Thursday, August 6, 2009

In the Publix Interest

It never fails. Oh sure, ask almost anyone about a store chain they grew up with, and you’re likely to get a heartfelt, nostalgic response. This can be seen time and time again in the comments on this site and a multitude of other places. But if you mention the word “Publix” to someone who grew up in Florida and has since moved away, be prepared for a reaction that tops them all, in my experience.

Their eyes glaze over. A beatific smile appears on their face. Sometimes they begin to shake. And then, at twice the volume of their previous conversation, comes the startling litany: “Oh, I loooooved Publix! They had the best stores! And they had the best help! The (insert supermarket name here) stinks compared to them! Man, I’d give anything to be able to shop there again!” Pretty soon, they’re not even looking at me. They’re staring at some non-existent focal point three feet above and to the right of my head. Sometimes things take a bitter turn – “My Aunt Mabel still lives in Pompano and she’s always bragging about ‘her’ Publix. I never could stand her!” Other times, they just break down into incoherent babbling. After several minutes, they snap out of it, and all is normal again.

And you know, after looking through some photos of classic Publix stores, I’m beginning to understand it all. Take this 1972 interior view, for example. Typical of the elegant Publix stores from this period, this store displays a perfect blend of 70’s vibe and color scheme, yet with 60’s-style quality and attention to detail. Just take a look. Notice the appealing earth tones and dark wood grains. The terrazzo flooring, in a world where vinyl tile was (and is) the norm. The wall-length store directory. The shape of the aisle marker signs, adapted from the famous “winged” Publix store facades (a design that was actually no longer being used by this time). “Mr. Peanut” standing jauntily from his perch at the center of the store. The peaceful reflection of the Bundt Cake mix on the chrome cash register shell…

I have to go now…my eyes are starting to glaze over.


  1. Interesting artifact on the floor one aisle to the right of Mr. Peanut -- a space-age floor ashtray. I can barely remember the days when smoking was permitted in supermarkets, a concept that seems absolutely, totally bizarre to me now but was commonplace at least until the early 1970s.

  2. Two comments:

    The terrazzo flooring, in a world where vinyl tile was (and is) the norm.

    Terazzo was the norm for many department store chains of this era, but few grocery chains. Sears stores were all-terazzo as were the front ends of Topps and Rink's stores. Two of the three Dick Jacobs Columbus malls were also heavy on terazzo. Surprisingly, the first Target Greatland stores all used terazzo.

    Ironically, Eastland Mall covered it up with ceramic tile and the two remaining Sears stores covered up with ........ VINYL (but now ceramic).

    Also, the cash registers look like they were the standard NCR mechanical grocery store cash registers of the era. The beigh/off-white color was the factory standard. What a fashion forward touch, however, to have them in black! I don't think they came from the factory this way, and they were way (by about 30 years) ahead of their time.

  3. You got that right! ;)

    I'm a lifelong Floridian, so Publix is *the* supermarket for Floridians. You'll get that same reaction you wrote about from people who move *to* Florida because they feel that Publix is so much better than what they had back wherever it was they came from.

    My own family has a long connection with Publix, as my dad worked there for 22 years as a produce manager--we still have his picture with the founder, George Jenkins, who wears a sportscoat covered with the Publix logo in that photo--Publix was my first job during high school, and I think that it may have been the best job I ever had, or at least the job with the least BS to deal with. For decades, Publix was closed on Sundays, and when they finally did open for business on that day, they paid their employees time and a half for being there.

    I also remember those head-to-toe, polyester, Doublemint-green uniforms the chashiers had to wear up until IIRC the early nineties, I guess, but that was part of their tradmark. Many fond memories. My dad died on July 20, so reading this Publix entry is bittersweet.

    Anyway, enough of my rambling. I look forward to more of your posts on Publix, a Florida icon.

  4. I just got married over the weekend in Key West, and on our way back up to Fort Lauderdale to catch our flight, we stopped off in Miami Beach to photograph the last remaining vintage Publix Market with the 50s/60s fin design on Dade Boulevard. Just a mile away, stands an amazing new store. Publix entered Nashville (where I now live) about five years ago, and have rapidly become the premier supermarket chain, in a market once dominated by Kroger and the local H.G. Hill Stores. I lived in Florida as a teenager, and I LOVED Publix, and I am probably the store's biggest fan. I even have a t-shirt with a picture of a vintage store on the front I love to wear. Nothing compares to their service, quality, and prices. The stores are always spotless and the selection is always superb. They are and remain the finest grocery retailer ever. I can't think of any other supermarket chain people have a passion for, but I know of many who are like me and absolutely LOVE Publix. Hope you'll continue to share more Publix nostalgia here on this always wonderful blog. You rule, Dave.

