Nearly four years after the opening of the Winter Haven, Florida Publix market, “the most beautiful and most modern grocery establishment in Florida, and one of the finest in the United States”, it remained the company’s only store. Successful though it was, the economics of operating a single store were daunting, due to the inability to buy in volume and the very high cost of advertising per sales dollar, among other factors. Publix founder and president George Jenkins was acutely aware of the need to expand in order for his company to thrive. Jenkins stated goal at the time was “to build a chain of fifty stores like the (Winter Haven unit), no more”. In 1944, the situation began to look up, and the following year can be considered the true beginning of Publix as a “chain”. Unable to secure adequate building materials to expand during World War II, the company was finally able to scrounge up the necessary resources near the war’s end to buy a second store in neighboring Lake Wales.
The real catalyst for the company’s expansion, however, would come in the form of an acquisition. In 1945, J.A. Powell of nearby Lakeland, Florida, put his firm, Lakeland Grocery Company, up for sale. Powell’s company operated 19 little supermarkets under the banner of All American Stores. To put it mildly, the stores were humble in appearance - having “all the architectural charm of a shoe box”, as Jenkins later put it, but would provide the desperately needed volume. Included in the deal would be All American’s home office building and warehouse, the latter being particularly attractive to Jenkins, who understood the role of a distribution infrastructure as essential to a chain operation. Of critical importance was the fact that Powell was willing to provide financing on the sale price of $175,000 (for the entire company!), payable at twenty grand per year.
Beyond a cadre of loyal customers and a motley crew of stores, the All American buyout yielded a priceless asset to the fledgling Publix organization – a reservoir of management talent. The team of people that Publix gained from All American would lead the company for the next four decades, working alongside the dynamic Jenkins to take Publix from obscurity to being one of America’s most admired companies. This group included Joe Blanton, who worked his way up from meat cutter to vice president of real estate, ultimately becoming Publix president and “right-hand man” to George Jenkins. Blanton, a gentle giant who stood well over 6 feet tall and weighed over 300 pounds at his peak, became a highly respected figure in the supermarket industry and in Publix circles was revered nearly as much as the founder himself. Upon Blanton’s untimely death in 1984, he was succeeded as president by Mark Hollis, who began as a bagboy in 1946 in one of the former All American stores and whose father, William, would become a longtime Publix vice president.
Since it would be several years before Publix could afford or even obtain materials to replace the All American store buildings, great pains were taken to clean up, repaint and reequip the existing stores. Within the first couple of years, each of the stores would be renamed as Publix units.
And construction wasn’t the only aspect of Publix’s business affected by shortages. During World War II and for several years afterward, popular food items remained in high demand and short supply. Pat Watters’ book “Fifty Years of Pleasure”, released in 1980, describes the problems Publix (and many other grocers across the country) faced in keeping the stores stocked in those days. With packaged foods, for example, Publix was frequently forced to accept shipments that contained as much 50 percent of slow-moving off-brands in order to receive an allotment of what they did want (and could sell), such as Campbell’s soups or Libby’s canned vegetables. The shortage of meat was especially challenging, and the Watters book cites some unconventional meats that were stocked as a temporary solution – “sheep, rabbits, turtles, anything to put in a showcase”. (I can envision a big “Tastes like Chicken!” sign above the display.) These shortages and the resulting empty shelf space led to the introduction of another line of products – health and beauty aids. It goes without saying now that these lines (now typically called “HBC” for health, beauty and cosmetics) are indispensable to a supermarket’s bottom line, but prior to the late forties they were pretty much the sole province of drugstores. When Publix began to stock small amounts of these items – soap, shaving cream, cold cream, etc., they flew off of the shelves. Initially the manufacturers, including Colgate-Palmolive and others, resisted selling their products through grocery stores. When the sales numbers began to roll in, however, they were soon “breaking down our doors”, as Publix official Bob Schroter described it to Watters.
