Monday, August 31, 2009

Publix Earns Its Wings

In the world of mid and late 20th century retail architecture, there are a number of store exterior designs that are indelibly, inextricably linked with one company. Where supermarkets are concerned, it’s a fairly small number. Two of those that immediately come to my mind are the Marina style stores (glass-front, arched roof design) of Safeway and the Centennial stores (Early American/Colonial design) of A&P. Those two companies certainly weren’t the only ones to use these designs – Philadelphia-based Penn Fruit was a pioneer of what would later be called the “Marina” style (named after Safeway’s 1959 flagship store in San Francisco’s Marina district), and many supermarket firms, including Grand Union, Acme, Albertsons and Food Fair to name just a few, opened stores that featured the Marina look. And I’ve seen a couple of very nice early 60’s examples of Colonial-style architecture on a Stop & Shop unit (Coventry, Rhode Island) and even on a Piggly Wiggly store operated by Shop Rite of Texas (who built some of the nicest looking Piggly Wigglys ever, in my opinion). Despite this, the association of those two styles with those particular companies (Marina = Safeway) and (Colonial = A&P) still hold the strongest.

Another one I would add to this list is Publix, with their magnificent winged-facade stores that first began to appear in 1956. Perfectly capturing the optimism and good-natured flamboyance of the times, these stores caused a stir when first opened, and the design was such a hit that Publix would stick with it for nearly 15 years.

A commenter on a recent post noted that “it’s easy to see how the ‘winged’ Publix stores evolved” from the previous art deco designs the company used, and I would have to agree. If you look at the series of black and white photos at the end of that post, a natural progression can be seen, with nearly every store showing slight differences from the previous one. One design element in particular, the large “PUBLIX MARKET” lettering, was used on several pre-“winged-era” stores, and in a few cases was even retrofitted to older stores, replacing their more subdued original signage. In one sense, the move away from the art deco look was necessary as more and more of the new Publix stores were in-line with shopping centers instead of free-standing. The distinctive art deco curved corners could no longer be used, rendering the style much less effective in a shopping center setting, something that can be seen in the later photos on that same post.

On top of that, styles were changing. To me, there’s a parallel between the look of American automobiles of the late 40’s and early 50’s and the Art Deco Publix stores, which both sported curvy lines and high profiles. A similar parallel can be drawn between the late 50’s winged Publix stores and the long, low, sleek car designs of that period, razor-sharp tailfins replacing the curved lines of the preceding years. So it must have been like grocery shopping in a ’59 Cadillac, or a “wide-track” Pontiac! (Ok, I guess some analogies can be carried too far…)

Publix’s tagline, “Where Shopping is a Pleasure”, was boldly emblazoned on the new facades. Still in use today, this slogan was the creation of Publix advertising manager Bill Schroter. In the 1940’s and early 50’s, the company had used another slogan - “Florida’s Finest Food Stores”. Schroter discussed his feelings about the original slogan in the book “Fifty Years of Pleasure”- “doggone it, the thing was self-congratulatory, offering no promise…I realized this could be a sacred cow”. “People would say, ‘Publix was such a pleasant place to shop.’ Or ‘The people are so pleasant’. It triggered something, and I just came up with a slogan idea”. Initially apprehensive about approaching Publix founder George Jenkins with it, Schroter pressed forward and presented his case, and one of the retail world’s most enduring slogans saw its first use.

From a corporate standpoint, Publix continued to grow steadily through the late 1950’s, reaching a total of 37 stores by 1958. The following year saw the beginning of an initiative that played a big part in Publix’s explosive growth over the following decades. In 1959, Publix took its first steps outside its Central Florida home base, opening its first store in the Miami area on July 5th of that year. Things took a big step forward there in November, when George Jenkins learned that The Grand Union Company had decided to put six of its Miami area stores up for sale. Despite the hand-wringing of some observers (Miami has always been a notoriously brutal grocery pricing market), Jenkins moved ahead on the deal. Thus was established Publix’s Southeast Coast division. By 1963, the company had built 14 additional stores and opened a distribution center in Miami. Publix also entered another new market in 1959 when it opened a store in Jacksonville. With prohibitive single-store advertising costs and the need to marshal their resources for the competitive battle in Miami, the company soon decided to sell that store to hometown heroes Winn-Dixie. In 1971, Publix would return to Jacksonville, this time for keeps.