  5. The terrazzo flooring and the lack of fluorescent tube lighting go a long way in giving the store an upscale ambiance. The black and chrome cash register add an extra touch of elegance.

    I had forgotten about Publix utilizing the carousel unload checkstand designs, but they were commonplace until the late 80's.

    I believe Publix began opening on Sundays sometime in the 1982-84 time frame. Even today they eschew 24 hour operations and are closed for all major holidays.

    Overall, the interior package for this design holds up better than any of its competitors' designs of the era, including Kroger's iconic Superstore design. I actually like it better than the 1990's teal and coral package and the current "Starbucks/Panera" esque decor in Publix, though the current decor does have a good dose of retro.

  6. Publix's bakery is 2nd to one one! The white mountain bread is so good that I can not resist opening it as soon as I get in the car for a slice! The other stores around here (Winn Dixie, Sweet Bay) have tried to copy Publix's bakery offering products baked to last for a week, instead of items baked fresh each day. Sweetbays change from its former Kash N Karry moniker was just an attempt to once again copy the Publix style. It is not even close to the quailty or service I have come to expect or recieve from Publix. Even WalMarts low prices have not touched Publix's customers who remain loyal.

  7. Oh boy! PUBLIX! Every grocery chain in the US should have to take lessons in store cleanliness, selection, and employee helpfulness/friendliness from Publix. I fell in love with them when we moved to Atlanta in 2000. There was a lot of competition in Atlanta then - Harris Teeter, Kroger, Walmart, Winn-Dixie, just to name a few - but Publix won me over completely. I think being employee-owned makes a big difference as far as the experience you get at a Publix store. They truly care. All of the people I knew that worked at Publix had nothing but good things to say about the company. Now that we've relocated to northeast Ohio and my grocery store selections are Giant-Eagle, Acme and Walmart, I find myself longing for Publix every day. We just returned from Alabama last week (husband's family reunion) and I was able to sneak in 30 minutes at a store in Huntsville, which was just enough to carry me over until the next time we head to a Publix city. Jack - I gotta have one of those t-shirts you describe! Dave - looking forward to your future Publix posts!

  8. Many of the independents in NE Ohio run stores that are equal or better than Publix and Heinen's are far better. Publix, like other Atlanta chains also has odd neglects---like not selling plum pudding at Christmas. That said, Publix was far better than the competition in Atlanta--lower prices than H-T (but not as good in the perishables) and much better than the other major chains. They and Whole Foods basically put H-T out of business. They really know how to build volume in the deli (with their well-priced subs) and in the bakery (the cakes quickly became a fixure of potlucks and office birthday parties). They also had the closet thing to actual rye bread in Atlanta. the service was better than Kroger, et al., but that's not saying much. My understanding has always been that the service was much better in Florida, although it's suffered as the chain has grown.

    I'm surprised they used the carousel checkstands--those tended to breakdown, make noise and create awkward lines. Acem in Akron and National Tea used them, among others, but most chains seemed to ditch them in the 70s.

  9. I tend to like Publix for their selection and especially their bakery: the only grocery store in Atlanta that actually seems to HAVE one anymore. However, like many native Georgians I am a bit miffed that a Florida store came in and wiped out every other store here. Most likely Bruno's would have ultimately become the major player here, but pretty much every grocery store was put out of business here by Publix except Kroger.

    I tend to dislike how the stores look like Florida inside, which to me is symbolic of how the people of another state seem to be completely taking over mine complete with the sprawl that has made Publix do very well here. Kroger is also a transplant, but they've just been here a lot longer.

    The best "local" offering we have ever had was Ingles, which has always sucked and was pushed out of most of metro Atlanta because of that. I guess I'm glad we at least do have a decent grocery store, but I would like it if we had a nice local offering like most other states and large cities have.

  10. Wow that confirms old memories. The directory on the wall and the winged pylon aisle markers. The old stores neon looked great at night. I assume this was a pylon store and not the 70s type


  12. Actually, I have a cousin who once lived in Orlando and now lives in the Houston area. Now, the quote isn't exact, but it comes very close to...
    "The H-E-B stinks compared to them! Man, I’d give anything to be able to shop there again!"

    (or something like that)

  13. I've only been to Publix once on a vacation to Florida, but I've seen those carousel style checkouts being used today at older Fareway grocery stores in Iowa.

  14. I visited Florida for the first time in 1975 and I remember Publix looking like this photo. This being said, I always liked Winn Dixie better, especially when I lived in Florida in the 1990's.

    But most of all I am happy to be back in Sweet Home Chicago!