In 1948, Publix was finally in a position to begin replacing the stores, opening new units in the image of the Winter Haven store as designed by architect J.A. Tilden, with its distinctive art deco/streamline moderne lines, glass block tower and marble-and-glass storefront. The first replacement unit opened that year in Bartow, Florida. There was one notable exception to this plan. Soon after the replacement program was underway, Jenkins and Blanton began to question whether the level of luxury they were building into the stores was cost justifiable. It was decided that the next replacement store, in Clermont, Florida (Home of the Citrus Tower – Best. Tourist Attraction. Ever.) would have the streamlined appearance, but no glass block tower, no electric eye doors and no marble. The Watters book described the construction of the Clermont store as a fairly miserable episode, and whether or not the company considered it a “jinx” or there was some other reason, all subsequent stores would receive the full-blown luxury treatment. By 1951, twenty-five new and replacement stores had been opened. Jenkins was halfway to his goal.
The early fifties saw the introduction of another Publix signature – what would be a long-standing relationship with S&H Green Stamps. Publix initially agreed to give them out on a trial basis, with a benchmark of a 14 percent increase in sales as a requirement for keeping them. To their delight (both that of Publix and especially of Sperry & Hutchinson, no doubt) the increase was nearly double that. For decades following, Publix would be a most enthusiastic advocate of Green Stamps, prominently featuring S&H signs on their store facades and in newspaper ads. Years later, when competitors such as Winn-Dixie would drop stamps as part of a switch to a “low-price model”, Publix cheerfully doubled the amount of stamps they handed out.
In 1954, news of the Publix phenomenon reached a national audience for the first time. A 1954 issue of The Saturday Evening Post magazine featured a story entitled “The Grocer the Girls All Love”, a laudatory piece on George Jenkins and his company. As a number of you surely remember, weekly pictorial magazines, including Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post were staples of American living rooms during that era. Eventually they succumbed when their advertisers shifted to television, but in 1954 they still wielded considerable power and influence. The article described how Jenkins built his empire “by bowing to the whim of the housewife”, describing the sumptuous décor of the stores and extolling the company’s treatment of its employees. The article was illustrated with photos of Publix’s gorgeous new Lakeland store, including a photo of the very dapper Mr. Jenkins carrying groceries while escorting a beaming young mother and her three kids to their car. The article was no doubt instrumental in the rise of a new form of American anxiety - supermarket envy. As if Khrushchev wasn’t trouble enough.
The first photo, from a 1956 brochure called "Progress of Publix", depicts a color view of the “glass block tower” from a typical Publix store in the 1946-56 era. The second and third photos are from the Post magazine article referenced above, showing the brand-new Lakeland store at 916 N. Massachusetts Ave. The photos below show a sampling of different Art Deco-styled Publix stores, shown in approximate chronological order of opening. These photos are from a 1958 Publix brochure called "Personality of Publix" but shows stores of many vintages. Top to bottom, they are (1) Bartow, (2) the barebones Clermont store, (3) 225 N. Ft. Harrison Street, Clearwater, (4) 229 N. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando, (5) 1065 S. Florida Ave., Lakeland, (6) 1118 S. Kuhl Ave., Orlando, (7) 801 S. Collins, Plant City, (8) 211 Edgewater Drive, Orlando, (9) 1720 16th St. North, St. Petersburg, with a very cool S&H sign, (10) 6001 Nebraska Ave., Tampa, a store that was completely rebuilt in 1995 and on which they retained the classic style , as seen in a new pic from Debra Jane Seltzer's incredible Roadside site - if only more companies would do that!, (11) Pinellas Shopping Center, Largo, (12) a wider view of the Massachusetts Ave. Lakeland store, nicknamed “The Masterpiece market of the 1950’s”, (13) Gandy Blvd., Tampa, (14) Central Plaza Shopping Center, 3340 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, (15) Ringling Shopping Center, Sarasota, (16) First Federal Shopping Center, 890 49th St. North, St. Petersburg, and (17) 5420 W. 9th St, St. Petersburg, now a Walgreens (and a t-shirt, thanks to Jack for the tip!)