Florida’s favorite grocery store seeks to be uncomplicated in a complicated world

Florida’s favorite grocery store seeks to be uncomplicated in a complicated world

Paige Vickers/Vox

Could you build a company like Publix today?

LAKELAND, Florida — The lore around Publix goes as follows: George Jenkins was working as a store manager at a Piggly Wiggly in Winter Haven, Florida, when he tried to meet with the grocery chain’s new owner to talk business and introduce himself. The guy blew him off — his secretary said he was in important meetings, but Jenkins overheard him talking golf. So he quit and opened his own store, which he called Publix, right next to the Pig in 1930. He built the business gradually, its growth mirroring Florida’s, and finally took the company outside of the state in 1991, starting with Savannah, Georgia.

Today, Publix employs some 250,000 people across 1,350 stores concentrated across the Southeast. It is the largest employee-owned company in the United States. Its workers — it prefers the term “associates” — get shares of stock in the company after working 1,000 hours in a year. The line among locals is that Publix is a place where truck drivers retire millionaires, though it’s not clear how many of those are mythical creatures. Whatever the case, many employees are doing well, the Jenkins family is sitting on piles of cash, and the company continues to succeed. Its retail sales neared $55 billion in 2022.

The grocery chain, with its bright green aesthetic, is arguably Florida’s most famous truly local major company. Disney’s a transplant, it doesn’t really count. Publix is deeply ingrained in the state’s economy and culture. Before Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi made his debut at Inter Miami CF, he made his debut browsing the aisles of Publix with his family. “Lionel Messi is already a Florida man shopping at Publix,” one headline declared. Publix’s acolytes talk eagerly about the store’s customer service and cleanliness, and rave about the famous deli sandwiches, known as “Pub subs.” Did you know they’ll take your groceries to your car for you? Have you heard about that one cashier everyone waits in line for? Have you seen the bathrooms, so immaculate you could eat off the floor?

The reality around Publix, like every aspect of life, is, frankly, more real. The Pub subs are good; they’re also still just sandwiches, and the day I went to try one in Lakeland, Florida, where Publix is based, I waited for several minutes before a worker came over to take my order. He did have suggestions on what to get on the sub, though they were unfortunately delivered after I’d already ordered. The cashiers, honestly, do seem quite friendly, even if many people would rather do self-checkout nowadays. And I’m sorry, you really should not eat off the floor of any bathroom, ever.

There are also the complications of real life — brushes with politics, labor-related controversies, a small-c conservative approach to business that has made the company slow to adapt, and the nagging concern that Publix isn’t exactly the most affordable. Still, to Floridians, the brand has a legendary quality. People often love their grocery stores — they can become endearing spaces of comfort and routine. In Publix’s case, that sentiment is on overdrive.

Many Publix lovers have little anecdotes about what makes the store special. I heard about a birthday celebrated with a candle-stubbled Pub sub acquired from miles away, and about a beloved set of pilgrim-shaped salt and pepper shakers used every year for Thanksgiving. People recommended the chicken tenders sub, store-brand ice cream, and the chain’s “tear-jerker” holiday commercials. One man told me about how his parents — a cashier and a bag boy — met at Publix in 1985. When he was old enough, he got his first job at Publix, too.

Javier Peña, a Florida transplant from the Washington, DC, area, explained he’s been converted to a fan. “I would joke that if you would ask Floridians what institutions they trust the most, Publix might be near the top,” he says. “It’s like a fixture in almost every community.”

The exterior of a Publix supermarket; a large tan build in a strip mall style.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A Publix supermarket in Fort Myers.

“Most people in this area love Publix,” says Barb, a Lakeland local who asked to withhold her last name to protect her privacy. She clarifies, “I mean, it’s a different company than it was when Mr. George was alive, but that’s going to happen.” “Mr. George” is how locals refer to Jenkins, Publix’s founder.

Publix didn’t used to be open on Sundays or many holidays like they are now, explains Barb, who went to high school with one of George Jenkins’s sons. “People don’t seem to be disgruntled about it, they understand why they had to change some things,” she says, speculating it has to do with competition.

Even if the company no longer rests on the Sabbath, so many parts of Publix feel old-fashioned. Its bakery still hands out free cookies to children, and if you want something on your Pub sub that isn’t available at the deli — say, mac and cheese out of the hot case — you can grab it from an aisle to get it put on. Workers will break packaging if, say, you only want two steaks instead of four. Blown-up pictures of the managers of each section hang throughout the store.

In an era when it’s next to impossible to find an employee to help while you’re out shopping, at Publix, it sometimes seems like there are more staff than there are customers on the floor.

There’s also a distinct level of continuity within Publix stores, not only across locales but across time. Publix today is supposed to feel fairly similar to Publix 30 years ago. Florida has a lot of stories of reinvention to it; Publix has been a steady, almost isolated force throughout.