Another venture that did much to shape Publix’s destiny was its entry into shopping center development. In fact, the first “modern” shopping center in the state, St. Petersburg’s Central Plaza, had a Publix store as a tenant. Florida’s second shopping center, in Largo, was actually developed by Publix. Over the next 25 years, Publix would develop 70 centers, all featuring major general merchandise and specialty retailers to complement their supermarket units. In the early years, Publix’s shopping centers typically included such variety stores as W.T. Grant and F.W. Woolworth, a drug store (mostly Touchton–Rexall, and later Eckerd), along with all manner of bakeries, toy stores, dry cleaners, shoe stores and clothing stores among others.
One Publix-developed center has even achieved a measure of pop culture status (again, owing to a movie) – 1958’s Southgate Shopping Center in Lakeland, which featured a gigantic arch in the middle of the shopping center that is thankfully still intact. The shopping center was the site of a scene in the 1990 Tim Burton movie “Edward Scissorhands”, starring Johnny Depp, providing what one columnist called “Lakeland’s Hollywood debut”. (Have there been other movies filmed in Lakeland?) Earlier this year, the Publix store, which was remodeled a number of times and most recently featured an early 70’s-ish Publix look, was torn down. Soon a much larger, brand new Publix store will reopen on the same spot. The iconic “Southgate” arch will remain in place, but the new store will be in the modern Publix mold. While I’m sure the new Publix will be beautiful, part of me wishes they’d “winged it”.

All of these photos are from a 1958 Publix promotional booklet. The first photo shows the new winged facade at the North Gate Shopping Center in Winter Haven, Florida, resplendent in palm trees and S&H Green Stamps signs. Second, an impeccably dressed mother and daughter experience some pleasant Publix service. Note the box of Tide, “The Washday Miracle”, in the shopping cart. Consumer products don’t get more photogenic than that. Third is an aerial view of Lakeland’s Southgate Shopping Center. With all of those customers, who needs Hollywood? Below are some black and whites of some the first winged stores, painstakingly captioned below for your surfing pleasure!
Cleveland Plaza, 1209 E. Cleveland, Clearwater
211 Douglas Ave., Bradenton (unusual "concave" variant)
West Gate Shopping Center, 3909 W. Manatee Ave., Bradenton
Britton Plaza, 3838 Dale Mabry Ave., Tampa (Debra Jane sent me a link to an incredible ad that shows the neon lighting pattern for this particular store. It's on her Flickr page at this link. Wowza!)
Colonial Plaza, 2418 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando
North Gate Shopping Center, 8815 N. Florida Ave., Tampa
Madeira Shopping Center, 662 East Welch Causeway, Madeira Beach
North Gate Shopping Center, 1395 N.6th Street, Winter Haven
Southgate Shopping Center, 2515 S. Florida Ave, Lakeland
South Gate Plaza, Sarasota (slogan on the awning)
Southside Shopping Center, 6th St. and 45th Ave. S., St. Petersburg (still under construction)


  1. "By 1963, the company had built 14 additional stores and opened a distribution center in Miami."

    The distribution center is still extant--located on Miami Gardens Drive just west of I-95--it's a MidCentury Modern delight in an otherwise dilapidated area of town--which nevertheless has several MidMod churches around, too.

    BTW, those winged facades were later fixed up with lights--at least the one my family frequented. It was a wonderful view at night and another fond Publix childhood memory.

  2. A few of these winged wonders still operate in Florida as Publix. In all its a modern look, if combining some minimalist elements with the wing evoking the art deco look of previous Publix stores. The venture into strip centers during the post war Florida boom was one of the companies best moves, allowing the chain to become synonymous with Florida among new residents and tourists alike.

    Perhaps the sale of the long Jacksonville unit to Winn-Dixie explains a similar store facade, sans wings, used in the 1960's. Red Winn and Dixie replaces green Publix Market with the W/D check(chek in Dixie speak), centered replacing the winged tower and "The Beef People" replacing "Where Shopping Is A Pleasure". Of course,Winn-Dixie's interiors were less dramatic, no mosaic wall murals, wall directories nor terrazzo floors.

    If you go to, 50th anniversary Miami merchandise is available, T-shirts, Caps, Coffee mugs, etc. Remarkably from its small and relatively late start in Miami, the chain has almost a 50% share of the 3-county Southeast Florida market of over 5 million people.

