I worked at Publix in high school, and again in college. I had to; I was a Florida teen in the 80s, and that was pretty much the law. Almost every one of my friends worked at Publix. It was a great job for a teenager, because back then, working at Publix meant you learned how to work hard for someone and get rewarded. One of my coworkers noticed some strawberries with mold on them (this was before Publix packaged fruits and vegetables because of, as they told me recently, “health issues”) and pulled them off the shelf. His manager gave him a 25¢raise for taking initiative. We worked hard –just because we were teenagers didn’t mean our managers babied us –and when we did a good job, we were rewarded. Of course, the biggest part of our job was making the customer happy. George Jenkins, the Publix founder, was something of a Walt Disney in our world, and it wasn’t uncommon for us worker bees to feel as though we worked not for our manager or a paycheck, but to make Mr. Jenkins happy.
When Mr. Jenkins died, then-governor Lawton Chiles called him “a true civic leader who had a deep dedication to improving our communities.”As a teenager, I believed that.
Today’s Publix is no longer Mr. Jenkins’store, and, although I wore the orange polyester bakery uniform (That’s right, orange polyester. With bell-bottoms. Welcome to my teen years), I no longer subscribe to the cult of Publix. In fact, I go out of my way to shop elsewhere.
This usually makes my friends gasp in horror, as if I’m admitting I find convicted murderers sexy.
“Try living in Denmark, without anything remotely like a Publix, and then tell me how awful they are,”my friend Shelly says. She has a point: Publix is by far the cleanest, best-organized grocery store in several states (until you get to Harris Teeter, which won my heart in South Carolina, mostly because they have a coffee shop in the store). I’m not disputing that. All the same, I’ve grown disgusted with Florida’s green giant.
I have many reasons, but the final straw comes in the form of tomatoes. Publix steadfastly refuses to agree to buy tomatoes from farms that pay pickers a fair wage and which refuse to engage in exploitative practices. Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Subway –all of which come under fire for a litany of other reasons (not paying their own workers a living wage, contributing to obesity and cruel farming practices, use of genetically modified corn and baking bread with carcinogens banned in other countries come to mind immediately) –have all signed on with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’Campaign for Fair Food. So have Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. But not Publix, the store founded by a man who touted “doing the right thing”over making a profit.
I have other reasons, too, not the least of which are two amazing local grocers who do a better job at being Publix-like than Publix does: Pasadena Produce and Shaner’s. Pasadena Producecarries a goodly amount of organic produce, has my hippie milk (no growth hormones) and many of the staff there know an amazing amount about food, organics, and genetically modified things. This is much better than the blank stare I get at the local Publix when I ask about GMOs. Shaner’s sells whole, free-range chickens cheaper than the conventionally farmed chickens at any local supermarket, and they also have a few cuts of grass-fed beef. Much like Pasadena Produce, the family that runs this place –and the people who work for them –are connected to the food. They know where they get their grouper, without having to check the bag, and these employees, unlike the chain supermarkets, can decide not to carry something if it doesn’t look good or if they believe they’ll have to charge too much to make a profit. I trust them. And, in both cases, the things I buy there cost a whole lot less than any supermarket.
El Cap still sneaks to Publix when I ask him to pick up something, which I try not to do, because as wonderful as he is, asking him to pick up toasted sesame oil at the grocery store is like him asking me to go get some –I don’t know, self-threading machine screws, if that’s even a thing –at Home Depot. Also, I freely admit I’ve gone over the edge with what I will and won’t buy (note to self: stop reading the “Food Babe”on Facebook), and it’s really not fair to expect a meat-and-potatoes man to be able to walk into a grocery store and know that cage-free eggs aren’t the same as free-range eggs. He doesn’t really care about genetically modified canola oil, and it’s only several years of watching me get a wrinkly forehead when I read the ingredients in the bread he buys that makes him check labels now. I can’t make the man switch grocers, too.
I’ll admit, it’s exhausting not shopping at Publix. Shopping, aside from the occasional indifferent cashier or clueless stock person, is still sort of a pleasure there, albeit an expensive, exploitative one. I would love to feel good about shopping there again, but I fear I want the impossible. I want them to be the store I knew three decades ago. I want them to know about the products they sell, I want them to offer less-conventionally farmed food, and, most of all, I want them to buy from people who treat their workers like people, not slave labor.
Until then, though, shopping still is a pleasure –just not at Publix anymore.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.