Publix Maximus

Crabby oldsters, cranky youngsters, exotic erotic pussycats, hormone-buzzed buff boys, and chitter-chattering checkers mix it up in the cultural Cuisinart that is the Publix supermarket on South Beach

A bodhisattva in a flimsy orange sari flowing from his nappy head to his crusty ankles fondles the pita bread in aisle nine.

Orthodox Jewish newlyweds, she with wide eyes Easter-egg blue, confer over Betty Crocker's strawberry and chocolate icing.

In the produce section: "?Hay malanga?"
"Si."
A stocky Russian woman clutches a zucchini, her slender husband holding the plastic bag.

Muscle men in cutoffs bop around the gray-turquoise-salmon-colored store, while shirt-and-ties discreetly read in the magazine cove. A mini-clad, stroller-pushing mom drifts by exuding a perfume that settles sweetly on the Italian parsley and watercress. Sex -- an appetite as consuming as food -- packaged tightly, though clearly drawn behind the veneer of shopping, like a cellophane-wrapped papaya.

They come to the Miami Beach Publix on Dade Boulevard on foot and bicycle, and by bus, taxi, and car. Rolls-Royce and hunk-a-junk. To the store emblazoned with a Fifties' Cadillac-style hood ornament as marquee. There, under a big-top awning the color of lime jello, old men, hair oiled and neatly parted, wait shoulder to shoulder for bejeweled, big-haired grandmothers to finish shopping, the excited mumble of Cuban Spanish reverberating like a basso ostinato under the canvas canopy.

They come from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. every day, 4000 a day. A feeding frenzy in the world's busiest (per square foot) Publix.

Shopping at this store for some is an enriching experience. For others it's intolerable, an unavoidable public mingling with those they privately resent or envy -- all manner of people congregating in the same cramped space, all sharing the same impossibly crowded parking lot, all suffering the same interminable wait at the check-out counter. Revealed here is the collage of South Beach, the locus classicus of incompatible realities.

"Somehow things in Miami Beach have progressed faster than the rest of Dade County," notes Randall Robinson, Jr., preservation director for the Miami Beach Development Corporation and the Miami Design Preservation League. "I think people come to Miami Beach expecting diversity, and some looking for diversity, and some not afraid of diversity. We've got the international tourists, the huge Jewish population, gay people, and other beach types. South Beach knows no misfits.

"And Publix is where you really get to see what Miami Beach is all about," he continues. "Ocean Drive belongs to the world, and Lincoln Road to people in the region, but the supermarket is the only place in town where everyone has to go. And Publix is not a dull place to go."

Built in 1963, the food market is one of the smallest (21,000 square feet) in the 522-store Publix chain -- but one of the most profitable. The city has outgrown the store, which regularly runs out of even its own brands of basic products. And the 90-space parking lot is a continual source of comic frustration. Still, many shoppers prefer Publix to other South Beach supermarkets that provide even less space and selection.

"It's understandable that the people are a lot more irritable," says Assistant City Manager Mayra Diaz Buttacavoli, who two and a half years ago sought to alleviate the irritation by looking for a new site to build a larger supermarket. Adequate land was difficult to find, but a conversation with her neighbor, who worked at Florida Power & Light, led to a deal. Several months later the city paid the electric company $1.47 million for its building and two-acre lot on Twentieth Street and Bay Road. A purchase agreement between the city and Publix has been signed, with the net profit to the city expected to be $930,000.

The city's Design Review Board is scheduled on October 1 to review plans for the postmodern Art Deco building designed by maverick architect Carlos Zapata. Construction is expected to begin the first quarter of 1997 and should take nine to twelve months. The Publix on the Bay, as it's to be called (though it will not actually sit on the bayfront), will be 47,000 square feet, more than double the size of the Dade Boulevard market. The new store will include a 220-space, double-decker, rooftop parking garage, airportlike conveyor belts to move groceries to the parking lot, and escalators to transport people. Also slated is a deli with tables, a pharmacy, a flower shop, a video-rental counter, and possibly outdoor seating.

This will be the 41st Publix in Dade County. The company says it will keep open the Dade Boulevard Publix, less than half a mile from the new site.

A supermarket shouldn't be just a big box surrounded by an asphalt parking lot, says the 33-year-old Robinson, but rather it should be an attractive venue that serves as a community gathering place. He's stoked about the proposed Publix on the Bay, believing that the new design will enhance the most interesting component of the store -- the already dynamic character of its clientele.

Before Robinson moved to Miami Beach nine years ago, he lived in Kendall and shopped at a spacious Publix where parking is a pleasure. But the easy access didn't stimulate him. "I may be in the minority," he says, "but I think the parking problem is a small price to pay for the experience of going in here."

"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.