“They really have held to these small traditions, really forcing the employees to greet you when you come in, being extra assertive when asking if you need help with anything,” says Kaitlyn Dillon, a graduate student living in Miami. She grew up in Florida and recalls going to the bakery to get free cookies as a kid. One former Publix employee said he was told to always say “happy to help” to customers and never “no problem,” lest the implication be that the customer is a problem. That employee also recalled being told in training to say no if asked to join a union.

A representative for Publix said they were “unaware of any training where this would have been shared” and that its workers had not “had a need for third-party representation.”

Still, Publix has changed with the times when it needed to. It started allowing workers to grow beards in 2018, and last year, Publix started selling wine and beer for people to drink while shopping at select stores. When I toured a store in Tampa in July, multiple customers browsed the aisles with a plastic cup of booze in hand. I imagine it gave a little extra silliness to the interaction with deli workers, who were donning red, black, and white chicken hats for the day as some sort of marketing scheme.

“Publix really has created this destination, and the destination is one part entertainment in the form of the atmosphere, and the other part is value,” says David Bishop, partner and research lead at Brick Meets Click, a firm that specializes in the grocery business. “In a routine activity like grocery shopping, it’s actually fun to shop at Publix.”

In Florida, Publix is inevitable — many shoppers would have to go out of their way to avoid one. That’s not to say everybody shops there, at least not primarily. Publix has a higher price point than stories like Winn-Dixie and Walmart, and it caters to a more middle- and upper-middle-class clientele. Some customers will stop in for Publix’s meat and produce, for example, but buy other items elsewhere. People keep a close eye on Publix’s buy-one-get-one deals and coupons.

For years, other grocery chains wouldn’t dare enter Florida for fear of competing against Publix. That’s starting to change. Kroger is establishing fulfillment centers and distribution hubs for online shopping and home delivery. This may be due to Publix being one of the early chains to partner with Instacart.

“They’re really hitched to Instacart’s wagon, and that’s probably created some of the opportunities like Kroger to come into the market and actually achieve price superiority when it comes to shopping online,” Bishop said. “They are facing more competitive pressure today than they have in the past, but even so, they carry a lot of weight with their reputation.”

Some of Publix’s efforts to innovate or try out new things over the years have petered out, including attempts to get into convenience stores and organic grocery stores. Much of its success has come in knowing its lane and sticking to it — hoping customers still appreciate that lane and others stay out of it.

Jolyne Jurado, a homemaker in the Tampa Bay area, told me that prior to the pandemic, her family used to get everything from Publix. But amid some financial hardships and inflation, that’s had to change. “With Publix generally, higher quality comes with higher cost,” she said. Publix is for birthday cakes and charcuterie trays; Aldi and elsewhere are for more mundane items.

Grilled meats and potato salads behind a glass deli counter in a Publix.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A Publix deli counter.

Publix is a palpably visible force in Lakeland; it seems as though half the buildings and parks in town have been paid for and named for the Jenkins family or someone Publix-adjacent. It’s part of the town’s fabric and also its economy. “In Lakeland alone, Publix has millions of square feet of space, thousands of employees, from warehousing to manufacturing, from office to retail,” says Steve Scruggs, president of the Lakeland Economic Development Council.

I met one woman in Lakeland who insisted she did not shop at Publix. Within five minutes, she was explaining how obsessed her son was with the subs. It’s here where I need to tell you I feel like people overplayed the sandwiches and underplayed the cake, which is spectacular. Also, an ethical note: A Publix spokesperson did offer me a free Pub sub, which I declined, but then we shared some of the groceries she’d pulled for me to try. I had a bite of a slice of cake, which became three bites, and then I took the whole thing. You can’t just return a half-eaten piece of cake.

Publix doesn’t want to be everything to everybody, but it does want to be everybody’s grocery store. That’s meant trying to stay out of politics, which is challenging in a day and age where corporations are basically expected to wade into the hot-button issues of the moment.

In 2020, it refused to let employees wear Black Lives Matter garb while on the job. Earlier this year, one of its bakery employees in Orlando balked when asked to write, “Trans people deserve joy!” on one of those spectacular cakes. They instead gave the customer extra icing and left a blank space so they could fill in the “trans” part, apologetically explaining they believed corporate policy barred them from taking a “stance” on something. Publix later apologized to the customer and said its associates should have frosted the cake themselves.

Publix tries hard to avoid rocking the boat, so when it does find itself up against the wall, there can be a sense of astonishment. This makes even relatively minor tussles feel pronounced, though most customers I talked to were unconcerned or unaware of controversies.

For more than a decade, Publix has been the subject of a campaign by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human rights organization focused on migrant farm workers, to sign on to its Fair Food Program that seeks to ensure certain standards and pay for laborers. It’s rooted in Florida’s tomato industry.

A number of companies have joined the agreement, which requires them to pay an extra penny per pound of produce, including Walmart, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. Publix has not, and its refusal has been confounding to organizers. “It’s been surprising to us since Publix is local. It also surprises a lot of people that Publix isn’t doing it,” said Leonel Perez, a spokesman for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, noting that 90 percent of Florida’s tomato producers are participating in the program, too.

