Showing posts with label Winter Haven. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Winter Haven. Show all posts

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)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Publix - The Art Deco Super Markets

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 d├ęcor 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!)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Publix, Wonder of Winter Haven

America’s greatest business stories are the result of gigantic mergers and acquisitions. Just look at the titans of our time – AOL Time Warner, Daimler Chrysler, Suxco…an impressive group, don’t you think? These companies all were the product of grand executive vision – to create synergies, to optimize efficiencies, to be proactively active, maximizing core competencies and enhancing shareholder value while at the same time improving the drab, wretched lives of all “stakeholders” in a manner consistent with the company mission statement. Inspiring stuff, huh?

Okay, anyone who has read this site for a while has probably figured out by now that the preceding paragraph is ridiculous and doesn’t reflect my views at all, and I suspect not many of yours either. (And I know, “proactively active” doesn’t even work grammatically.) No, to me, the greatest business stories center on the companies that started from scratch – little to no capital or connections, just hard work, persistence, heart, an attitude of service, and a dream – very often the dream of one person. Eventually others are recruited to help fulfill the dream, and the result makes history. The story of Publix and its founder George Jenkins is a prime example of this.

Born in 1907 and raised in Harris, Georgia, a tiny rural community 90 miles southwest of Atlanta, George Washington Jenkins, Jr.’s family operated a small general store. At the age of 12, Jenkins began working there on and off, pushing a broom, stocking, and doing occasional counter duty. It was there that he learned the importance of quality service and keying in on a customer’s likes and dislikes, although as he later admitted, he had no designs on a retailing career at that point.

At that time, the economy of that area was almost fully dependent on a single crop, cotton. In the early 1920’s, the economy of the deep south and central Georgia in particular was utterly devastated by the boll weevil, a type of beetle that descended on the nation’s cotton growing areas like an insidious, relentless plague. By 1923, the entire area was in the midst of a deep depression, years before “The Depression” hit the country as whole. Jenkins’ father’s store, owed $ 50,000 in customer accounts he would never be able to collect, was wiped out. The elder Jenkins moved to Atlanta to start up a small grocery store - on a cash basis, of course. The rest of the family stayed behind in Harris, including George Jr., who had two years of high school left to finish.

At age 17, Jenkins moved to Atlanta, but ironically would never work in his father’s new store. Instead, he worked a series of short-term odd jobs – cab driver, lumber hauler, shoe salesman – while attending electrical engineering night classes at Georgia Tech. He then got a job that he stuck around in just a bit longer than the others, clerking at a local Atlanta Piggly Wiggly store. After a couple of months behind the counter, he began a series of fill-in assignments for area Piggly Wiggly store managers. After six months on the job, a local real estate entrepreneur talked young Jenkins into quitting his grocery job to try his hand at real estate, where he promptly sold a house at a nice profit. (It would prove to be his only sale ever.) Soon afterward, this real estate “mentor” convinced young George that their fortunes lie in Florida, where the real-estate market was allegedly reaching 1849 Gold Rush proportions. With $11 in his pocket, Jenkins made the trip, ending up in Ybor City, a predominantly Hispanic section of Tampa. His real estate-mogul dreams soon dashed along with the prospect of hanging on to his eleven dollars, Jenkins managed to locate some old friends who now lived in Tampa who gave him a place to stay. The Florida trip had become just a vacation, and he fully intended to hitch a ride back to Atlanta after a week or so.

Before that week ended, though, Jenkins would reach a turning point in his life. His Tampa friends brought him to meet a man “who just happened to own 14 Piggly Wiggly stores in the area”, as Pat Watters’ book “Fifty Years of Pleasure” puts it. Jenkins mentioned his experience working at the Atlanta Piggly Wiggly, prompting the chain owner to offer him a job, which George accepted as a means of earning enough money to resume classes at Georgia Tech the following fall. Starting at 15 bucks a week , again “as a broom pusher and a stock clerk”, Jenkins was soon promoted to manager of a St. Petersburg store at more than double the salary, plus a percentage of the store’s gross. The “Fifty Years” book cites that under Jenkins’ leadership, the store’s sales increased from $1300 to $6600 a week with a year’s time. Shortly thereafter, he was put in charge of the chain’s largest store, their $7000 a week Winter Haven unit, where he would spend the next four years.

