Shelli Rafkin, who moved from New York City to the suburbs of Tampa, recently found herself missing a certain cheese she could not find. Sweet Munchee, to be precise.
She mentioned it to two employees at her nearby Publix grocery store. “They got the cheese for me in two days,” said Rafkin, 76. When she called to leave a compliment, the manager told her the two workers would get a free lunch on Publix.
“The people are so lovely, the culture is so welcoming,” Rafkin said. “Publix, the thing that brings my blood pressure down” — a twist on the store’s official mantra, “where shopping is a pleasure.”
Count Aaron Clemts, 58, similarly smitten. One of his young sons loved going to “Puglix.” The other, given the traditional free bakery cookie, would say “two!” and they always gave him another. Clemts became a devotee of Publix subs and red wine BOGOs.
Then he retired and moved out of state. But when he’s back in Florida, it’s the Dali Museum, Busch Gardens and Publix.
“You just don’t understand what we’re missing,” he tells people in his Publix-less town in Mississippi.
Newcomers have been known to puzzle over the deep devotion many Floridians feel for the 91-year-old Lakeland-based grocery. But generations have shopped the supermarkets with their palm-treed parking lots, familiar green logos and cool terrazzo floors. Publix is where Florida picks up Cuban sandwich party platters and buttercream birthday cakes, Thanksgiving Butterballs and bottled water when a hurricane threatens.
And Publix never seems to stop: The company generated record sales in 2020. Thursday, its newest local enterprise, an upscale GreenWise Market with an organic food focus, fine cheeses, craft beers and wine, opened its doors, tucked among the building boom at the southeast edge of downtown Tampa.
Even when politics intrude into what fans seem to implicitly agree is a safe space — the aisles of Publix — the company continues to make national lists of best places in America to work and shop, and to maintain that loyalty.
Witness a recent TikTok video that begins with cell phone footage of a man cursing and making a scene in what any local would know was a Publix. Then comes the outraged narrator: “I’m just going to say what every other Floridian is thinking ... In Publix? Where shopping is a pleasure? ... That is Walmart behavior, that is not Publix behavior ... It is truly the end of time.”
Publix is a very Florida story.
George W. Jenkins, once a stock clerk at a Tampa Piggly Wiggly, opened his first Publix Food Store in Winter Haven in 1930. Ten years later came his dream, the first Publix Super Market, a “food palace” of marble, glass and stucco with air conditioning and florescent lights.
Decades later, Publix stores with futuristic winged architecture would become a familiar feature of the Florida landscape.
Today, Publix’s empire of more than 1,250 stores spreads into Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Virginia. But the bulk — more than 800 — belong to Florida, where it has dominated the grocery market. The footprint keeps growing: In August alone, Publix planned to open eight more Florida stores.
The cigar-smoking, pencil-thin mustached “Mr. George” had a legendary focus on the customer shopping experience (and also a motto: “Give the lady what she wants.”)
A Piece of the Pie: The Story of Customer Service at Publix, written in 2005 by a former company vice president, recounts Herculean tales of going the extra mile: An employee jumping in his pickup to deliver balloons to a party when the bunch wouldn’t fit in the customer’s Beetle. An employee searching for and finding a customer’s lost diamond ring in the store’s recycle-your-bags bin. Another who, after a customer complained about the Publix-bought pizza she was trying to cook, drove to the house and, in a tie, cleaned a dirty oven.
Not all Publix stories have been uncontroversial.
The Wall Street Journal reported Publix heiress Julie Jenkins Fancelli, daughter of the late founder, contributed much of the funding for the rally before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Publix issued a statement saying Fancelli wasn’t an employee or involved in business operations, “nor does she represent the company in any way.” Publix called that day “a national tragedy.”
To some, the connection mattered. Scott Nigh, a St. Petersburg real estate broker and Publix fan, stopped shopping there, telling his wife he did not want to fund tailgates for insurrectionists. “I felt a little responsible that for 30 years, I kind of helped her write the check,” he said.
In 2018, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Publix, the heirs to its founder and its current and former leaders donated $670,000 to the gubernatorial run of Adam Putnam, whose hometown is 20 minutes from the company’s headquarters.
Putnam had declared himself a “proud #NRASellout.” Following a mass shooting that left 17 dead at a high school in Parkland, survivors and supporters encouraged boycotts and staged die-ins at Publix stores.
In response, Publix temporarily suspended contributions and said it was reviewing its political-giving policies.