  15. While Publix may not provide the legendary customer service of the past, name a chain that has grown to its size and continued to offer consistent service, quality and cleanliness.

    Few regional chains have been able to enter new markets with the success Publix has since expanding beyond Florida in 1991. For the most part this has been the result of actual expansion, occasionally buying competition, but not entire chains.

    I can name plenty of regionals that are highly regarded locally, but they don't seem to conjure the devotion that Publix does.

    Publix loyalists are willing to pay the slightly higher prices for the service and quality, and most customers are pretty adept at getting value from Publix with Publix brands and coupons. Additionally, the ads generally feature pricing on several items that many betters a lot of competitors advertised price.

    Publix is experiencing negative same store sales this year, as it absorbs 47 former Albertson's in Florida and its customers belt tighten-Florida and Atlanta, its key markets, have experienced high foreclosures. They have responding with a lower price campaign that seems to pleasing their loyalists.

  16. What an awesome photograph- the whole look screams "1972". Harvest Gold color scheme, dark wood trims, even the Bundt Cake Invasion. Love,love, love this one!

  17. Greg (first comment) mentions smoking in the store. I would love to light up while perusing the condiments aisle!

    The terrazzo floor is quite nice. Sometimes you see little stores here in NYC where the entrance has the terrazzo with an inlay of the address or the name of the store--that is, the previous store! i always love it.

    The subway cars in NYC have faux terrazzo in linoleum. Cheesy yes, but a nice upgrade from the crappy floors they used to have.

  18. Greg – Great catch there on the ashtray – I didn’t notice that. I would say even until the early ‘80’s, smoking was still acceptable in nearly all public places. Makes me cough just remembering it!

    The ‘space-age’ look of the ashtray is very cool, though!

    Dan – You’re right, while terrazzo was commonplace in department stores it was a pretty rare sight in supermarkets. The black-and-chrome color scheme of the cash registers is very appealing, no doubt. While I remember that style register, I don’t recall ever seeing them with a chrome finish. Publix was definitely into nice touches like that.

    Dexter – First of all, let me say how sorry I am to hear of the recent loss of your father. I hope that this series of posts serves in a very small way as a tribute to him and the other people who have worked so hard over the years to build Publix up in the mind of the buying public. That would have never been achieved through nice-looking stores alone.

    As far as “getting it right”, thanks! A little tongue-in-cheek, maybe, but just a little…

    Jack – Congrats on your wedding! The Keys are one of the very few places in Florida I’ve never been to, and I’m looking forward to seeing them one of these days. And taking the “side trip” to a vintage Publix – sure wish I’d thought of that on my own honeymoon (1990 - in Florida!) – way to go! :)

    We moved out of the Nashville area just as Publix began to get a foothold there, in early 2004. They had bought several Albertsons stores in the area (mostly former Bruno’s/Foodmax stores) and were just starting to ramp up their own construction.

    That t-shirt is too cool! The fascinating thing is that they picked a one-of-a-kind store for the picture. The store shown on the shirt was the 50’s St. Petersburg store. It was really a hybrid between the “winged” design (the large PUBLIX MARKET lettering on the sideboards) and the quasi-art deco design that preceded it (the curved hump/glass block section in the middle with the vertical “Publix” lettering). That one is a must-have - and only 12 bucks!

    And thanks very much!

    Ken – It is a very attractive store all around, and the lighting style, now that you mention it, was probably as rare as the terrazzo floors within the grocery industry as a whole. I’ve seen pictures of Publix stores with the carousel checkstands that date as far back as the mid-50’s.

    I would put the best of the Kroger superstores in league with this, but Publix seemed to stay with a more elegant look whereas Kroger seemed to go very basic in the years that followed, and have now gone somewhat more upscale again.

    I still think there is a sizable segment of the public that respects (or at least doesn’t mind) the lack of an “open 24 hours” policy and the fact that they close on major holidays.

    Dwayne – Publix pretty much has the higher end of the market (To include fancy bakery goods) cornered. And I definitely agree Publix’s core customer base has survived the Walmart price onslaught far better than anyone else’s.

  19. Adrienne - Several of my relatives (on my Mom’s side) have lived in the Atlanta area since the 60’s, and shopped at a variety of stores, mainly Winn-Dixie, before Publix moved in. Once a Publix opened up near them, they never looked back. I think they’ve been #1 in the Atlanta area for some years now, because of the loyalty of people like you and my family.

    And I guess 30 minutes of shopping there every once in a while is better than nothing, I guess!

