Floridians love three things: sunny days, inviting beaches and Publix supermarkets. And not necessarily in that order. When Floridians make the unenviable decision to move away from the Sunshine State, it’s often the loss of Publix that they seem to lament the most—at least if all the Facebook posts are to be believed.
So what is it about a grocery-store chain that can elicit such loyalty? Here is some of the history behind Publix’s most beloved traditions.
Where did the name Publix come from anyway? It wasn’t the name of its founder; that was George Jenkins, a man who tried nearly a dozen vocations in Georgia before moving to Florida in the 1920s and finding his niche as a manager of Piggly Wiggly grocery stores. Jenkins opened his first Publix Food Store on Sept. 6, 1930, in Winter Haven. In 1935, he opened a second location across town. He closed these first two stores to open his dream store, the first Publix Super Market, on Nov. 8, 1940.
As Publix company historian Jennifer Bush tells it, the name Jenkins settled on originally came from a chain of movie houses called Publix Theatres. “He said, ‘I liked the name Publix, so I decided to use it for my store,” Bush explains.
The company’s well-known slogan—“Where Shopping Is a Pleasure”—came later in 1954 from Bill Schroter, who was in charge of the company’s advertising. It replaced the original slogan: “Florida’s Finest Food Store.”
When asked by a newspaper reporter about the store's prominent green color:
“Why green?” Jenkins said, “Because A&P used red.”
Have you ever wondered about the attraction customers have to the scale at the front of each Publix store? There’s a story behind that too. In 1940, when Jenkins opened his first “super market,” the store featured several features that were rare—if not new—to customers, including air conditioning, automatic doors, fluorescent lighting, terrazzo floors and a scale at the front.
Why a scale? At that time, Bush explains, having a bathroom scale at home wasn’t a common thing, so merchants would make a few extra dollars by putting coin-operated scales in their stores. But Jenkins insisted his scales be free to guests. It was a big hit right away, and to this day, it’s common to see customers step on the scale before leaving the store after each visit. By the way, the company still has that original 1940 scale in its corporate offices in Lakeland and it still works.
Ah, now we get down to the truly beloved Publix traditions. Where do we start? The infamous "BOGO" deals? Those tasty birthday cakes from the bakery? For many Publix fans, the salivating begins as soon as they smell the chicken.
The chain’s famous chicken dates back to the 1950s when it was cooked on a Rotiss-O-Mat. Fried chicken followed in the '70s, with the current recipe being finally introduced in 1992.
Are you a fan of the infamous chicken tenders? You're not alone. There's even a Twitter account just for customers who are checking to see if the chicken tender subs are on sale. Seriously.
“Pub Subs” were introduced in 1992 as well. Custom-made sandwiches remain rare among grocery chains in the south, and each hardcore Pub Sub fan has his or her own favorite. (We're torn between the Philly subs and the Cubans - either way, get them pressed by the deli staff for maximum flavor.)
If you’re thinking that Publix’s hometown of Lakeland gets the credit for the introduction of these two traditions, you’d be wrong. Both the chicken and subs were introduced first in the Atlanta market.
Seasoned Publix fans can be easily spotted by the number of Publix-brand goods in their carts. Is that a gallon of Publix sweet tea we see in your basket? You have good taste. It will go nicely with your Publix-brand Dijon mustard, that Publix-brand diet soda and that Publix-brand contact-lens solution (to store your lenses after that Publix-themed picnic you're obviously planning).
Kids get a free cookie at the Publix bakery if they just walk up to the counter and ask. Nobody knows for sure when this tradition began, but it could date all the way back to 1957 when the chain opened its first bakery. By the way, those first bakeries were not located inside Publix stores but were in separate buildings.
A Helping Hand
Some of Publix’s customer service traditions are subtler than others. Most frequent customers know that "associates"—the preferred title of those who assist with check out and other tasks around the store—will offer to take the cart and grocery bags out to the car.
But did you know that accepting a tip in return is forbidden? (Try it next time and see!) Likewise, associates are coached to personally lead a customer right to an item when asked where it is in the store.
Closed on Sundays
For the first several decades of doing business, Publix closed all its stores on Sundays. But over the years, as competitors began opening their doors on Sunday, Publix did the same - albeit with baby steps. It began by only opening 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in 1983. Companywide, the only holidays Publix closes on are Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
When Jenkins passed away in 1996 at the age of 88, even the New York Times wrote an obituary of the grocery-store pioneer, with then-governor Lawton Chiles commenting: "George made a tremendous contribution to our business climate, but perhaps more importantly, he was a true civic leader who had a deep dedication to improving our communities."
Jenkins' legacy continues today with his company playing an active role in Habitat for Humanity, March of Dimes and many other community projects. A high school in Lakeland carries his name: George W. Jenkins High School.
These days, Jenkins' legacy lives on with:
Operations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia