheimer, a 27-year-old stylist at Supercuts in the former Sweetbay plaza at 10617 Sheldon Road. "We seem to be doing all right."
But at Jolie's Nails & Spa in West Village Commons on Ehrlich Road, the owner said her business is already down 35 percent. Thuy Nguyen is Vietnamese and speaks little English. On a recent afternoon, the salon was empty except for one customer. Nguyen gave the woman a manicure. Two other employees sat waiting for customers.
"She says she doesn't know if she will have to close," a male employee said. He said she bought the salon five months ago, just before Sweetbay left. Nguyen shook her head sadly.
"She's trying to keep the customers coming back," he said.
There are problems when a grocery store leaves, said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. Other than the psychological impact of a huge, empty building on customers and tenants, the loss takes away the main reason why people came to the plaza in the first place. Grocery stores are a destination trip, he said.
"All those other tenants are going to complement that," Tron said.
Barbara Kahn, professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center, said a grocery store is a frequent stop. The other stores tend to also be quick-hit places; nail salons, fast food. But most grocery store plazas have similar businesses, so when the destination changes, customers might not go back to their previous favorite dry cleaner and instead go with whatever is located at their new destination.
"Without that grocery store there, they might have less motivation to go," Kahn said.
Mike Rogers and his wife, Amy, opened Harmony Yoga & Wellness Center in Westwood Plaza on Gunn Highway because the grocery store had been there for years, as Sweetbay and as its former incarnation, Kash n' Karry. They opened in March 2012 and were crushed when it left.
"The tremendous amount of traffic by the store ended with no warning," said Rogers, 60.
Though the studio is steadily gaining customers, Rogers estimates they've lost 5 to 10 percent growth because of Sweetbay's closing. He's generally working 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., though on cold days he has to be there at 5:30 a.m. to turn on the furnace for the morning classes. He does most of the maintenance and construction himself. On an afternoon last week, he had just taken down a door and was getting ready to tear down a wall to make a room bigger. He has two more years on his lease.
"I may definitely have to think about a move," if another tenant doesn't move in, he said.
Sweetbay rents its locations and is honoring its leases. David Conn, executive vice president of brokerage services at the commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis, said he thinks new tenants will be found.
"It's a better time to be vacating these spaces now than three or four years ago," he said. "There's been no new development in our market."
Because retailers aren't building new shopping plazas, these existing locations are getting more suitors.
"That bodes well for vacancies," he said.
He said he has a few clients looking at some of the spaces, though he would not say which clients or which vacancies. He said he imagines Publix and Walmart, which combined get 70 percent of the grocery market in Central Florida, have looked at the locations.
"Sooner or later they will be filled," Conn said.
Those in good locations, that is. Those in financially precarious areas aren't as inviting.
"Some will be harder than others" to rent, Conn said.
The most depressed of the vacant Sweetbays appears to be the one at 5050 E 10th Ave., in the Oak Park area.
"It's like a ghost town outside now," said Terrance Mitchell, 36, a barber at Cleve's Hair FX. He said the shop moved to the plaza in 2010 to be near Sweetbay.
"It was a staple of the community," Mitchell said. "It's been devastating."
The coin laundry has closed, he said. There are four store vacancies, with more possibly to come.
Sam Foqahaa, 30, opened Star Beauty Supply last year and signed a three-year lease shortly before Sweetbay announced it was leaving. He said business has tanked so badly that sometimes his car is the only one outside.
"You're scared to walk in the parking lot," Foqahaa said.
He said he doesn't see how he will be able to stay in business.
"I'm stuck," he said.
The vacant Sweetbay at 2333 W Hillsborough Ave., in the Wellswood neighborhood, appears to have transients living under the building's eaves. On a recent afternoon, a man napped under a "no loitering" sign. William West, the owner of the property, said he's aware of the situation. But he said he has already had some offers on the place.
"We are hoping to have somebody there as soon as we can," West said.
Lester, of the Clubhouse in Brandon, has also gotten some good news. After four years without an anchor tenant, the plaza is getting one in the coming months: Save-a-Lot.
But Lester feels too guarded after these rough years to have high hopes. Maybe it will help. Maybe it won't. But she knows her restaurant is a part of her that she doesn't want to let go of.
"This is my heart, my passion," she said. "I love this."
She struggled to not cry.
"It could be coming to an end," she said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.