Publix spokesperson Maria Brous said in an email that the company has consistently viewed the issue as a “labor dispute” since the campaign began. She added that the company works with so many suppliers “we could literally be drawn into a potential dispute between an employer and their employee(s) at any time,” which Publix doesn’t see as its place, and that it expects suppliers to follow the laws established to protect employees.

In 2018, survivors of the Parkland school shooting staged die-ins at two stores over its political contributions to Adam Putnam, a Republican gubernatorial candidate and fierce defender of the NRA.

“I wanted to make an example out of them because it was close to home and it’s very Floridian,” David Hogg, a Parkland survivor and activist, says of the decision to stage the die-ins, in an interview with Vox. “It’s hard to say you’re a family-centered company and you care about all those things when you’re literally endangering the lives of kids by funding these radical candidates.”

A woman in a mask checking out groceries at a checkout aisle.
Jeffrey Greenberg/UCG/Universal
A Publix checker in a Miami-area store.

Publix subsequently announced it would suspend donations to Putnam as it took time to “reevaluate” its giving process. (Putnam lost his primary to DeSantis,) People in Lakeland say Publix restructured how it handled government affairs after that.

In 2021, 60 Minutes ran a segment probing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s vaccine rollout in Florida, including his decision to partner with Publix on distribution. The segment also noted Publix had donated $100,000 to his reelection bid. Critics of the decision say it took public health decisions out of the hands of public health officials and, due to the lack of Publix stores in low-income areas, complicated getting vaccines to everyone in need. Publix cried foul at the 60 Minutes segment, saying that the suggestion that there was a connection between the campaign contributions and the vaccine deal was “absolutely false and offensive.” Others, including some Democrats, criticized the segment as well.

In a statement to Vox, DeSantis’s office pointed to its original rebuttal of the 60 Minutes story.

That same year, one of the Publix heiresses, Julie Jenkins Fancelli, was revealed to have donated some $300,000 to the rally that preceded the January 6 insurrection, paying for what the Wall Street Journal called “the lion’s share” of the Ellipse event where President Donald Trump urged his supporters to march on the Capitol. Documents show she offered a budget of $3 million for Trump’s causes.

The store has sought to distance itself from Fancelli, who does not have a hand in its operations.

“Mrs. Fancelli is not an employee of Publix Super Markets, and is neither involved in our business operations, nor does she represent the company in any way. We cannot comment on Mrs. Fancelli’s actions,” Brous said in an email. “The violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a national tragedy. The deplorable actions that occurred that day do not represent the values, work or opinions of Publix Super Markets.”

“Publix wants you to have an ideal civic experience in its store. It doesn’t cut corners, it’s not the cheapest, you go into its stores and it feels like you’re in a really nice neighborhood,” says Billy Townsend, a Lakeland-based writer and former member of the Polk County School Board. “They are going for a specific kind of feel, and January 6th ain’t it.”

Among some Publix shoppers, Fancelli’s political donations do weigh. In my conversations, more than one person compared Publix to Chick-fil-A, the fast food chain whose politics have been cause for consternation. Most shoppers did not bring it up, however, and if they did, they shrugged it off.

“If I boycott everyone, I wouldn’t be shopping anywhere,” said Lauren Goode, a Florida native now living in North Carolina. “It’s a bummer to hear about that, but then again, I look at my other alternatives, and I can’t say that I have a lot of better ones.”

People talk about Publix the way I would the Piggly Wiggly (Publix’s original enemy!) in my Wisconsin hometown. My version would go something like this: The donuts are great, it’s too cold in there in the summer, and don’t go unless you want to run into someone you know. The versions of Publix I heard among locals in Florida were equally mundane: It’s a nice place to get steps in when it’s hot outside, if my husband had worked there we’d probably retire richer, the pharmacy workers at this location are jerks.

Working at Publix seems okay, but it’s still just a job. One night in Lakeland, I ran into a pair of managers in town for training who’d been promoted at the store multiple times for over a decade. They were fine with their jobs, though both admitted they’d wanted to be teachers. Scanning through the Publix Reddit, you can see hourly employees complaining about their raises.

Publix, like any company, is imperfect. The fandom of it is probably overstated, as are the detractions. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe we put too much on businesses to mean anything. We expect them to take a stand, but the reality is, there’s only so much they are willing to do — that’s the nature of capitalism, profits over politics. Disney wouldn’t have stuck its neck out on Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law if leadership thought the move would hammer its business, which it didn’t. Mickey Mouse isn’t some folk hero, either.

Many of Publix’s customers want it to stay the same, but some of the external forces of competition and politics mean it may not be able to. It’s a tight line to walk.

Publix seeks to remain uncomplicated in a complicated world because life is complicated enough. Keeping things simple may not be possible, but isn’t simple a little bit what we want our grocery stores to be?

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