After Publix, the most visited grocery store in Florida is Winn-Dixie.
The Jacksonville-based chain has built a strong presence in the state since its founding nearly a century ago. Now, it’s about to enter another era under new ownership.
On Wednesday, discount grocer Aldi announced plans to acquire Winn-Dixie and Harveys Supermarket from Southeastern Grocers for an undisclosed price. The purchase includes 400 stores, 75% of which are in Florida.
With the sale, set to finalize in 2024, the German grocer could more than double its store count in the state, where it faces steep competition from Publix.
But first, let’s look back at how Winn-Dixie became a Florida staple.
The origins of Winn-Dixie
The grocery chain went by several names before Winn-Dixie.
In 1925, William M. Davis bought the Rockmoor Grocery store in Miami with a $10,000 loan, according to newspaper archives. His four sons were stockholders of the store.
They renamed the store to Table Supply and expanded to 36 locations from South Florida to Tampa by 1934. William Davis died that year.
He left the business to his sons — Tampa resident A.D. Davis and James E. Davis — who made Winn-Dixie a Florida grocery empire.
Their first major move was buying Winn & Lovett, taking its name and establishing a headquarters in Jacksonville.
Winn-Dixie predecessors rose with the advent of supermarkets, a new concept that wasn’t fully cemented until the 1950s, said Tampa historian Rodney Kite-Powell. And Winn-Dixie came out of a period of consolidation in the food retail industry.
“It really was a place where you didn’t have to go to the meat market, didn’t have to go to the seafood guy, didn’t have to go down to a produce market, and you didn’t have to go to a bakery,” Kite-Powell said. “It’s like a mall for food.”
A.D. Davis credited automobiles for making it possible for people to travel to a bigger supermarket than a corner store after World War II. People at that time also stopped asking a clerk behind a counter to get groceries off the shelves and started browsing aisles themselves.
The business model was centered on “mass distribution at a low margin of profit,” Davis said.
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The name Winn-Dixie was born
At one point, the company ate up so many other stores, like Piggly Wiggly and Kwik Chek, that it struggled to juggle the many brands under its umbrella.
“We had quite a problem for a while,” A.D. Davis told the St. Petersburg Times in 1958. “When we merged with a chain we felt that it had a good name and we tried to keep it. At one time we had about nine or 10 different names, and we actually had stockholders that would come down here and not know what they had stock in.”
In 1955, the brothers bought Dixie-Home Stores and merged the names together to form Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. The other stores would gradually rebrand.
Before Publix, Winn-Dixie was the leading grocery chain in Florida because of its ideal locations and low costs, said food industry analyst Phil Lempert.
The company had more than 1,000 stores by the end of the century in five states and the Bahamas.
A turbulent new millennium
By the 2000s, Winn-Dixie struggled with competition from Publix and Walmart.
Winn-Dixie was especially vulnerable to the one-stop shop for groceries, clothing and home items: Walmart Supercenters. Both targeted middle-class consumers, and at least 80% of Winn-Dixie stores were within 10 miles from a Walmart. Winn-Dixie couldn’t compete on cheaper prices, according to a Tallahassee Democrat article from 2004 when the company was shedding 156 stores.
Meanwhile, Publix focused on creating a comfortable store experience and offering quality customer service.
“Winn-Dixie was just behind the times, that they didn’t see this evolution,” Lempert said, adding that it kept a “let’s pile it high, sell it cheap” mentality.
In 2005, Winn-Dixie filed for bankruptcy for the first time. Then it was bought by South Carolina company Bi-Lo LLC for $560 million in 2011. It had 480 stores by then.
The parent company bought Tampa-based Sweetbay Supermarket and Harveys Supermarkets in 2013. The company renamed itself to Southeastern Grocers and tried to become public. It never did, despite trying again in 2021.
The company then tried to cater to the state’s underserved Hispanic and Caribbean communities by opening the first Fresco y Más grocery store in South Florida’s Hialeah in 2016.
But by 2018, Southeastern Grocers filed for bankruptcy with more than $1 billion in debt. It came out of it by closing over 100 stores, including four in Hillsborough County and one each in Pinellas and Pasco, and by converting two Tampa Winn-Dixies stores to Fresco y Mas locations.
Is this the end of Winn-Dixie?
Southeastern Grocers is shutting down. While Winn-Dixie and Harveys Supermarket will belong to Aldi once the sale is finalized, Fresco y Mas was sold to food and retail investment firm Fresco Retail Group, LLC.
The German retailer said it plans to convert some Winn-Dixie stores to Aldi — and the rest are to stay under its original name.
But if the sale goes through, historian Kite-Powell said it leaves Publix as the last major grocer based in Florida.