The untold truth of Publix

Full disclosure: I shop at Publix almost every day. There's one right around the corner from my home, and at least nine more in my immediate area. So it's safe to say that I'm a fan of the green and white grocery giant. And while I will stop in at Trader Joe's once in a while, there's really not much competition to speak of, at least in my area. So what it is about Publix that keeps me and millions of other shoppers coming back over every other grocery store? How did this chain come to be? And is the customer service really that good? Here are some facts, findings, and truths about Publix.

It's a Florida native

If you've never heard of Publix, that might be because you live in a region of the United States that doesn't have them. If you have, chances are you either live in or have visited Florida, where Publix originated, or other states in the South where they have stores: Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina. 

It all started when George Jenkins, the founder of the chain, incorporated and opened his first grocery store in Winter Haven, Florida, in 1930. He opened a second store in 1935, and in 1940 put a down payment down on a full-sized supermarket. After that, he continued to expand the company, buying up small grocery stores and re-opening them under the Publix brand. Part of the success was likely due to the innovations he installed in stores, like air conditioning, fluorescent lights, and frozen food cases. The rest is history as he grew the company to a $34 billion dollar enterprise with over 1,100 stores — not bad for a guy who started out as a store clerk at Piggly Wiggly.

It got its name from a theater chain

For the longest time I wondered about the name Publix, and where it came from. As it turns out, I'm not the only one who wondered, as George Jenkins told the story in a speech that was later published as The Publix Story. "The name 'Publix' was borrowed from a chain of theaters which was operating throughout Florida at the time," he said. "Most of them were closing up, and I liked the sound of the name so I just took it for my store." I'm not sure that just stealing the name of another company would fly with today's rules and regulations, but it did then. And it obviously was a good choice as the grocery chain is thriving today.

As for the fate of the Paramount-owned Publix theaters, which operated theaters in large cities across the country, they went bankrupt by 1935 due to the stock market crash of 1929. Unable to pay their mortgages, they were purchased by other theaters that were able to weather the economic storm. Perhaps that's why they just let the name go.

It's the largest employee-owned company in the world

Publix is the largest employee-owned company in the world, and not just by a small margin. At number one, Publix clocks in with 188,000 employees, which is astronomically higher than the number two spot, which has about 25,000 employees. It's not likely that anyone will surpass them anytime soon. 

So what benefits do workers at an employee-owned company like Publix earn? The big one is that each employee receives quarterly stock dividends at no cost to them, meaning they don't have to buy in — it's automatic. Combine that with the fact that Publix is making record-breaking profits, and that makes for a nice stock payday. 

The founding family is worth billions

Publix Supermarkets are good at raking in the dough. In 2016, they made $34 billion dollars in sales, and a record-breaking $2.03 billion in profits, up a full 3.1 percent for the year. And these impressive numbers don't just give the employees a nice stock payout four times a year. In fact, Publix has made the Jenkins family billionaires several times over. Founder George Jenkins' daughter, Carol Jenkins Barnett, is worth over $1.7 billion, and her brother Howard M. Jenkins is officially worth over one billion, too. And the Jenkins family isn't even the majority shareholder of the company, as they only hold about 20 percent — the other 80 percent belongs to the employees, who are the controlling shareholders. That shows just how valuable and high-performing Publix stock is.

The CEO started as a bag boy

The proof is in the pudding when it comes to advancing up the company ladder at Publix. They promote almost exclusively within the company, so once you're in the door you have a myriad of options in front of you over time. And you can apparently work your way into a variety of lucrative, sometimes high-power positions. For example, if you work as a store manager for 20 years, you might earn between $100,000 to $130,00 per year, have $300,000 in stock, and have received $30,000 in dividends. 

But it doesn't stop there. The person in charge of bakery strategy started out decorating cakes. One of the distribution center manages started out unloading railcars. And retired Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw, despite the fact that he is Publix Founder George Jenkins' grandson, started his tenure at the grocery giant as a clerk in Lake Wales, Forida. As for current Publix CEO Todd Jones, who took over the company reins in 2017? Not only did he start as a store clerk in New Smyrna Beach, FL, but he's also the first CEO who's not related to the Jenkins family. Looks like the American Dream is still alive at Publix.

Walmart isn't a threat

Walmart has a reputation for destroying small businesses by moving into their territory and offering the same goods for a (usually significantly) cheaper price. So when Walmart began aggressively targeting the Publix market in Florida after eviscerating the competition in most other regions of the South, you would think that Publix would be doomed, or at least outwardly nervous. But they weren't, and with good reason: Walmart can't seem to take them down, even years later. 