Publix declined to join the Fair Food Program in which companies pay an additional penny-per-pound of produce to augment farmworkers’ low wages and ensure certain working conditions. Lupe Gonzalo, who harvested tomatoes in Florida and is a staff member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said it was a disappointment that “a corporation so powerful and part of the culture of Florida” does not participate.
The company called the issue a labor dispute between an employer and its employees.
Publix spokesperson Maria Brous declined to answer specific questions but said this in an email:
“We have always answered the call, whether it be feeding those who are hungry — especially in the most challenging of times — with more than 30 million pounds of produce being delivered to Feeding America member food banks during the pandemic, administering more than three million COVID-19 vaccines in Florida alone, delivering food, water and assisting in emergency relief efforts during hurricanes and most recently serving those affected by the tragedy in Surfside. Across our home state, you would be hard pressed to find an organization more committed to the communities and people we serve.”
Despite protests and personal boycotts, Publix continues to enjoy fierce Florida loyalty. The company dominated the state’s grocery sales with 60 percent of the market share in South Florida in the second quarter of 2020, with Walmart a distant second at 12.5 percent, according to the Shelby Report of the Southeast. Publix had 53 percent of the market share in Central Florida with Walmart second at 18 percent. In North Florida and South Georgia, Publix was still on top at 46.6 percent to Walmart’s 20 percent. Last year Publix made a record $44.9 billion in sales, according to fortune.com.
Sandy Freedman, the former mayor of Tampa who is also a cookbook author, believes Publix has built a reserve of goodwill for everything from their service to their sentimental holiday commercials — with tearjerker homecomings and the high jinks of a pair of pilgrim salt-and-pepper shakers.
“That reservoir is unshakable,” Freedman said. “So when times get tough, they’ve got that to fall back on.”
“I have political views, trust me,” said Rafkin, the Publix shopper from New York. “But that’s not why I go to a store.”
The fandom is intense. After a 2016 opinion piece headlined “Hey, Florida, It’s Time to Stop Blindly Adoring Publix,” Miami New Times reported still getting hate mail two years later.
Industry experts say a big factor in that loyalty is the employees — more than 225,000 of them. After they’ve worked for the company 1,000 hours in a year, or about 20 hours a week, employees are automatically provided shares of stock at no cost. There’s also a 401(k) retirement plan and an option to buy additional stock. It’s the largest-employee owned company in America.
“The employees own the store. I can’t communicate effectively enough how much of a difference that makes,” said Mark Thompson, CEO of GroceryAnchored.com, which tracks grocery stores nationwide. A shelf-stocker with a sense of ownership could be more likely to know what’s on sale and chat up customers. “If that stock boy is just making minimum wage, he’s putting soup on shelves,” Thompson said.
For 24 years, Publix has made Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. There’s a term for Publix employee devotion: Bleeding green.
And because employees make careers there — senior leaders including current CEO Todd Jones started out bagging groceries — customers can form bonds over time.
“Chains like Publix seem to really recognize the importance of that personal connection,” said Daniel Korschun, associate marketing professor at Drexel University.
Other loyalty-inducing factors cited by industry insiders: Consistency, cleanliness and attention to detail.
“I’ve used more grocery store bathrooms than anyone,” said Thompson. He said he has never walked into one in a Publix that wasn’t clean.
Also: “Publix spends money on lighting,” he said. “It literally affects your mood, and I don’t have to go out on a scientific limb to say that. “
Other likely contributors to the Publix ethos: wide aisles and neatly stocked shelves.
And diehard customers are devoted to that particular Publix culture: Weekly BOGOs. Deli subs with a cult following. Employees who, when asked where to find the feta, walk a customer to it. That smell of baking bread. And those stand-up scales on which customers can weigh themselves, something “Mr. George” put in his very first “food palace.” Bargain hunters may prefer Winn-Dixie or Walmart, but loyalists will tell you all of the above make it worth it.
“I like the fact that the management isn’t beyond jumping on a register or helping you find something in the aisle,” said customer Martin Hughes. Publix was the No. 1 supermarket in Newsweek’s America’s Best Customer Service 2021 companies.
The secret might be as simple as this Publix mainstay: At check-out, a clerk is ready to wheel a customer’s purchases to the car. Even for those who prefer to roll out their own groceries, it’s an old-school courtesy, like holding open a door for a stranger or saying good morning.
“Carryout service is our pleasure,” reads the decades-old sign. “No tipping, please.”