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 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!)


  1. Gorgeous set of photos, Dave! The Art Deco/Streamlined stuff just rivals the Ralphs photos you profiled last year. I love, love, love the look of these stores!

    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.)

    LOL! I guess it could have worked if they had an Eastern European clientele (not sure what Florida was like back then). Sheep and rabbit are respected meats in my family as well as just plain gross to me.

    And the quote from the Saturday Evening Post about the housewives, just a tad bit creepy.

    Great article! I enjoy the chronicling of a chain I have never actually had the pleasure of experiencing.

  2. The sale of meats such as turtle and rabbit may have been unconventional, but they would have been part of the diet of many rural Americans prior to World War II, so there would not have been the reception that finding those items in a meat department today would elicit. This area of Florida's economy was driven by citrus groves, livestock and phosphate mining, so despite Publix's high class market design, most shoppers were of humble backgrounds.

    Additionally, that so many men went off to war is one of the reasons that pre-war photos show stores employing virtually all male staffs, the cashier as a female job is a result of World War II(much as it resulted in large number of women becoming teachers).

    The management of Publix over the 40 year period following aquiring All American Markets was and odd combination of innovation and conservative. Publix handed out S&h stamps into the 1980's, closed on Sunday until the early 80's, eskewed large ares of general merchandise and no pharmacy until about 1987,while quickly adapting scanning in the 79-82 period, having all stores on scanning in short order and launching their own Presto ATM network in 1992. The decision to concentrate solely on Florida until the opening of the Savannah, GA store in 1991, was part of this conservative mindset. In 1991, the panhandle beyond Tallahassee did not have a single Publix-Pensacola would receive it's first Publix just last year with the acquisition of 47 Albertson's throughout Florida.

    Even though Publix was transformed into a chain via the acquisition of All American, store acquisitions have played a minor role in expansion of the chain between All American and Albertson's. The purchase of several Miami area Grand Unions in the 1950's and the Nashville, TN area Albertson's in 2003 are probably the most notable during those years.

  3. Ken said: "The sale of meats such as turtle and rabbit may have been unconventional, but they would have been part of the diet of many rural Americans prior to World War II, so there would not have been the reception that finding those items in a meat department today would elicit. This area of Florida's economy was driven by citrus groves, livestock and phosphate mining, so despite Publix's high class market design, most shoppers were of humble backgrounds."

    Ken, that's one of the things that struck me about the pictures. Publix is headquared in a backwater area, and Florida didn't exactly have a lot of panache in those days. I am very surprised with the classy, stylish buildings employed for, of all things, a grocery store. Yes, I can see from these classic pictures why Publix had such a following, though it was lost on my in the mid-80's when I saw the remnants of those 60's and 70's stores. I thought they were unappealing and tacky at the time.

    Didi said LOL! I guess it could have worked if they had an Eastern European clientele (not sure what Florida was like back then). Sheep and rabbit are respected meats in my family as well as just plain gross to me.

    My parents being from the same part of the world as yours, lamb works its way in my diet only at Easter. Never had rabbit but they once slaughtered a lamb in my uncle's garage for Easter. (As children, we were traumatized.) Thank God their tastes in meat are otherwise very Americanized. Although my frugal father has this tendency to buy cheap, gristly meat sometimes just because it's on sale, overall the meat served at family functions is edible!

    (At this very minute, I'm sitting here and watching crystal clear versions of the local news on the Dayton television stations, roughly 80 miles away. For some reason, it gives me a cheap thrill that I am able to do so thanks to technology and digital TV.)

  4. My aunt and uncle used to take me to Sarasota, Florida every spring. (I am eternally grateful!) I remember that Publix in Ringling Shopping Center. More good memories, indeed. :)

  5. Given the modern supermarket was in its infancy, George Jenkins seemed to wanted to follow the model of a food emporium palace rather than the bare basics super that was predominant. It likely reflects his choice in the Publix name coming from a chain of movie theaters, which in that era could be described as movie palaces, and catered to all walks of life as well. Also, the traditional departments catered to all walks of life, with a few catering to the "carriage trade," such as Ivey's in Charlotte versus everyman Belk.

    Generally, the market leader supermarket has tended to be the traditional "carriage trade" grocer of the past. I've always assumed that since shopping for groceries was a decision made by women traditionally, stores which were cleaner, well staffed, attractive and well stocked were favored over stores that were less attractive but cheaper. No one wants their food to come from a dirty store. White Castle and Krystal long played on this image with store design, yet the feature was a simple square burger that the average working class Joe could afford.

    Certainly Ralphs may be the most obvious contemporary to Publix in this respect, but some elements found their way to other chains of the era-the porcelain facades such as Jewel was known for are found among various chains across the country. Certainly less elaborate and more spartan in appearance, but nonetheless a touch of elegance that symbolized cleanliness and modernity.

    Part of the popularity of the art deco, streamline moderne look among Americans of the era not only did it ultra modern if not futuristic, it was an escape from the realities of the Great Depression and World War II, and parlayed a sense of optimism.

