A black and white photograph of a Publix bakery, circa 1940

Not How We Do It Up North: Publix Bakery Edition

Last night, a friend made a comment about a new pizza place in St. Pete. This friend was born Somewhere Else (read: not Florida) and made a snarky comment about Floridians shouldn’t rank local pizza because pizza gets ranked by borough.

This led to my suggesting that perhaps people don’t move to Florida for the pizza. The exchange brought to mind a wonderful Florida memory.

When I was 15, I had a summer job at the Publix bakery (if you grew up in Florida in the ’80s, I believe it was the law you had to work at a Publix). In the 1980s, Publix didn’t simply have bakeries; they had Danish bakeries, where women wore orange and brown bell-bottomed polyester uniforms and appeased the customer at all costs. I answered to a stern lady, Lucy, who I estimated as 60-something (of course, I was 15, so she could have been 35 for all I knew; I thought 25 was old). She had short, salt-and-pepper hair she wore in tight pin curls, and everything about her radiated her unwillingness to truck in foolishness. I can’t imagine she loved managing a bunch of giggly teenage girls, because honestly? We were the worst.

One morning, a man came in and asked for a few Chicago hard rolls. I bagged them for him, he took them from me, and proceeded to loudly berate Florida, Publix, the baker and probably the man who harvested the wheat. Why? Because – say it with me – that’s not how they did it up north. This meant, of course (since he hadn’t tasted them), that the Chicago hard rolls weren’t hard enough.

Lucy heard his tirade and approached the counter. Now, she was an old-school Publix customer service type of woman, so I braced myself for a scolding. Although I’d apologized to the customer about the rolls not being like they were up north (let’s put a pin in EVERYTHING that’s wrong with that, just for a moment), I figured I’d done something wrong.

That’s not what happened, What happened next has inspired me pretty much every day since.

She stood next to me and folded her hands on the top of the glass counter. She inquired as to the problem, and the man went into the second verse of his tirade. She listened, nodding here and there. When he wound down, she cleared her throat and spoke clearly, but very softly.

“That’s the beautiful thing about our interstates, sir. They work both ways.”

That’s all she said. The man gaped at her, grabbed his bag of rolls, and walked away.

I have no idea if he complained to the store manager, but if so, I never heard about it. After that, I worked harder for Lucy than I ever had before.

Lucy, I know it’s been 34 years, but you’re still one of my Florida heroes.