Sunday, April 25, 2021

Florida's Choice Was Publix

Florida Choice #??? / Publix #371
2895 North Military Trail, West Palm Beach, FL - Crosstown Plaza

     On the heels of the grand opening of Kroger's latest experiment to indirectly enter Florida, we take yet another look at a building with a connection to one of Kroger's more notorious Floridian failures: Florida Choice. While the grand opening of that new Kroger-Ocado warehouse and the timing of this post were completely coincidental, this latest experiment goes to show that Kroger is oddly captivated and perplexed by Florida, and has been for the last 30 years. Kroger's new online delivery service marks the company's 5th major attempt at making some headway into Florida's odd supermarket scene, the four prior attempts being SupeRx Food and DrugFlorida ChoiceKroger Welcome Warehouse, and Lucky's Market. Will Kroger be successful in Florida with the new online ordering service? That question remains to be answered, however, I don't think an online grocery delivery service will set Publix on the defensive just yet. As Florida's grocery competition slowly dwindled going into the 1990's and 2000's, one thing was made clear: Publix was king, and it would take nothing short of a miracle for any supermarket chain to pick away at the grocery empire Publix has built in their home state.

     With all this talk about Kroger and Publix, we'll blend those two chains together for today's post. The store we'll be touring today was one of two Florida Choice stores Publix bought off Kroger in 1988, the year Kroger announced their first retreat from Florida, and the retirement of the Florida Choice brand after only two years. Located in suburban West Palm Beach, this was one of two Florida Choice locations to have existed within Palm Beach County, as well as South Florida as a whole - both locations a product of Kroger buying a number of Family Mart stores throughout the state in early 1987 as part of A&P's Floridian exodus. While the other Palm Beach County Family Mart store had been in operation for a few years prior to A&P's exit from Florida (that store being located at the corner of Forest Hill Boulevard and Military Trail), A&P sold this location to Kroger while it was still under construction. While the shell of the building and interior layout ended up being a remnant of Family Mart, the store would finally open in the summer of 1987 as Florida Choice. Prior to exiting Florida, Family Mart was rolling out a new concept called "Family Mart SuperStore", of which this was to be one. Family Mart SuperStores were a new larger prototype compared to the older locations, the SuperStores being more of a toned-down version (from what I can tell) of A&P's famous "future store" concept (of which a handful of Family Marts opened as, like the former Family Mart in Merritt Island). Only two other Family Mart SuperStore buildings were completed in Florida, those being the locations in Melbourne and Palm Bay. And of those other two stores, only the Palm Bay one actually spent time as a Family Mart, opening in early 1987. The Melbourne Family Mart SuperStore would also be sold to Kroger for conversion to Florida Choice, however, Florida Choice went under before Kroger could finish out construction on that building. It took three different operators to finally get that Melbourne store open, with Gooding's being the one to finally open a supermarket there by 1989.

     Anyhow, after buying this location in West Palm Beach from Kroger, Publix did some light remodeling and opened about a year after Kroger's departure on August 10, 1989. Both of the Florida Choice stores Publix bought received some light remodeling and changes to bring the stores to Publix's standards, but otherwise retained most original layout features inside. While this building was originally intended to be home to a Family Mart, the other Florida Choice building Publix bought (which was located at the corner of Alafaya Trail and East Colonial Drive in Orlando - some photos of which can be seen at the end of this post), was built from scratch by Kroger. I would have loved to see the East Colonial Publix's Choice store in person, as much of the interior layout would have been original to the Florida Choice days, but Publix being Publix, decided to replace that store with a new one next door in 2013. And of course, the original store was gutted and transformed into Academy Sports shortly after Publix's relocation, leaving no traces of Florida Choice behind for me to document. So even though we're down one Publix's Choice store, at least we still have this one, even though this one has a less-original-to-Kroger lineage. Still though, this is a really big, really funky Publix store with plenty of oddities from the past to be found inside.

     If it's any consolation, of the three Family Mart SuperStore buildings to have been constructed in Florida, this one is the most original of the three left. The Melbourne store is currently home to an Old Time Pottery, which gutted the building's entire interior before moving in. The Palm Bay SuperStore is now a Winn-Dixie, and upon buying the building in 1997, Winn-Dixie completely rebuilt the interior of that building to feel just like a typical (although quite large) late 90's Winn-Dixie Marketplace. I've never seen a photo of one of these buildings in original form to know what the exteriors originally looked like, as all three building's facades have seen some tweaks done by later tenants. What I do know is the entryway of this building was definitely reconfigured by Publix before moving in, as Publix reconfigured the entryway at the East Colonial Florida Choice building to look just like this too (with the two sets of sliding doors facing outward).

