CLEARWATER — Brad Mize has spent his life in the grocery business, like his parents and brothers.
And he still remembers something his father, Nolan, told him years ago.
"My dad always told us if we was going to get rich, we would have quit long time ago," Mize said. "But, you know, it's in our blood, and it's just all we do.
"It's kind of like a farmer. They farm every day and not making any money, but they still farm. So the grocery business is the same way."
The stature of the grocery business, though, has grown in recent weeks. As the COVID-19 pandemic fell across the country, grocery stores were one of the few businesses deemed essential enough to remain open.
As jittery residents loaded their shopping carts to fend off something they didn’t totally understand but nonetheless still feared, it fell to grocery stores like Mize’s Thriftway in Clearwater to keep the doors open and the shelves stocked.
"In the first few days, we could see it hit in Kansas City, and we said, 'Man, there's something going on here,'" Mize said of the early days of the pandemic and the frenzied shopping that followed. "And then … about three days later, we started picking up in business. It was strange because our basket size went big, and we thought, 'Gosh, is it people starting to get scared, or what's going on?'
"So we knew something was going on then, and from there it just boomed."
The Mize family has run the grocery store in Clearwater since 1971. It’s been in its current location on the north side of town since 1991.
Brad Mize has worked at the store since 1971 and two of his brothers, Phil and Eric, later joined him. His son, Josh, is the third generation of the family to work there.
His nephew, Logan Mize, also worked there for a time before starting a successful recording career in Nashville. The store is featured in his new music video for his song "Hometown."
Mize’s Thriftway has a small-town feel. Brad Mize says he knows most of his customers — even when they have face masks on — and greets them by name.
His says his customers have always been friendly and courteous. But he says many have made a point in recent weeks to say thanks to him and his employees, who are working longer hours.
"People have always treated me nice, they're just … a little more appreciative I think," Mize said.
"I got some of the friendliest customers in the world, and I appreciate that. They're just more apt to just stop and say thank you now than before."
Many of those customers, Mize said, are former employees. He says he hires several high school kids every year to work at the store. He and his brothers all worked as teenagers at the store.
So keeping the store clean and employees and customers safe, Mize said, is important. Employees have their temperatures taken when they report to work. They wear face masks and clean aprons every shift.
And they spend time disinfecting the store’s many surfaces.
"We clean freezer doors, we clean carts constantly, clean check stands, key pads … stuff like that," Mize said.
After a hectic month, Mize said activity at the store is starting to return to normal levels. He said customers aren’t panicking like they were a few weeks ago.
"I think they realize that we're still going to be here," Mize said. "We're not leaving, we're not closing, and we're still getting product."