Carlton: We want Publix for cucumbers and cupcakes, not controversy

Publix, Florida's beloved grocery chain, may have stepped in it again, this time on plastic bag bans.
Florida loves Publix. Controversies over politics and plastic? Not so much. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times (2018)]
Florida loves Publix. Controversies over politics and plastic? Not so much. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times (2018)]
Published April 14

Don't you wish Publix — the grocery store chain that's in the DNA of many a Floridian — would quit giving us reasons to think about shopping elsewhere?

Last year it was politics. Now it's the politics of plastic bags.

As the Times Steve Contorno reported this week, the Florida-based chain sure sounds all-in as Mount Pleasant, S.C., readies for its new environmentally smart ordinance against plastic bags in favor of shoppers using paper or reusable ones. And good for them.

A Publix spokeswoman sounded pretty positive in the local paper when asked about compliance with the new rule, waxing on about "taking care of people and minimizing the impact to our planet while remaining profitable" and how "sustainability is ingrained in our culture."

A culture that dies at the Florida-Georgia line, apparently.

Back here at home, Publix has been a force against cities and counties that want to adopt environmentally conscious local ordinances to ban plastic bags. Publix helped convince your elected officials in Tallahassee to ban such local bans.

(And as for state lawmakers who think they know better than local elected officials what's right for our distinct and separate communities — what's good for Pahokee is good for St. Petersburg — well, that's a rant for another day.)

Publix has said local bag bans eliminate customer choice and that it would be oh-so-hard for a company with nearly 800 stores across Florida to juggle different rules in different places.

And are they kidding with this?

Isn't serving unique communities part of the Publix brand? And, along with clean stores, decent service and that ever-present scale, part of its charm and what buys them our undying loyalty?

Your beach Publix sells blow-up rafts and umbrellas. A West Tampa store has a Latin bent with plenty of plantains and hot ham croquettes. Some Publixes stock T-shirts from neighborhood high schools.

They already know how to do this.

I suspect a more bottom-line reason, the bottom line being another thing Publix is especially good at. Maybe their research shows people who bring their own bags buy less. Maybe plastic bags are just faster to pack.

In Miami last month I popped into a Publix in Coral Gables, where the city has pushed ahead with its plastic bag ban despite the state moratorium — all currently being contemplated by the courts. So this Publix was sans plastic, and guess what?

It was busy. People bought groceries. Life as we know it went on.

An utterly unscientific survey this week in downtown St. Pete — a city contemplating a bag ban and watching closely for what happens in the courts — showed about half the University Village Publix shoppers armed with their own bags. "My personal policy is to bring one or two every time I go," college student Baron Reichenbach told me. So we're ready.

Last year's Publix controversy was uglier.

The company, along with its current and former leaders and founders, had donated $670,000 to agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam's campaign for governor. (I know: Who?) In a state that would suffer the Pulse nightclub and Parkland high school massacres and a lot of other horrifying gun violence, Putnam declared himself "a proud NRA sellout."

The backlash prompted Publix to suspend corporate campaign contributions and to say it never meant to put employees and customers in the middle of a political fight. Which sounded more like the Publix those of us raised on Pix Cola and Publix subs know.

Here's hoping the company does what it does best: figures out what its customers really want. Because a lot of us would like to go back to the tradition of Publix being where shopping is, as the pitch goes, "a pleasure." And not a dilemma.

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]

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