By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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"The Little Piggy is here," announce the signs promoting Boar's Head meat and cheese products. Carrying the pricey brand is just the store's latest move to keep up with changing tastes. Beyond catering to certain ethnic groups -- primarily Anglo, Jewish, and Latin -- the Dade Boulevard store now stocks Publix brand "NutriGanics" health foods to compete with the several health-food markets in South Beach. The Boar's Head campaign, says general manager Brian Aten, is Publix's answer to its upscale rival Epicure a few blocks down the road.
And although his store doesn't have a bakery, Aten gathers fresh-baked Publix bread on the way to work every morning from the Publix on 68th and Collins. Aten says his job is to make everyone happy. It's a corporate promise: "Where Shopping Is a Pleasure." The fact that some customers say his store is the place "where shopping is a nightmare" doesn't faze him. He remains loyal to the simple declarative statement coined by Bill Schroter in 1949 -- at least philosophically.
Schroter's line was an instant hit, replacing the self-congratulatory "Florida's Finest Food Stores" as the company's key selling tool. The new motto gave Publix -- founded in 1930 and named after a chain of popular movie theaters -- a sexier, more competitive image: less stodgy, more affable.
"I had been doing some limited market research and I found out the reasons why people tended to shop with us," recalls Schroter from his home in Lakeland. "Although there was a multitude of reasons, the one repeated most often was, 'Well, it's so pleasant to shop there,' and along with that, 'It's so clean, and the people so nice.' Out of the blue, I thought our promise to the customer could well be, 'Where shopping is a pleasure.'"
Schroter, now 70 years old, went on to head the marketing and advertising department for Publix until his retirement in 1990. He says the expression remains appropriate today, with rare exceptions. He hasn't been to Miami in a while, but he says he's heard of its "metamorphosis."
"I'm very flattered that they're still using the slogan, that it's survived the ages. Of course, there are isolated stores where a segment of the population might not agree with the slogan because of the compression of time and the complication of demographics," Schroter offers in classic ad-speak. "But I think the personnel of the stores still take inner pride and try to support the slogan."
Like other veteran shoppers here, Chris Heid has a strategy for parking at the Dade Boulevard Publix. He says he'd drive through the gates of Hell, park in Dante's Inferno, before he'd drive his Mercedes E300 into the store lot. "I parallel park in the street and leave it at that," says Heid, chief city planner for North Miami Beach. "In thirteen years shopping here I've never parked in the lot. Not even in a rainstorm. I'd rather pay to park at the meter than park free in the lot. That's how much of a disaster it is."
On his way from his car to the store, Heid strides purposefully around the straggle of cars circling or idling, blinkers flashing in the direction of the tight space they're waiting for -- a desperate game of musical chairs. "Tempers flare a lot," concedes Dennis Ward, a Miami Beach police officer who for the last several years has worked off-duty keeping the peace at Publix. "Most problems arise in the parking lot, people arguing over who was waiting for the space first. But they're mostly peaceably resolved."
Ducking inside the grocery, Heid begins binge shopping. Since he shops here as infrequently as possible, he buys as much as he can afford and as much as he can pyramid in his car and trunk and stock in a couple of refrigerators at home. He's a single man shopping with two carts.
"This is where shopping is a torture," groans Janet Aptaker, a single woman and a microshopper. She's in the produce section and wants just one ear of corn and two squash. "I disdain that everything is prepackaged and I have to get, like, sixteen squash," she says disdainfully, "and when I think about all the miles of plastic they use in a week and all the cartons, that really offends me." Aptaker slows down just long enough to educate a "flunky" in a green apron: Publix, she pointedly explains, sells mushrooms from a company known to mistreat migrant laborers, particularly women and children. The young male clerk nods blankly.
"I expect to be understood," she fumes. "If they don't understand me, it infuriates me. I bought some kind of vegetable a while back and the checkers didn't know what it was. It was so outrageous. It was like a zucchini or something basic and they didn't know what it was."
Aptaker hails from metropolitan Washington, D.C., and has fond memories of Safeway, that area's largest supermarket chain. "Safeway was like a normal place," says the hair stylist and mental-health counselor. "I don't really know how to discuss this. It was just more professional. The employees were more responsive and knowledgeable. I don't think it's Publix per se, but rather a lot of people who are not acculturated. In D.C. there were a lot of different cultures too, but it wasn't bothering me. I don't know why it does down here. I think people there were more interested in assimilating. They made more of an effort.