MARICOPA — In much the same way that a bodega or corner store remains a central part of urban city culture, Water and Ice stores have made their way into the storefronts of the Southwest, serving the same purpose of providing necessities through warm community charm.
Maricopa Water and Ice store owner Tonya Thompson said there’s a simple reason her business is successful in the city, “we need quality drinking water and ice,” Thompson said.
But it’s more than that. Thompson provides the usual filtered water and ice for her customers, and she also sells smoothies, shaved ice and a wide variety of candy and Thrifty ice cream.
Her candy shelf is stocked with old favorites like Necco, Abba-Zaba and Skor, while her ice cream of choice, Thrifty, has been around for 80 years. Thompson said her customers regularly come in asking for particular flavors from their childhood.
“It creates memories for a lot of people, and a good feeling,” Thompson said. “We all know, especially right now with the things that we are struggling with, just having that moment of reliving a fun memory is extremely important.”
“That, and you can’t get over the little kids’ faces every time they walk in and they just see the candy and the ice cream and their faces light up,” she added.
Of course, her customers are also coming in for her selection of water and ice. She has two different types of water for her customers, reverse-osmosis filtered water and alkaline water. Alkaline water has a higher pH than regular water and is therefore less acidic.
“It actually runs between nine and ten pH,” Thomson said. “What that does for the body is … when you drink the alkaline water, it actually balances that pH and helps with any heartburn issues or digestive issues.”
One of her regulars is a local police officer who shows up before each shift to purchase water. A few years ago, Thompson recommended the officer switch to using alkaline water to help him during long hot shifts in his police gear and he’s been drinking it ever since.
Patrons come in with their arms bursting with empty jugs and refill them at the stations. Thompson says the demand varies from four 5-gallon jugs a week for a family of six to households that purchase 20 jugs with the intention of storing their water for up to a month.
Customers can purchase and fill up reusable 1-, 3- and 5-gallon jugs at the water stations, which are connected to a large tank Thompson has in the back. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, she had to place limits on water purchases due to the demand.
Since then, she has been able to upgrade her systems to avoid this. Her tank now holds 1,500 gallons of water and can filter at 6 gallons a minute.
Thompson pulled through the rough year with her faithful customers — those who have routinely shown up for her since she opened her business in 2004.
“I still see the same customers that walked in the door from when we first opened until now,” Thompson said. “I feel like we’re more like family than customer-business owner type of relationship.”
When Thompson opened her business, her daughter Emilee was just a year old and she hoped her business would provide more flexible working hours for her daughter’s health issues. Emilee is now 18, and the customers of Water and Ice have watched her grow up.
“I have a lot of customers that remember her as being real little and watching her grow up in the store,” Thomson said. “She literally just kind of hung out in here with me as she grew up.”
Her daughter’s friends have also been employed by Thompson, who understands the role that a Water and Ice store has in a community.
“We hire a lot of first-timers,” Thompson said. “We’ve been that place that has been the first job for teenagers. It’s a fun job, they get to learn what it’s like to have a job, have responsibilities and have things to do. … I feel actually very lucky to have the teenagers that come in.”
As a Maricopa resident since 1975, Thompson is a very active sponsor of local sports teams. In addition, she donates water and ice to school sports teams free of charge during practice and game play.
“Because I’m a Maricopa Ram girl myself, it was really important for me to give back to them — and not only them, but the other schools,” Thompson said. “Just so that we know the kids and teenagers that are all doing sports are hydrating outside.”
She is also the recipient of the 2020 Martin Luther King Day award given by the city, awarded for her dedication to the community. The community is equally as dedicated to her and her little shop, which has as much cultural significance as a bodega does to the heart of New York City.
“I feel extremely blessed and grateful here because of our interactions with our customers,” Thompson said. “When they walk in the door I really feel like they’re walking into my home, because they’re just so loving and caring and supportive.”
In 2021, Thompson hopes to expand her commercial water delivery service to more businesses in Maricopa and maybe even residential someday.