     At approximately 55,000 square feet, this store falls into alignment with the upper end of Publix's average store size - at least for the modern day. When this store opened in 1989, this would have been one of the largest stores in the entire chain, only falling behind a 57,000 square foot former Food World prototype at Lakeland's Lake Miriam Square. It wasn't until the 1990's and early 2000's when Publix began to experiment with larger store sizes that pushed 60,000 square feet, both of their own design and from buying more buildings from competitors.

     I'd have to guess that the decorative piece with Publix's logo on it, in addition to the columns below, was a later addition to the facade. It looked added on, with that checkered paneling behind looking more original to Family Mart and Florida Choice.

     Stepping onto the front walkway, here's a look toward the main entrance. All three of these Family Mart SuperStore buildings have had their entryways reconstructed by later tenants, so I don't know exactly what this would have looked like originally (although it appears Publix kept the entryway in the same general location as Family Mart/Florida Choice).

     Stepping through the door furthest to the right, we enter into a large open space home to the weekly promotions and a small cartwell. Behind the cartwell is a small dining area added during this store's remodel to Classy Market 3.0 in early 2018.

     And before we get any further into our interior tour, I need to mention that this post combines two sets of photos taken four years apart - in 2016 and 2020 respectively. I wasn't very happy with the number of photos I got of this store during my original 2016 visit, so I ended up finding the time to come back here during anther trip to Palm Beach County in late 2020. Due to the large span between the two photosets, you'll be seeing pictures of this store with its current Classy Market 3.0 decor, as well as the prior decor. You Publix fans in the room are going to love the prior decor this store had once those pictures start to pop up, as it was a rare variant decor that was only used in a handful of stores.

     Walking around the carts, here's a better look at Publix's small dining nook. Most modern Publix stores try to place the dining nook either near the deli department or in front of the check lanes. However, due to this store's odd design, it got shoved into the corner by dairy and the pharmacy island. While this isn't Publix's first choice on placement, I like the way the dining nook fits into the corner of the store like this.

     Jumping back in time to 2016, the old dining nook was home to some random displays, with the aisle in front of the entryway home to "Publix Features" according to that hanging sign (which must be the official name for Publix's little cluster of BOGO bins and all the other promotional stuff usually placed by the front entrance). This photo also serves as our first glimpse at this store's prior decor, which amazingly, was Classy Market 1.0! (Publix's decor package from the mid-2000's). Yes, this store held onto Classy Market 1.0 until a remodel that began sometime around January 2018, making this store one of the very last holdouts with Classy Market 1.0 in the wild (making for a nice bonus to this Publix store with an unusual lineage).

     Turning the corner into aisle 1, we find the dairy department, which lines the right side wall. While I don't know much about how these Family Mart SuperStores were laid out, I'd have to guess what we'll be seeing today is pretty close to the original layout. I can't imagine Florida Choice rearranging much after taking control of construction, and Publix typically doesn't move too much around in most of their conversions (although Publix did make one noticeable tweak to the original layout, which I'll discuss later).

     And here we have another look at the dairy aisle, this time during the Classy Market 1.0 days. If you look carefully at the two pictures, you'll notice Publix made the dairy aisle wider during the Classy Market 3.0 remodel, making this part of the store feel less cramped.

     While this store previously had the Classy Market 1.0 decor, which is a rare sight as far as internet documentation is concerned, this store actually had a rather rare variant of Classy Market 1.0 to make things that much more interesting. What made this version rare is that the original serif font used in Classy Market 1.0 was switched out for the font that would later be used in future versions of the Classy Market decor, marking this as a later Classy Market 1.0 remodel (happening sometime in the 2007-2008 timeframe). This store marked the first and only time I've ever seen this version of Classy Market 1.0 in person, so at least I was able to get some kind of documentation of this look (and interestingly, I visited this store the first time without knowing what the inside looked like - the decor was a surprise!)

     Back to the present, we turn the corner out of dairy to find the bakery in the back right corner of the store (quite the oddity for Publix, but that's what you get when you inherit someone else's building).

     For fun, here's the bakery's prior look. The placement of the bakery sign itself switched walls, with the current one on the angle rather than the back.