The changing economic times ultimately had a negative effect on his store’s sales, and Jenkins saw his pay cut. In 1930, the entire group of stores was sold to an Atlanta-based operator, who “never took the time to visit the store”, as Jenkins would later mention in a 1978 speech. Frustrated with his new boss’ hands-off approach, Jenkins decided to travel to Atlanta to meet with him in person there. Arriving at the company headquarters, Jenkins was told the owner was in an important meeting, and would be unable to see him. Overhearing the boss’ conversation through the door, George soon discovered what the topic of the “important meeting” actually was – his golf game! Offended more by the owner’s negligence than by the personal slight, Jenkins resolved then and there to go into business for himself. The incident provided a huge lesson for Jenkins, one that would profoundly influence the philosophies behind the company he would soon start up.

Resigning from Piggly Wiggly upon his return to Winter Haven, Jenkins took $1300 he had been saving for a new car and used it to open his own grocery store – right next door to the Winter Haven Piggly Wiggly. His former employer had asked him to stay on one more week to train the new store manager, and George agreed. During that final week, he took every opportunity to tell his loyal customers about his plans for the “store next door”, inviting them to come check it out after he opened up. Most of them did, and before long, due to the loyalty of those customers and several months of Jenkins’ aggressive pricing approach, "the Piggly next door wiggled no more”. (Poetry fail.)

Jenkins borrowed the name for his new store from the Publix theatre circuit, a then huge chain of movie houses controlled by Paramount Pictures (the company was actually called Paramount-Publix Corporation for a brief time in the early thirties) that included such legendary theatres as the Paramount Theatre (Times Square, NY), the Brooklyn Paramount, the Chicago-based Balaban and Katz circuit, and a host of other theatres in towns large and small across the entire country. In 1935, the company became one of the more spectacular casualties of the depression, a big reason why we associate the name “Publix” with supermarkets instead of theatres today.

In 1935, five years after opening the first Publix, Jenkins opened a small second store in Winter Haven and incorporated his business as Publix Food Stores Corporation. In the years immediately following, he operated those two stores and also began to travel a bit to investigate a new food retailing concept – the supermarket. Delighted with the concept itself - huge volume, self service, etc. – but turned off by the barren, shabby appearance of most of the early supermarkets (most of which were former factories or warehouse buildings), Jenkins began to devise plans for a new kind of store - a full-line supermarket with an unprecedented level of shopping comfort and eye appeal, that he termed “America’s Finest Food Store”.

Based on everything I’ve read about supermarkets of that era, I think it’s safe to say that if it wasn’t “the finest”, you could probably count its equals on one hand and still have some fingers left. With $25,000 in proceeds from mortgaging some orange groves he owned, Jenkins opened his new showplace in Winter Haven in 1940. The new Publix was a marvel to behold, with an art deco/streamline moderne exterior design finished with white stucco and black marble, a masonry and glass-block tower and huge plate-glass windows. The “Fifty Years” book cites another first, “something never seen in Florida for a grocery store –a parking lot.” Inside were wide, uncluttered aisles and “high-style decor”, as Chain Store Age would later refer to it. The most exciting features of the new store, in the mind of the public, were the electric-eye doors, rare anywhere in the United States at that time and absolutely unheard of in small-town central Florida before then. Jenkins himself considered the store’s air conditioning system to be an even more important feature, second only to the supermarket concept itself. The new Publix became a veritable tourist attraction. Soon after its opening, Jenkins sold off the two older stores.

Both the “Fifty Years of Pleasure” book and the text of the above-mentioned 1978 speech relate a moving story about Jenkins, sitting on the steps of the First Baptist Church, directly across the street from his new store on the eve of its opening: “I looked across the street at that beautiful store and said to myself ‘There will never be another one as pretty as that. This is the finest food store that can be built’”. Something tells me that he was also thinking into the future, beyond that one store, even though he wouldn’t be able to open another one for nearly five years and Publix was the furthest thing from ‘a chain’ at that time. I’ll take that over “synergies” any day.

The pictures, showing the 1940 Winter Haven Publix, are from the Florida Photographic Collection.