"If I'm feeling really energetic, I'll go to the Publix in Miami Shores, where language isn't a problem. Or -- I know this sounds crazy -- I'll go to the one farther down Biscayne Boulevard, which is almost all black, which I'm used to."

The crowd at 5:30 p.m. on a weekday is in peak form. A buff boy wearing silk pajama-style pants and a sleeveless T-shirt steps out of his top-down Beemer. He had cruised the parking lot until he got the space closest to the door to make his strutting entrance. He made the same move, in the same clothes, at the same time, the previous day.

It's show time, the fashionable hour to shop and cruise the aisles. One of the busiest times to shop. "I know that a lot of gay men think that it's a good place to meet someone," says Randall Robinson. "It's well-lighted and you see people there that don't go to the usual socializing places -- bars and clubs."

Elsa Garcia tries to avoid the shopping crunch -- lunch hour, weekdays between 4:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., and weekends -- but hardly ever can. Home from her nursing job, she had to run to the store after realizing she had nothing for her children's dinner. She finally parks her minivan and then waits for a shopping cart, following one of the bag attendants, whom she knows, to a car and laying claim to the cart. Suddenly a young woman approaches her, screaming "This is my cart! Give me my cart!" The middle-age attendant settles the cart imbroglio in Garcia's favor, and he and Garcia watch, mouths agape, as the banshee scampers off, her long sandy mane bouncing on her back, and attacks a little old lady standing on the sidewalk with her Publix cart. Clawing at the paper sacks inside the cart and casting them aside on the ground, the crazed woman proceeds to push the cart toward the store entrance, leaving the elderly matron frozen in shock and three red apples spilling into the street.

After twenty years of shopping here, Garcia, a 36-year-old native Miamian of Cuban descent, says she's seen her share of eccentric behavior. She has witnessed local evolution from the Publix perspective, from small old snowbirds to tall young hot chicks. "Once -- I tell you no lie," she says, "she seemed to be one of those South Beach models, she had on a long black dress, like a house dress, and it was totally see-through -- totally! She had only a tonga, no bra. And nobody freaked out! Go to Southwest Dade and it would have been like the domino effect -- everybody turning their heads."

The transformation of South Beach from retirement Riviera to hipster playground has few resident detractors. Chris Heid is among those who enjoy the newer, younger, multicultural city, but he does hold a soft spot for the earlier era, those days of "really cute old Jewish ladies" who would jab the back of your ankles with their fold-up metal carts. "They'd always ask how much everything was, and since they were only four foot tall, they'd ask you to get it down for them. They'd hand you a list and you became an employee," Heid cracks. "'Ah, I can't read my Harry's writing, I think it says matzo balls, right?'"

Birgitta Hansson was not an amused shopper before the South Beach revival. She delights in the younger crowd. "It was worse before, with the little old ladies from Brooklyn with big blue hair and always rude in a New York kind of way," says the 36-year-old artist. "They were always, 'Get this, get that!' and running you over with the cart. We were here to serve them." Hansson, however, came armed with her Italian-from-Brooklyn husband, who seemed to relish a good conflict. He'd tell them off.

Nowadays she relies more on her husband's services as Spanish interpreter. Hansson moved here from Sweden fifteen years ago, and although her English is flawless, she doesn't know rudimentary Spanish -- a definite handicap in South Florida. While Publix's front-line personnel are mostly bilingual, many will speak Spanish while working. That, and the perception by some non-Spanish speakers that the Latin employees are less responsive to them, creates some animosity.

"Everybody behind the checkout counter seems to have a lobotomy," Hansson gripes. "They're like, 'Huh?' They don't care. I think everybody should learn English if they live here. I think it's rude to speak Spanish around non-Spanish speakers. What are we, chopped liver?"

Hansson inches forward in the checkout lane. Like others who have moved here, she recalls hometown grocery shopping as superior. The supermarkets in Sweden were bigger, cleaner, and more efficient, she remembers: "The cashiers would only look at the price stickers and it was much faster than with the scanner. They would help out all they could and do it fast."

With her two children by her side, Elsa Garcia has managed to fill a cart in about 45 minutes. The store is overcrowded and she thinks there should be one-way-only traffic in the aisles. "Pero bueno," she shrugs, "I've gotten used to it. I make it an event." After fifteen minutes in line, Garcia finally reaches the cashier and is sharing chismes. They're smiling.

Last summer, during one of the many approaching hurricanes, Garcia waited two hours in the checkout line to purchase the requisite provisions of water, canned goods, and batteries. For some customers the wait in line that day was far more hassle than the eventual storm that never hit. But Garcia met someone in line and struck up a friendship, and she learned some tips about hurricane preparedness that could help her in the future. "I'm a very friendly person," she says. "I made the best of it. If you don't, you'll be miserable."