     Beyond the bakery, an alcove appears along the back wall to make room for the meat and seafood departments.

     There are going to be a decent number of before and after shots throughout this post, the photo above being another one of them. I wasn't intentionally trying to get current photos at similar angles to the old photos - that was just coincidence (and goes to show that consistency is my thing!)

     Here's one last before and after of the bakery department before we move into some of the grocery aisles:

     Publix's historic photo collages were always one of the best elements of the early Classy Market decor packages. Usually these collages were placed along the store's front end in some way, however, the collage ended up back here by the bakery. I guess that's just another testament to how different everything about this store is from the average Publix!

     Turning into aisle 2, we see this particular aisle is only 3/4 length, due to the placement of Publix's pharmacy island.

     While Florida Choice had a pharmacy during its short run here, I don't believe the pharmacy carried over into Publix's early days. Publix opened this store in 1989, and the first Publix pharmacy only opened in 1988, and it took until the early 90's for the pharmacies to really take off. The current placement of the pharmacy in a small island within the first few grocery aisles is a very late 90's/early 2000's Publix thing, making me think Publix added a pharmacy back into this store during a late 90's remodel. I went to pull the record for this store's pharmacy from Florida's pharmacy license database to confirm all this, however, nothing pulls up for this store, which is strange. I do know Family Mart/Florida Choice's pharmacy wouldn't have been in an island like this, and we'll see the area where I'm pretty sure the original pharmacy counter was located later in this post.

     And as a bonus - if you look closely at the pharmacy window, a Classy Market 1.0 "Pharmacy Closed" sign still survives on the rolling grate. My second visit to this store happened shortly after the main store opened for the day, and the pharmacy had yet to open.

     During the Classy Market 1.0 days, the pharmacy island had a much plainer look, with the actual pharmacy sign hanging from the ceiling in front of the island.

     Aisle 5 prior to the recent remodel is now aisle 3 in the present. While that makes it seem like two aisles were eliminated during the remodel, in reality, only one aisle was eliminated. The old aisle count in this store prior to the remodel was 18, with the current total being 17. I don't know what kind of numbers game Publix played in the remodel to make that happen, but that was the result.

     One of the great things about photographing a Publix at 7:30 in the morning is I can get a nice clear shot of the front end without a soul in sight (although, looking closer at this picture, it appears an employee did crash my photo!). Still though, getting later into the morning, this aisle would become flooded with shoppers, preventing a nice clear view like this.

     When you wait until later in the day to photograph a Publix store, crowds of people (like what you see above) are the norm instead!

     The gray checkerboard tile pattern was Publix's default flooring pattern for acquired buildings in the 1980's and 1990's, as well as the pattern used in really old Publix stores that were expanded numerous times through the years. I believe Publix rebuilt the ceiling as well prior to moving in, as those light fixtures are Publix's default style for stores with a drop ceiling.

     Popping out of the grocery aisles, we'll take a quick stroll through the meat and seafood alcove.

     The seafood service counter is located where the wall angles out of the alcove.

     Here's a close-up shot of the seafood counter, a photo which I feel turned out rather well.

      And turning back time a bit, here's another nice close-up shot of the seafood counter, this time with the prior decor (and some added ocean themed decorations too!).

     Hitting the half-way point in the store, we find ourselves in the frozen food department.

     Leaving frozen foods, we find a few more grocery aisles before we get to the produce department, which takes up the majority of the far left side of the building.

     We'll zig-zag through a few more grocery aisles as we work our way to the final few service departments on the left side of the building:

     If the floors were terrazzo instead of tile, this view wouldn't be much different than a something out of any average 1980's built Publix store.

     You don't even need to look at the decor to know which year I took this photo in...

     I know stores like Albertsons and Safeway are known for putting stuff like beach chairs, patio furniture, and such randomly on the top shelves in the grocery aisles, but it just feels strange seeing Publix do the same thing, as that's not something Publix is known for!

     This aisle, number 17 pre-remodel, number 16 in the present, is the last aisle before the produce department, home to Publix's wine selection and the white bread.

     Leaving the grocery aisles, here's one last look at the back of the store, before we move on to the deli department.

     This store's deli counter is located in the back left corner of the building, between the meat department and produce. Since the deli counter is located off the back aisle, all the deli coolers with prepackaged salads, specialty cheeses, and related items are pushed off into the corner before the transition into the produce department.

     Going back to the Classy Market 1.0 days, the deli decor had a much simpler (and more pastel) look to it, compared to the Classy Market 3.0 design we just saw.