    Anonymous – By all rights, independents should be better, with the personal touch an owner can give, along with a lack of bureaucracy. I’ve heard great things about Heinen’s. Seems like the deli and bakery departments always seem to be a key differentiating factor.

    J.T. – Have most area supermarkets outsourced their bakeries? If so, I can see why Publix has gained such advantage, those are always key departments. They took their time in getting to Georgia, and I have to think that part of the reason Publix is so dominant is that Winn-Dixie, et al, were already having trouble.

    Interesting to think about what would have happened had Publix tried to entre 10 or 15 years earlier when the competition was in better shape. The only thing I remember about Ingles was their cool signs – nothing else stands out.

    Robby – I’m not sure – I’m thinking it might have been one of the first “post-winged pylon” stores, with the aisle marker shape kept on as a design element. They were still using the block lettered logo at the time and hadn’t switched to their new stylized logo yet.

    Jonah – Case in point then, right? Thanks! :)

    Laura – Those carousel checkouts were very popular for a while, but many chains never adopted them. I personally don’t remember anything but the standard belt type in the earliest stores I went to (late 60’s Jewel and Dominick’s stores in Chicago) Fareway is a chain I need to learn more about. Thanks!

    Kim – The (insert supermarket name here) stinks compared to Jewel! Man, I’d give anything to be able to shop there again! ;)

    Ken – I can’t name a single one – and I think you’re right on all the points you make – their acceptance by customers in new states, the unique level of devotion, the fact that even though they’re not a traditional “price-based” marketer they’re adapting to the times – it’s a pretty unusual story!

    Jeff – I couldn’t agree more - And what a good look it was!

    Otto – I’m sure you used to be able to light up in the whole place! And I always enjoy seeing older store entrances with the former occupant store’s name in terrazzo – the stuff just doesn’t seem to wear out!

  20. Regarding your first sentence about mentioning a retail name and always getting fond, nostalgic memories, wouldn't it be hilarious if there were sarcastic and "Oh, I hated that place because.....!" memories. I for one find postives on both sides of this coin. LOL!

    On to Publix. Never seen them, never been to one. One day I hope to vacation in Florida so maybe there will be a chance. I do, however, have a friend who lives there and loves to shop there no matter what. It is the only grocery store she will go to. She always has great things to say about it. But, about a week or so ago, I did find it hilarious on her Facebook when she complained about "The cashier at Publix is actually checking to make sure my $5 dollars is not counterfeit." Then she proceeded to say something sarcastic which isn't fit to share here but made me burst out laughing. See, I LOVE both sides of the coin. There are the good memories and than the sarcastic ones.

  21. LOL Dave, I have to agree with you--I love Jewel, too. I also have a very modern, spacious Dominick's literally down the street from me. Their in store bakery is the best!

  22. You know, the other thing that strikes me about that photo is the amount of labor it would have taken to set up all those displays, like the two round ones in the foreground with Del Monte tomato juice and Libby's canned tomatoes. I work in retail and our management is always trying to squeeze every dollar out of labor and inventory costs. Displays like that would not be possible in our stores because of that. We're lucky if we can do stacked cut case displays these days. Even the Publix endcaps shown look pretty spendy compared to what we now do.

  23. I grew up in L.A. but lemme tell you Publix on Palm Beach rules!

  24. Woohoo, Publix, my favorite Store.

    My family moved to Florida in the late 1970's from Oklahoma. My folks retired back to Arkansas and my mom still loves Publix. I loved the old neon stores they had, but the are now gone. As I have traveled around America over the years my wife and I have always checked out Supermarkets, even Walmart Store #1 in Rogers, but none of them are as good as Publix.

    I like to do the grocery shopping for the family just because of Publix. I have to drive by the Lakewood Winn-Dixie every time to get to Pubix, Winn-Dixie is closer and its the Winn-Dixie nearest the Davis Family members here in Jacksonville but Publix is the best.

    I am a civil engineer and we have done work for Publix in the past. They are well organized and nice to work with, plus the have a great cafeteria at the corporate headquarters in Lakeland. I can't wait for the full history on this one.

  25. I have to say Publix, in the nostaltic pictures leaves me a little cold. I love the pylon and the neon, but the reast is a little too "managed" and corporate-looking for my tastes. Don't get me wrong, I understand why Publix has its loyalists. I just don't think they were "all that" in comparison to a vintage Safeway, Kroger Superstore, or an A&P.

    That said, I LOVED the late-80's/1990's prototype. I remember great lighting, and white, pink/light mauve and teal colors, and great displays. It made a great impression on me in its time and day.

    Someone else mentioned Jewel in this thread. After grad school, I was in a training class in St. Charles, IL. I used to tool around for fun as I had my car. I once walked into a basically all white, mercury lighted Dominicks somewhere near there that also left a similar "this is what a big city food store looks like" impression.

