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Publix historian preserves the storied Florida company's past

George Jenkins opened his “dream store” in 1940. It was one of the first grocery stores with automatic sliding doors, frozen food cases and air conditioning.
George Jenkins opened his “dream store” in 1940. It was one of the first grocery stores with automatic sliding doors, frozen food cases and air conditioning.
Published Mar. 5, 2016

Jennifer Bush knows a lot about Publix, having worked there 35 years.

Like, did you know that body weight scales have been in Publix stores since the beginning? The iconic green scales found in store lobbies are still a staple in Florida supermarkets, but they don't exist in Publix locations outside of the state. They've always been free to use.

Bush started working for Publix part time in the accounting department when she was still in high school in 1980, when company founder George Jenkins was still there. She worked in advertising and public relations, too, serving for some time as the company's spokeswoman. Now she's the manager of special projects and the company historian.

Bush loves working at Publix, a common theme among the grocer's 179,000 employees across six states. Publix's turnover rate is just 5 percent, compared to the retail industry average of 65 percent. It's what landed Publix on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For list every year since it was first published in 1998. This year, Publix came in at No. 67.

Bush's love for her employer goes a little further than most.

In 2014, she and her husband, Anthony, found a safe in Georgia that dated back to 1873 and belonged to Jenkins' father. Her husband brought it home to Lakeland, where it was restored.

Jenkins was born in 1907 and grew up in Harris, Ga. There, he learned the tricks of the retail trade while working in his father's general store. He left for Atlanta to strike out on his own in the 1920s.

After months of online research, Bush's husband traveled to Georgia in 2014 to find out more about the old general store. Turns out, the building was in ruins. But Anthony Bush was able to locate the property owner, who agreed to donate a safe that remained in the building to Publix.

"It was amazing that we were able to save this piece of history and drive it back to Lakeland," Jennifer Bush said. "The safe was so heavy, it made permanent marks in my husband's pickup truck. We can't believe it made it back."

The 4,200-pound safe now sits in the lobby of the Publix headquarters in Lakeland. Bush passes it every day.

Bush and her husband — who doesn't work for Publix — went on this quest on their own time.

"It was a personal trip for us," Bush said. "But I think all of it was meant to be."

As the company historian, she has worked on several projects for Florida's largest grocery store chain. She helped get vintage Publix shopping carts from the 1940s into the Polk County History Center. She also restored Jenkins' old office to its original form from the 1970s. It includes his original Rolodex, his personal glasses and an old inventory machine. On the bookshelves in his office are the receipts from the first transaction after Publix installed ATMs. That was in 1982. There also is the first prescription written when pharmacies were added to the stores in 1986.

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Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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