A teen with a big dream and $19 tucked into his shoe was responsible for the first Publix grocery store in 1930. Nine decades on, the chain is 1,200 stores strong, is still growing, and is celebrating its milestone 90th anniversary.
George W. Jenkins, from Harris, Georgia, opened the very first “Publix Food Store” in Winter Haven, Florida, on Sept. 6, 1930. It was his childhood dream, says the Publix website, and he gained invaluable store management and customer service experience working in his father’s general store.
At age 17, Jenkins moved to Tampa in the midst of a real-estate boom. His dreams were disproportionate to his worldly savings of $19. But playing the long game, he started out as a stock clerk in a Piggly Wiggly grocery store and worked his way up from there.
Soon, the ambitious teen was promoted and found himself in a managerial position, and he was transferred to the chain’s largest site in Winter Haven.
From here, the young man’s big dreams started to manifest. After four years, he quit and opened his own Publix Food Store before opening a second five years later.
In 1940, Jenkins’s business model changed. He closed both stores and opened his “dream store,” the first Publix Super Market. The model would eventually inspire a 1,200-strong chain of trusted supermarkets.
Jenkins bought out 19 “All American” stores from the Lakeland Grocery Company in Florida in 1945, and his empire began to take shape.
Jenkins died in 1996, but his customer-centric philosophy is imbued in every Publix store open today. He would have celebrated his 111th birthday on the year of his supermarket chain’s milestone anniversary.
Approaching their 90th anniversary, and in honor of their beloved “Mr. George,” Publix headquarters took it upon themselves to restore Jenkins’s office to the way it looked in its heyday in 1968.
“When you step in this office, it feels like you’re stepping back in time,” Publix rep Jennifer Bush told Fox 13, showing off photographs of Jenkins’s original office setup, sourced family photos, golfing paraphernalia, and the boss’s favorite cigars to re-create an authentic esthetic.
The rep also presented Jenkins’s original leather office chair from a warehouse and returned it to pride of place. Today, Jenkins’s office is used as a “learning lab” for new corporate employees.
“He knew how to make you get that vibe,” a longtime employee of Publix supermarkets said of Mr. George. “He was so passionate on taking care of the customer.”
As the chain celebrates 90 years in operation, Publix supermarkets are still renowned for the outstanding customer service that started with Jenkins. The popular Publix chicken tender sub is even widely regarded as the unofficial Florida state sandwich.
As of 2020, Publix employs more than 220,000 people, reports WTSP, and it is the biggest employee-owned company in the United States.
Jenkins turned $19 into a 1,200-strong supermarket chain, and his legacy lives on in the passionate employees and satisfied customers that patronize his stores.
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