Swiftly walking past the homeless man at the front of the store drinking a Diet Pepsi and eating white bread, Dina Knapp aims directly for the three items she needs. After eighteen years, she and her husband Jeffrey, a poet and FIU professor, have switched to warehouse shopping at the Costco in North Miami Beach. Even though it is four times as far from their home as Publix, they'll only venture into the nearby market for immediate necessities.

The employees are fine, says Knapp, it's the shoppers she can do without. She calls the store the Black Hole of Calcutta. "It's sort of dingy-dirty, the aisles are small, everyone smells bad, they don't care how they look, they come from the beach or the gym or from work and it takes way too long to check out," complains the 49-year-old artist and bookstore clerk. "So it makes it an incredibly unpleasant experience. My husband likes the models, though, which you don't see too much at Costco.

"I really like the multiculturalism here," continues Knapp, who moved from New York City to Miami Beach with her husband in 1977. "What I don't like are the nasty people. There's a problem with a certain group of people who I won't name, but who speak the common language, who keep ignoring the handicapped parking signs. When you tell them about it, they want to kill you or just kind of run you over because the parking lot is so small. But I really like the fact that there's all sorts of people."

In another checkout lane, Janet Aptaker is now packing her own groceries into plastic bags she brought from home. Using your Publix bag over and over again is Aptaker's idea of recycling, not the method prescribed by Publix: Bring in your used Publix plastic bags and stuff them in the blue recycling bin in front of the store. "Typically, the bagger is completely mystified about my suggestion, if they even understand what I'm saying," Aptaker laments. "They suggest I put it in the recycling bin, but I insist that I am recycling. It's an ongoing battle. Then they stand there and they don't help bag the groceries. It's very frustrating. That's the feeling remaining with me as I walk out to the treacherous parking lot."

Over in frozen foods, a statuesque black woman glides gracefully through the aisle balancing a two-liter Coke atop her head and occasionally peering through one of the glass doors at the small flat boxes. "Charming," responds Teddy Fernandez to the balancing act. Another recent transplant from the Kendall hinterlands, Fernandez relishes the change: "This is what Miami Beach is all about, an eclectic group of people."

Compared to a long day at his real estate business, the checkout lane is a conga line to 30-year-old Fernandez: "I get a kick out of all the turmoil, all the people trying to snake in front of you in line. I think it's kind of fun. It's always good for a laugh -- to see how everybody gets so upset about everything, and I just go, 'Ha! This is fun.'"

What Dominic Enthoven finds interesting is "the guys with enviable bums, and the beautiful people; they're much more dour in England." What Enthoven, a Briton working here as a shipping-line representative, finds annoying is the lack of good old-fashioned double cream, full-fat butter, and other cholesterol excesses. "Somehow everything is very conventional," he sniffs. For variety, he insists, London supermarkets are far better. And the store's deli -- well, it really is rather unmentionable. "In London," he says, "you can get the tandoori chicken that is as good as it looks on the box it came in. All the stuff at this deli looks like airline food."

Except for the demise of some of his favorite brands of cookies, 84-year-old Bernard Lubschutz couldn't be more pleased with the selection at Publix. The retired stockbroker and lifelong bachelor has shopped here since the days when the Fontainebleau boasted Frank Sinatra live. Lubschutz maneuvers through the store in a perfectly tailored autumn-green Brooks Brothers blazer, a silver Shriner's pin on the lapel, tan trousers, and penny loafers. The brim of his cloth hat is snapped down in front. He came to Miami Beach in 1956 from Norfolk, Virginia.

"Excellent place to shop, though nothing is perfect," Lubschutz proclaims in a deliberate, genteel Southern drawl. "It's the same old story: When it's crowded, it's not comfortable. During Christmastime you're apt to get pushed around -- pushed around by older ladies."

Lubschutz worked in his father's grocery store from 1920 to 1930. They sold meats, fresh vegetables, canned goods, bulk cornmeal, and dried beans and black-eyed peas by the pound from large sacks. He waited on customers and delivered groceries by bicycle. It was a Jewish-owned store in a poor gentile enclave of Norfolk. "My mother and father spoke Yiddish at home," he recalls, "but they were reluctant to speak it at the store because they felt people would think they were talking about things that they shouldn't be talking about. That's in sharp contrast to what's happening here."

Holding a bottle of white wine and two bottles of Snapple fruit juice in his hands, Lubschutz marches past the so-called speed lanes and heads for the customer service counter, where he checks out quickly and walks to his Oldsmobile parked in the lot of the Great Western bank next to Publix. He's in a hurry to get to a bon voyage dinner -- he's taking a trip to England.

It doesn't happen too often any more that Lubschutz meets someone he knows at Publix and shares a brief conversation while shopping. "Most of the people you can identify by their conversations in their native tongue," he says. "Most of them are from South and Central America. By and large you don't know the people.

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