Wendy Mize’s family grew up on Publix, disciples to the giant supermarket chain’s empirical marketing slogan: “Where shopping is a pleasure”. As infants, her three daughters wore diapers bought from the Publix baby club. As children, they munched on free cookies from the bakery. There were even perks for the family’s pets, who are proud members of Publix Paws.
But now the decades-long love affair is over. After a member of Publix’s founding family donated $300,000 to the Donald Trump rally that preceded January’s deadly Capitol riots, Mize is pulling out of what she says has become “an abusive, dysfunctional relationship”, and joining others in a boycott of the Florida-based grocery chain that operates more than 1,200 stores across seven south-eastern states.
“It was the last straw,” said Mize, 57, an advertising copywriter from Orlando whose youngest twin daughters are now 19. “Insurrection at the Capitol, images of the police officer with his head being crushed, individuals dressed as Vikings on the floor of the Senate… we’re not going to call this normal. [Publix] are a private company and it is their business how they want to contribute their money, but it’s also my right to decide where I want to spend my dollars.”
Publix is an institution in Florida, the company growing from Depression-era roots in the 1930s to a regional behemoth with 225,000 workers today, and its founding Jenkins family now worth $8.8bn, according to Forbes. It prides itself on a family-friendly image, luring customers with prominent buy-one-get-one deals and a range of popular sandwich subs, and boasts of being the largest employee-owned company in the US.
Yet the company and its founders have donated often and generously to partisan, conservative causes, including more than $2m alone by Publix heiress Julie Jenkins Fancelli, daughter of the late company founder George Jenkins, to the Republican National Committee and Trump’s failed re-election campaign.
In a brief statement on 30 January, to date the company’s only comment about Fancelli, Publix attempted to distance itself from her. Yet her funding of the Trump gathering that formed the insurrection’s opening act, and revealed by the Wall Street Journal to have been channelled through the rightwing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, was just the latest in a series of controversies and missteps that left some shoppers holding their noses as they filled their carts, or others like Mize pulling out altogether.
Three years ago, in the aftermath of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17, Publix temporarily halted political donations after an outcry over its bankrolling of Adam Putnam, a self-confessed “proud National Rifle Association sellout”, for state governor.
Parkland survivors, led by the activist David Hogg, and their supporters staged “die-ins” at Publix supermarkets in several locations, protesting the company’s donation of $670,000, through its political action committee, to Putnam’s campaign. Putnam, as Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, had strongly opposed stricter gun laws following the shooting.
He was also the state official responsible for regulating Publix’s 800 stores in Florida, but ended up losing the Republican primary to the current governor Ron DeSantis, a staunch Trump ally and another recipient of the company’s political benevolence.
Earlier this year, Publix donated donated $100,000 to a political action committee looking to secure DeSantis’s re-election in 2022. Soon after, the governor awarded Publix a lucrative and exclusive contract to distribute Covid-19 vaccines in numerous stores. The governor’s office, which denied impropriety, has since added other retailers, including Walmart and Winn Dixie, to its approved distribution chain. But the controversy did not sit well with some observers.
“This is, plain and simple, dirty pay-to-play politics, corruption made possible by having a manipulative governor who kept Covid-19 infection data secret and is now doing the same with vaccine distribution,” the Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago wrote.
“He isn’t working for us, but on behalf of his re-election campaign. And this is exactly the type of politician Publix aids and abets by financing their careers.”
Others point to the juxtaposition of Publix being at the forefront of vaccine distribution in Florida while failing to enforce in-store mask wearing in some areas of the state, and defending a damaging wrongful death lawsuit from the family of an employee in Miami who died of Covid complications after being told not to wear a mask.
A judge in Tampa last week threw out the company’s demand to reduce the lawsuit to a worker’s compensation claim after the company asked for 70-year-old deli worker Gerardo Gutierrez’s death last April to be classified as a workplace accident.
Gutierrez’s family insists he contracted the infection from a colleague after employees were banned from wearing masks by workplace regulations later reversed. Publix has said it does not comment on pending litigation, and did not respond to other questions from the Guardian for this article.
“They were very slow adapting to the pandemic, and the new pandemic rules,” said Craig Pittman, author of several books on Florida culture who has chronicled Publix’s rise to become the state’s premier grocery retailer. “But the thing with Publix is it does lots of little things that people like, they make a big deal of the fact they’ll carry your groceries to the car and won’t accept the tip, they give free cookies to the kids in the bakery, if you ask for a sample they’ll give it to you no questions asked.
“So for a long time people have been willing to overlook some of the less savory aspects of the story, a number of sexual and racial discrimination lawsuits filed by employees, and this whole thing about them or their heirs donating to various politicians. “
Corporate messaging experts say Publix is walking a tightrope in its handling of the Fancelli crisis.
“What Publix does is take the middle path, they minimize responsibility, and by noting that Mrs Fancelli’s actions were essentially those of a private citizen not involved in the company, they’re saying, ‘Look, we don’t have control here,” said professor Josh Scacco of the University of South Florida’s department of communication.
“Publix assesses the situation as: ‘We don’t have responsibility, or responsibilities beyond guilt by association’. [But while] there is separation between the person at the checkout, the person behind the deli counter, the manager of a store, the CEO, and then the political action committee, ultimately they all come under the umbrella of Publix.”
Scacco also believes the furore mirrors the increasingly partisan nature of corporate America, where even the purchase of guava and cheese square from a Publix bakery has become a political statement.
“President Trump, for example, would tweet out support for a particular company and brand approval immediately polarized, Republicans like that company, Democrats dislike that company,” he said. “That is the risk that companies face being so closely tied to a particular leader or set of leaders.
“It’s also partly why there was such a rush immediately after 6 January for many of these companies to say, ‘We are not donating to individuals in Congress who voted to overturn the election result, we’re just not going to do it’.”
Mize, and her family, meanwhile, are working through their Publix break-up with a mixture of grief and relief.
“This time I just thought, ‘Enough. It’s not going to be business as normal’.”