CLEARWATER — Early Sunday, Amanda Atari taped a sign to the Hostess outlet store's glass window: "Markdowns 50% off."
The mother of five, who moved to Florida with her husband two decades ago, watched as customers rushed inside to grab 50-cent Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Zingers.
After a nationwide strike by Hostess Brands' unionized employees froze production, Hostess began closing its stores and preparing to go out of business. On Sunday, stores began selling the company's classic treats at a discount. Around the country, people flocked to Hostess stores — some to buy items to sell on eBay, others to stockpile the tastes they love.
Behind the cash register at the Clearwater Hostess store, Atari thought of the income and health insurance she'll lose on Friday, when the store on Belcher Road, just north of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, closes permanently.
It was her first job and, for the past 12 years, her daily routine: Open the doors at 9 a.m., lock up at 4 p.m.
But on Monday afternoon, as the Twinkie supply dwindled from thousands to a couple of dozen, Atari smiled and rang up regulars.
"Man!" said Larry Beard, who had made a special trip from his home in Largo. "Everything half off? The wife's going to make me come back and spend a hundred dollars."
"You better hurry," Atari said. "It's not going to last for long."
"It's crazy," Beard said. "We've been coming for 22 years now. I raised my kids on this stuff."
Brenda Pruitt of Zephyrhills started working for Hostess 25 years ago in Tampa. She wishes the company and the union could have come to some kind of agreement, she said, "with the economy the way that it is."
"It was a great job," she said about working as a clerk in the store. "It is a great job."
As for what's next, Pruitt laughed: "I don't know." She and her husband have a 16-year-old daughter and bills to pay.
Like the Clearwater location, the Tampa store will be open for the next few days as it tries to sell everything, though the Twinkies are gone.
In the Clearwater store Monday, Sharon Farahani and her husband, Fred, dumped an armful of Twinkies into a yellow shopping basket.
They recently survived Hurricane Sandy in Connecticut with a pile of the pastries. Farahani, who now lives in Clearwater, laughed at the memory. When the storm hit, she sped to the nearest convenience store, where boxes of Twinkies were on sale for a dollar. She filled her cart, thinking: This will be funny.
To continue the joke, she plans to stuff her final Hostess purchases into her children's Christmas stockings.
"This," she said, "is our Christmas shopping."
Nearby, Tonya Reese wandered the aisles, murmuring, "It's so sad. So sad."
Reese, who also lives in Clearwater, hadn't heard that the store was closing. She stopped in Monday to buy rye bread and Texas Toast.
The bad news, she said, made her nostalgic. Decades ago, during lunch time at Chamberlain High School in Tampa, she would often sink her teeth into a soft, sweet honey bun.
On Monday, she didn't want the sugar. But the occasion called for a splurge.
"How much are those?" Reese asked, pointing to a box of Red Hot Pickled Sausage.
"Fifty cents," Atari replied.
"Okay. I'll take five."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224.