  26. Actually, I have to agree with Danny on this one. The image leaves me cold as well. I was really looking at the photo after reading all the comments and commenting myself and I thought "What's so special about the interior?" It's kind of bland and boring to me and like Dan nailed it perfectly "Very corporate."

    That said, the positives to me are the checkout stands and the circular displays, but let's face it, we've seen much neater and way cooler vintage interior grocery store photos.

  27. Didi: I have to agree with Danny on this one. ... What's so special about the interior?"

    First of all, I can't stand having the directory on the walls. Tacky, tacky, tacky ....

    There are definitely clean lines, if you like that look. But it kind of reminds me of a lot of the current office buildings going up these days that have the same lines of those buildings from the 1950's and 1960's.

    Here's an example of our new courthouse under construction:

    Some of the newer buildings are attractive in their own simplistic way, but they aren't something that says "wow" to me.

  28. It's doesn't jump out the way the Kroger Superstore of the era did. But Kroger basically did a 360 on what they were building when they launched the superstores.

    The art deco Publix's of the past and the winged stores of the 60's are more unique. But if you weren't aware Publix is from Florida, nothing about it would scream Florida.

    But Publix did manage to have its own look in the 70's, though not as distinctive on the exterior as in the past, while most chains opted to blend in with the design of the shopping center.

  29. Didi – I’ve noticed as time goes on that even stores I wasn’t crazy about have a certain nostalgic value to them.

    Kim – Dominick’s was definitely a fave! When I lived in the Chicago area, they still had the excellent Heinemann’s bakeries. Good to hear they’re still strong in the bakery area.

    Greg – Displays like this really do seem to be a thing of the past. When I look at the canned goods you mention or the Nescafe display with the tier sheets between each level, I have to think they required lots of time to set up. They looked great, though!

    Jeff – That’s a really nice one, if it’s the Palm Beach store I’m thinking of!

    Gene – Thanks very much, I’m really excited about this. I tend to pay a lot of attention to the retail scene (including supermarkets) on my travels, as do a lot of this site’s regular readers. It’s always fun to compare! And I’ve also heard from business counterparts in Florida who’ve worked with them over the years that it’s a pleasant experience.

    Dan and Didi – No question about it, people’s tastes vary. Speaking strictly for myself, I think that out of the fair amount of vintage interiors I’ve seen, it’s one of the best ever. One reason for this is that the color scheme, earth tones and woods, captures that moment in time (the very early 70’s) so perfectly. It just brings it all back for me. The black-colored checkstands are also a striking touch, one that I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere. In times past they were often pastel-colored, and today they are usually beige/cream colored or stainless steel. As far as being boring, this photo does mainly show the checkstand area and the dry grocery or “center store” area, whereas the specialty departments are usually where Publix tended to jazz it up more. I have some pictures of these departments in other circa 1972-3 era stores that I may put on here when we reach that point in the history.

    Of course I totally dig the Safeway store interiors as well, which were excellent for decades (though they certainly tended to be fairly uniform chainwide) and the earliest years of the Kroger superstores, the subject of an entire post here, were fantastic. In my opinion, A&P’s interiors rarely lived up to the grandeur of their great colonial facades.

    I’ll bet those white/mauve/teal stores were sharp-looking, but I think those colors eventually became almost an epidemic in the grocery industry, something I mentioned on this site’s very first post. It seemed that by 1990 or so, everyone was using them, even Winn-Dixie (whose 1991 teal/mauve “Marketplace” store decor didn’t look half bad, btw.)

    I think the “corporate-looking” reference is an interesting take. In researching Publix along with so many other major chains in the course of writing for this site, I’m actually of the opinion that they have been far less tolerant of corporate baloney than average.

  30. Wow that picture takes me back. I grew up in Florida during the 80's, and spent many evenings shopping with my parents at a store that although updated(no ashtrays) was not unlike the picture shown. As a matter of fact, I was recently looking on live maps and noticed that the store had recently been torn down.

    Notice on the map all that remains is the terrazzo floors. Exactly like the ones in the pic. Those floors were virtually indestructible.

  31. One poster said above that the Miami Beach store is the last of the classic look. That is not true. Many of the original 1960s stores still exist...albeit with the wing facade the one in the Town and Country shopping center on Lake Worth Road in Palm Beach County. Also, in South Florida you sometimes see the wings, but no publix...just former location.

    Publix is building an old style (with wings) store at 2nd Ave N and Dixie Highway in LAke Worth, FL in Palm Beach County. Can't wait!