Monday, October 15, 2018
Human Interest

Why does every Florida Publix have a big scale?

If you were making a collage of Florida things, you’d certainly include an alligator, some mouse ears and an orange. You could throw in a car bumper splattered with love bugs, some spaghetti models (because you, Floridian, know what those are) and perhaps the tattooed face from the @_FloridaMan Twitter account that documents the state’s abundance of odd crimes.

You could also make a case for a Publix scale, the old-timey ones with the sturdy metal bars and the big, round dial on top that antique scale collectors call"lollipops."

Why the scale, and not Publix itself? All the items mentioned above, including Publix, are found in other states. Even that Florida Man mug shot is actually an Indiana man. The scale is essentially ours.

As Polk County-based Publix continues to open stores in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Virginia, only new Florida locations get the "people weigher," as Publix calls them. The thinking is that Floridians would never stand for a Publix without a scale, but people in other states won’t miss what they never had.

If you grew up here, you probably don’t find them weird. Maybe you assume other grocery stores have them. Maybe they were a leftover from the days of general stores and feed scales.

"Yes, and we’re the feed sacks," joked one colleague.

The scales have actually been there since Publix founder George Jenkins opened his first "food palace" Publix in 1940. At the time, the only opportunity to weigh yourself was at the doctor, or maybe by finding a coin-operated scale. Jenkins offered it as a free service, and it stuck.

That original Publix scale still works. It now sits in the late founder’s old corporate office, where new associates see it when they take tours.

The model No. 2830 people weigher found in a new Publix today is identical to the ones the old Toledo Scale company started manufacturing in Ohio around 1950. Mettler Toledo, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Switzerland, now makes industrial equipment, precision lab instruments and high-tech scale components. But for decades, they kept manufacturing the low-tech, but reliable, people weighers for Publix, essentially the only company that wanted them.

When Mettler Toledo ended production of the 2830s for good in 2015, Publix started stockpiling a significant number of them in a Florida warehouse. The grocery chain also has its own workshop for refurbishing old, used 2830s to look new.

How will Publix get new scales now that they’re out of production? The answer was not satisfying.

"For the foreseeable future, they will remain part of our Florida stores," said spokesman Brian West.

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A couple of hours spent scale watching at St. Petersburg’s University Village store showed that not everyone hops on, but many who do never leave the store without doing it. A few people came in just to use the scale and didn’t buy anything.

"Seems normal to me," said Angelis Delvalle, 29, of St. Petersburg, when asked if it was strange to weigh yourself publicly at the grocery store. "I always have to do it, and I have to get whoever is with me to do it too. I find it very amusing."

"You beat me to it!" yelled Richard McKethan, when his 3-year-old son Crystopher climbed up and proved he had broken 30 pounds. The whole family had raced toward the scale after checking out.

"You asked the right person, because I am all about the Publix scale," said Crystopher’s mom, Crystal Hickman, 35. "They’re an asset for watching your BMI. ... I used to be 300 pounds before I lost weight. Addiction isn’t only alcohol and gambling."

A moment later, a woman walked in briskly through the exit and stepped on, announcing to anyone in earshot that she was 129. She said, unsolicited, "I’m trying to gain weight. I just hate being skinny." Then she bought a carton of fried chicken and raced out.

Adan Monsivais, a 37-year-old construction worker, carefully removed his hard hat and placed his folded-up orange work vest inside it before weighing in. He has a scale at home, but "this is the scale I trust the most, to be honest," he said. Twitter, however, is littered with thoughts on Publix scale accuracy. Those unhappy say the scale "lies." Those happy say "the Publix scale never lies." Publix said it has its scales calibrated regularly.

The scales are a childhood memory shared by generations. They’re a vehicle for teenage slacking — one grown man remembered an ongoing competition with friends in high school involving visiting the scale before and after a bathroom break. They’re part of a Floridian’s vacation, since it’s now common for people to weigh their packed luggage at Publix to ensure they won’t get excess baggage fees. Store associates say it’s not unheard of to see someone slip in and weigh their dog.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:†Publix historian preserves the storied Florida company’s past

And make no mistake, the employees do see you.

In a 1988 feature in the Orlando Sentinel, writer Donna Bouffard, with the help of store employees in Winter Park, identified seven recurring categories of scale users, including "pickpockets," who set aside keys, change and wallets; "bashfuls," who go to great lengths to make sure nobody is looking; "hoppers," who leap on in a single bound; and "mechanics," who insist this thing must be broken.

They all ring true 30 years later, employees say, with the addition of a category: the "footloose," or those who remove their shoes, and sometimes socks.

The scales have been part of, ahem, weightier moments in people’s lives, too. It was a Publix scale that led a woman to discover her son was suffering from childhood diabetes,chronicledin a 1992 story in this newspaper. In another such story, a 2005 profile of a 36-year-old female boxer who had overcome ridicule and abuse, the Publix scale provided the dramatic moment when she discovered she might not make weight for the big fight.

They can mark milestones, like in 2005, when the writer of a Palm Beach Post column titled Women of a Certain Age noted proudly that she was finally old enough to "not weigh myself on the scale at Publix every time I walk by." They can mark humiliations, like when a mother wrote an anonymous letter to the editor of the Sentinel’s Ticked Off! column that read, "To the rude old lady whose comment was, ‘Wow, hope you don’t break it’ when he was on the scale at Publix: You are insensitive. My son had been working hard to lose weight. ... He has been depressed since then."

They can play a small role as politics and business intersect. In May, as news spread of Publix’s support for Republican gubernatorial candidate and self-proclaimed "proud NRA sellout" Adam Putnam, several online protesters cheekily noted they’d miss the Publix scales.

In the eight decades since the Publix scale first appeared, much has been written about body image and the psychic cost of checking your weight too often. This kind of hand wringing was not a thing in 1940, and certainly not in the earlier 20th century when public scales in Europe were supposedly inscribed with the phrase "He who often weighs himself knows himself well. He who knows himself well lives well."

Living well? Who knows? But stepping onto a scale, actually seeing that physical dial move in response to the quantity of your matter, even more than looking in a mirror or speaking out loud, is a grounding reminder that you are there.

And if you’re doing it in a grocery store, you know you’re in Florida.

Contact Christopher Spata at [email protected] Follow @spatatimes on Twitter.

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