  3. I wrote to Publix HQ earlier this year and asked if there were any remaining Florida stores that still looked that way and hadn't been torn down or remodeled. They never answered me. I love that look.

  4. This is bliss to look at these old Publix stores. I grew up in Florida in the 80s, and there were still a few of these stores still in existence up until the mid-90s. The only original store still of this design still in operation is on Dade Blvd in Miami Beach. My wife and I popped by it to snag photos of it the day after our Key West wedding, en route to catch our flight in Ft. Lauderdale. She's only known Publix from the modern, new stores here in Nashville, so she was blown away by the tiny old store still in existence in Miami. The interior of that Miami Beach store is from the mid-90s, but the exterior (sans neon) is straight outta 1959, and looks just like these photos. Publix built a "retro" store at College Park in Orlando, and there are many photos of it online, but know that it is not an original winged store, although a nice tribute to the old design. Even the Belle Meade store in Nashville pays homage to this design with a slight winged style to it's exterior, but it's only slight at best. Anyway, I am quite the Publix fan, having first moved to Vero Beach, Florida when I was ten, where we had three Publices (plural for Publix) one from the 60s, one from the 70s, and one from the 80s, then one from the 90s right before I left. All were immaculate, spotless stores, with amazing customer service, and their ad campaigns were emotional, and tugged at the heart strings in a way I'd never seen a supermarket chain advertise before. If you're going to put "Where Shopping Is A Pleasure" ON the facade of your store, you better live up to it, and Publix did then and still does to this day. Thanks for this killer blog, Dave.

  5. Oh, and apparently Little Orphan Annie liked to shop Publix in that color 1958 photo.

  6. Publix was just one of a number of supermarket chains that got heavily involved in shopping center development. Grand Union and Food Fair had partially owned subsidiaries that built shopping centers--Grand Union's subsidiary even built large regional shopping centers. Some chains like Weis and Pick-n-Pay focused more on owning their stores.

    Other iconic store designs from the era: First National's brick colonials from the 50s, Jewel's ceramic facades from the same decade, and Food fair's pylons. It's been ages since I've seen a relatively intact Jewel front, but the others are quite visible as other operations.

    Publix winged design seemed old fashioned by the 60s, although the changes in the S&H logo helped refresh it. It's a shame they haven't revived it. The colonial revival "house" designs popular with many chains like Kroger have gotten tiresome--it would be great to see a different "classic" look.

  7. Awesome site/blog....My grandmother lived in St. Pete FL and looking thru your pics. One of these stood out( you gussed it the last one St.Pete Publix) I remember going to this one and it looked so Old fashion to me( mid 70's)I was use to the more "Modern" stores here in Atlanta area. Also i thought the name "Publix" was funny and kept calling it "Pubicx"( which my parents would threat'n me to wash my mouth out w/ soap...they never did) good times...yes indeedy ;0)

  8. Ok, these photos have so moved on up from the slightly disappointing first one. I liked the wings! Reminds me of a butterfly. I still tghink the art deco ones are more of a treasure to me, these are almost there and I find them really cool. That is the geek in me.

  9. Dexter - There is a picture of that distribution complex in the "50th anniversary" Publix book I've mentioned several times, but it's much too small to make out any details. Interesting that they applied the mid-mod design to even their distribution centers, which for most companies is typically a boring box. Cool!

    Ken - Very few, but that's better than none. And I agree the shopping center ventures really helped to fuel Publix's growth -they were able to nail some of the best locations, and since they developed the centers themselves, they didn't have to face the issue competing supermarkets being located in the same center, a very common occurrence in those days.

    I guess that minus the "wings" and plus the WD "Chek" logo, there was a bit of similarity between their storefronts, but WD's interiors were far less upscale as you note.

    And I didn't know they had 50% market share in Miami - absolutely huge in a major market like that.

    David - The ones that Jack mentions above are the only ones I'm aware of.

    Jack - Once again, thanks so much! for several years in the 90's, we were traveling to Florida all the time, and I now wish that I'd bothered to look up some of the old "Publices" while they were still around. The College Park store is a nice homage to the old design even with several major differences. My understanding is that the Miami Beach store is under some sort of historic protection ordinance for the facade, although I could be wrong on this. And I found a digital rendering of the Belle Meade store online - you're right, it's a tribute only in a very loose sense, but what a great looking store!

    You make a fantastic point about the emotional appeal of Publix's ads. Very few companies are able to do this, and the ones that are tend to generate fierce loyalty. I agree, the slogan across the facade certainly ups the ante.

    And they probably should have found a "Daddy Warbucks" lookalike for that photo - or is that Mrs. Warbucks?

    Anonymous - I've posted a bit on this site about Grand Union and Food Fair on this site, and one of these days hope to revisit them in much more depth. You are right, they were both very aggressive in the area of shopping center development.

    I really should have mentioned First National's excellent colonial designs. Although several chains used them, Food Fair's tall, skinny, grooved pylons were unique although the attached stores were usually pretty conventional. They got into much more interesting store designs in the 1960's. The porcelain-front Jewel stores are some of may all-time favorites (I'm originally from Chicago), but Philly-based Acme made their mark with this type of facade as well. Regarding the Jewel stores, here's an excellent recent post from the "A Chicago Sojourn" blog featuring some great photos:

    I agree that the classic Publix design would be a prime candidate for updating. I think in certain cases such as the Southgate example I mentioned in the post the nostalgic value would be significant, and it wouldn't have to come at the expense of a modern shopping experience. Thanks very much for your input!

    Anonymous - Ah, childhood days, with the ever-present threat of getting your mouth washed out with soap!

    Didi - A very cool neon butterfly!

  10. Those wings looked amazing at night. Just beautiful.

  11. The first 2 pictures look okay on my laptop, but then I decided to see if there was a new article and opened up this page on my office computer (with 24" monitor) and all I can say is ....... WOW! ....... That is an awsome looking storefront, as well as a great looking car!

  12. Jack - No argument here, that's for sure!

    Danny - Mind-blowing, aren't they? To me, they would have to part of any retail architecture "most memorable" list.

  13. The opening date for the new Southgate Publix is set for October 1st. It will be 47,380 sq. ft., which is a typical size for many new build Publix stores, and while it won't have an art deco or winged tower, it will be tastefully modern and restrained.

    At least the iconic arch for the center has been retained. And obviously the location is as viable in 2009 as it was 50 years ago, thus the investment. Not many locations have stood the test of time that well. George and company did a bang up job picking the location, the new store will hopefully see another half century of service.

  14. "Lake Worth commission paves way for new Publix":

    Not only is it going to sport (or sprout, no pun intended) wings but earlier art deco features, too.

  15. Anonymous - Wow, nice use of the retro elements! I'll have to check that one out when I'm down that way. It's still surprising to me that Publix didn't take this approach with the rebuilt store at Southgate. Thanks!

  16. A short video of the exterior of the College Park winged-tribute store appears here:

    Some details not quite clear in the video: the green backlit "Publix Market" letters are outlined in white neon. The smaller "Where Shopping Is A Pleasure" beneath is all neon, though it shows up looking like plastic in the video. The neon animation on the store's facade was not running this particular night, but normally cascades.

    The smaller roadside sign with the rotating wings (and cascading neon, which also does not show well in the video) is an original remnant from the earlier version of the store, and is protected as a Historic Landmark Sign in Orlando.

  17. The Madeira Beach Publix is alive and well, but it's now called Tom Stuart Causeway instead of Welch Causeway. It was remodeled with the "mosaic" storefront probably in the 80's?? My husband used to go to that store when his parents had their beach condo back in the 70's, and now we go there when we do our beach trek.

    The shopping center is almost empty. The only other store is the Walgreen's next door, but they are building a new stand-alone store on the corner. I heard a rumor a while back that they were going to tear down this store and build a new one, to make it more hurricane compliant (they did this to the Treasure Island store about 4-5 years ago. It's two levels, parking on the bottom, store on top.), but it hasn't happened yet, as of the end of July. When it does go, I will miss it, and the tile mosaic outside!

    Our family store growing up in So. Fla. was the Davie Blvd. Store. It had the famous "winged neon." A little while afterwards, they had to put a street light at that intersection and the neon wings were directly behind the light. I guess people got confused and were running the light or something, because shortly thereafter the neon went dim. But I think the wings remained until the early/mid 90's? It is now one of the newer "Spanish" style stores.

    Thanks for the site. I found you on Pinterest and have had a great time exploring.

  18. One of these Publix's DOES exist. It's on Miami Beach, at the corner of Michigan Ave and Dade Blvd. I shop there all the time. It's cramped due to its age, so I go to the Publix built last year 5 blocks away.