  6. Even though they did not have a pharmacy, almost every Publix had an Eckard drug store next door for the pharmacy.

  7. Wonderful posting again, Dave. I have been long interested in the history of Publix, and these photos are simply tremendous. I lived in St. Petersburg for a few years back in the 90s, and the Walgreens on 9th in the former Publix location is still there. I hope you'll be posting photos of Publix from the 60s and 70s next. Their 70s stores were something very special. 'Preciate the shout out too.



  8. Didi - I hadn't thought about the comparison to Ralphs, but it makes sense. Lots of emphasis on style.

    I'm not sure there were a lot of Eastern Europeans in the area back then, but there were plenty who were (or their parents were) used to living off of land.

    I love leg of lamb and rack of lamb, and I really liked the turtle soup as I had it at Binyon's restaurant in Chicago. (I'm not sure they're still around, but it was their specialty.) Rabbit is a bridge too far, I'm afraid!

    As far as the "creepy" comment re the housewives goes, articles and ads were of course filled that kind of dialogue in those days. Maybe just a tad patronizing, eh? Although I have to think that more than a few folks would have rolled their eyes at a phrase like “bowing to the whim of the housewife” even then. It's the stuff that 'kitsch' is made of, though!

    Ken - True, the region of Florida they confined themselves to at that time bore a lot of similarity to the rural areas of Georgia, where wild game was a frequent staple in that era. That's interesting that they are just now getting into the far western panhandle area. I agree the two acquistions you mention besides All American (GU in Miami and Albertsons in Nashville) were very significant.

    Danny - I guess it is a bit surprising to see this type on a grocery store, but that sure seems to have helped set them apart.

    And edible is good!

    Kim - Glad this helped bring it back. I've heard that the Ringling complex was a major tourist attraction in Sarasota in the 70's and 80's, and am assuming you had a chance to see them!

    Ken - I think it's a balance that even today retailers would do well to try to strike - classy surroundings yet with reasonably priced goods. Target does this pretty well (although I would call it "well-designed" much more so than elegant). Some customers are willing to pay at least a slight premium, especially if the service is good. Somehwere I have a picture of a 1940's era Krystal, and when I first saw it was surprised at how nice it looked. Your comment about a "sense of optimism" is right on.

    Gene - From the late 50's on, Eckerd was a near constant fixture in Publix-developed shopping centers. Jack Eckerd was very quick to say it was Publix that helped his company break into the big time.

    Jack - Thanks very much, and no problem! A little bit more on the 50's, then on to the 60's and 70's. It's all great stuff!

  9. It's easy to see how the "winged" Publix stores evolved from these. Their marketing approach has been an odd one with both innovation and caution, but one which worked quite well--they were slow to build superstores, and slower to build really supersized (60K sf) locations, which means they don't take on risky new stores. Chains like Acme have closed numerous large stores because they couldn't generate sufficient volume.

    Publix used to provide complementary matches which had the Publix logo on the outside and the S&H green stamp crest on the inside. These found their way all over the country and provided free advertising for the chain. When people went to Florida, they were happy to see Publix.

  10. Hello,

    On behalf of the Citrus Tower, I would like to express my appreciation of the link, and the good word about the local tourist attraction. Come on by.

    Thanks again,

    Ben Homan,
    The Citrus Tower

  11. Dave, 6001 N.Nebraska ave is MY Publix! I shop there a couple of times each week. Its a small store but the staff is great!

  12. Anonymous - A mixture of "innovation and caution" - very well put! Sure does seem to have served them well. As you say, they were slowere to move into the really big stores, but they also seemed to be pretty systematic about replacing their smallest stores, sort of staking out a middle ground, sizewise.

    I've seen those 60's Publix matchcovers, they're very cool!

    Ben - You're very welcome! !'d love to get down there again in the near future.

    Dwayne - How cool is that? They deserve serious points in my book for that super-authentic retro look.

  13. As a former Publix employee now living in Los Angeles I cab assure you that there is much more to Publix than the cosmetics of their appearance. For starters it is employee-owned. That makes a significant difference in the behavior of the staff, each and every one of them. Thier training is ongoing, and with every employee willingly offering helpful suggestions to one another. And why not since each of them are an owner? Additionally, their food safety standards exceed industry guidelines, and push the envelope for quality. I have made it a point to inspect other stores and, bearing licensed credential declare that Publix is THE standard for retail grocery.

  14. Anonymous - I don't think there are many folks out there who would argue with you about that! Thanks very much!

  15. The location at 1720 16th St. North, St. Petersburg was just recently converted into a Family Dollar. They made it look very nice.
    I remember that location as a S&H Green Stamp when I was really little. I think I went there with my Grandma. What was it with Grandma's & their Green Stamp books?

  16. I know this thread is 3 years old but I have just discovered your blog. I am orginaly from New Jersey and was use to A&P, Grand Union(Grand Onion) and heaven forbid Acme (dirty store) When I moved to Florida I discovered Publix and was in my glory. One of the things Publix has going for it is they stock regional foods from around the country and the world. I love your blog.