What's their secret? In a nutshell, customer service. Whereas some grocers might hire 250 employees for one store, Publix in some cases hired around 400 employees to ensure that shoppers got a full-service shopping experience. This means you never have to bag your own groceries, nor do you have to roll the cart to your vehicle — they do that for you if you prefer. And I speak from experience when I say that if you ask an employee who's stocking shelves where you can find another item, they will stop what they're doing and walk you over to it, even if it's clear across the store. You just can't get that kind of attention at Walmart.

It's a good place to work

It's well-known here in Florida that Publix is a good place to work, and there's plenty of data to back up the claim. They're employee owned, for one, so workers get stock payouts. They've made the Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For every year since its inception in 1998, and currently are ranked at #21. They offer medical benefits, tuition reimbursement, and a company matched retirement plan, even to their part-time employees. They have regular reviews and raises. Plus, there's career longevity — the average Publix store manager has worked there for approximately 25 years, and some associates have been there for 30 years or more. They have a voluntary turnover rate of 5 percent, which is astounding given that the industry standard is a whopping 65 percent. And since they promote from within, once you have your foot in the door you're set for life. 

But Publix has not always been good on LGBT issues

In spite of the many good things about Publix, they don't have the most sterling history of dealing with LGBT+ issues. For example, back in 2013, Human Rights Campaign gave Publix a zero rating for LGBT+ friendliness. Also in 2013, Equality Florida, a gay and lesbian rights group, told the Miami New Times that they had received a number of complaints from employees about LGBT+ discrimination at Publix. CEO Nadine Smith said that, "What they have described is a company that is insular and slow to move," when it comes to LGBT+ rights. Previously, in 2012, Publix was ordered by Broward County's Human Rights Board to pay $100,000 to a cake decorator who said he had been fired from the grocer for being gay. And while that decision was overturned, it fits the narrative that Publix seems to have created for itself.

Fortunately, Publix seems to be getting more tolerant in more recent years. In January of 2015, Publix finally extended benefits to the same-sex partners of LGBT+ employees, which was a big step in the right direction.

They're piloting meal kits

We've all heard of meal subscription services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. They seem like a great tool for busy folks who still want to make dinner at home, or people who want to learn how to cook. Publix is currently piloting a similar service in two of its stores, and while they don't send the meal kits to your door, they do pretty much everything else, including put everything you need in one bag and provide you with instructions. This service, according to Publix spokesperson Brian West, is not totally new for them either. He told the Tampa Bay Times, "Publix has been in the prepared meal game for almost 20 years through our Apron Simple Meals program. This is the next evolution of that." And apparently, it's going well. He continued, "We are very much in a testing phase at these two stores, but it is going very, very well so far." So it wouldn't be a surprise if this program is soon found at every Publix.

They make bread on-site every day

Many groceries sell bread, but Publix is one of the last, big supermarkets out there that makes fresh bread on-site every day. And you don't just get one option, as they make all kinds of breads, from sandwich bread that's just right for a good Cuban sandwich to French bread that's just right for onion soup. Their bakery also makes a variety of other products, like doughnuts, muffins, and cakes. This is why the Publix bakery is the go-to for locals who can special order custom birthday cakes, or just grab one at the last minute for a workplace celebration. And while you're not going to score elegant Italian cannolis or a perfect rum cake there, you can certainly rely on it to be of a consistent, above-average quality. 

You can weigh yourself

Many (though not all) Publix locations have a scale in the front of the store should you want to weigh yourself before heading into the market. And it's not a cheap scale by any stretch of the imagination, which is why you won't find one in every single store — they're expanding too fast for that. Still, most locations will have a Toledo brand scale, which is famous for being accurate, in the entryway so you can check your weight before you head in to shop for groceries. The whole thing started back in 1930, when George Jenkins outfitted the first Publix in Winter Haven with a scale so customers could check their weight for free — a service you would usually had to pay for at that time. And even though you can score a bathroom scale for pretty cheap these days, the Publix scale continues to be a popular amenity.

They've been criticized regarding farm workers

Publix has faced some backlash in the form of protests, along with fast food giant Wendy's, due to issues regarding the treatment of farm workers. Specifically, protesters objected to the grocer's refusal to join with other large corporations like Trader Joe's, McDonald's, and Walmart in paying one more penny per pound of tomatoes to increase the wages of farm workers. Additionally, the coalition between Florida farm workers and Florida tomato growers asked corporations to only purchase from growers who actively protect their workers from sexual harassment and forced labor. So why hasn't Publix gotten on board? Publix Spokesperson Brian West told the Tampa Bay Times, "It's very simple for us: They're asking us to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes for the workers and we're asking them to put it in the price of their product."  For West, then, it's not the responsibility of Publix to pay farm workers' wages. He continued, "If you're not satisfied with your pay you don't go to the customer and talk about it, you talk to your boss, the people who pay your wage." Still, supporters of the initiative, which has demonstrably helped farm workers, hope that Publix will change its mind.