     The sliced meats and cheeses take up the left side of the deli counter, with the Pub Sub station and a small selection of hot foods off to the right.

     Before we turn our attention to the produce department, here's one last look across the back of the store, as seen from the deli counter.

     A good chunk of the left side of the building is home to a very spacious produce department, all that space courtesy of Family Mart and Florida Choice.

     Sadly, as of 2021, the only decently preserved Florida Choice stores still out there operating as supermarkets are ones that came from the Family Mart acquisition in 1987. Of the approximately 40 Florida Choice stores Kroger had in operation by the time of the chain's demise, most of those buildings could trace their lineage back to Family Mart - that acquisition being the main reason Kroger was able to open such a large number of Florida Choice stores in only two years. The last Kroger-built Florida Choice store that operated as a supermarket closed in 2016 (and was exceptionally well-preserved too), but of course, that building had to be gutted and rebuilt beyond recognition, wiping away one of the last little bits of Florida Choice design we had left. Considering how short lived Florida Choice was, and how the chain slipped into obscurity rather quick, Florida Choice has always intrigued me. Even though there are still a lot of questions out there about Florida Choice's time in business, as a retail community, we've been able to piece together a lot more information on Florida Choice and Kroger's other short-lived Floridian experiments these last few years. We even did what I thought would be impossible - figuring out what the inside of a Florida Choice looked like while in business! Retail Retell found this blog post where the author describes the interior of a Florida Choice store (see the second paragraph of that post for the description), and to top that off, Discord user 'ebay' (aka ThatSawsbuckGuy) found this interior photo of a Florida Choice in an old newspaper article. That photo determined Florida Choice did use a variant of Kroger's Neon Decor during its short run, just with a Floridian twist to it. Cool stuff, right? Interestingly, that interior photo, showcasing a new bank branch, was taken at one of the Palm Beach County stores, however, the caption and article itself doesn't specify which Palm Beach County location that was. I guess one mystery solved is another mystery gained?

     While that was a nice little tangent, the pink pastels and neon from Florida Choice's "Florida Garden" have made way for the Publix Garden in all of its Classy Market 3.0 glory - including the famous artichoke stock photo.

     Before the artichoke found its way to the wall, here are a few photos of what the produce department looked like in the Classy Market 1.0 days.

     More classic Publix photos found their way into the produce department, although it's slightly bugging me how the classic photos don't line up perfectly with the category names below.

     Here's one last overview of the produce department, before we spin around 180 degrees to take a look at the Floral department:

     Floral is located in the front right corner of the store, under an odd little jut-out I can't help but think was home to the original pharmacy counter. Looking at the design of the floral department, it looks like it should be the store's pharmacy counter, except there's a wall where the counter should be. Family Mart (and in turn, Florida Choice), both had in store pharmacies, but Publix was just beginning to experiment with pharmacies at the time Publix bought this building. I wouldn't be surprised if Publix closed in the original pharmacy space after acquiring this building, just to re-install the pharmacy in its current island placement during a later remodel after Publix pharmacies became much more commonplace.

     Here's one additional view of the floral department, just with the old decor this time.

     Greeting cards, books, and magazines are located in a large open space between floral and the front check lanes.

     Books and magazines, specifically, are located in this little alcove along the front wall. Florida Choice's in-store bank branch would have been located somewhere around here. Comparing my photo above with the one at that link, there are some similarities between features in the two, however, that linked photo appears to show the produce department in the background (located in what appears to be the building's front right corner). That being said, it would seem that photo came from the Forest Hill Boulevard Florida Choice store, since this building has a different layout than what's pictured. Either that, or Publix rearranged things more drastically than I thought here!

     As we prepare to head out, here's a look across the store's front end once again.

     The big metal light fixture hanging above the check lanes, a common 1990's addition to older Publix stores, was removed as part of the Classy Market 3.0 remodel (as can be seen in the previous photo).

     Publix's customer service desk is located between the store's two sets of doors, and was built by Publix as part of their reconfiguration of the entryway.

     Heading out, here's one last photo looking toward the service desk, and our final glimpse of Classy Market 1.0.

     It's always interesting seeing a Publix in the shell of one of their long-lost competitors, even though this building has essentially been a Publix for as long as its been around. Floridian retail stories are always a bit strange, and this place was no exception!

     No matter what kind of modifications may have been made to the exterior over the years, this is quite the large and stately grocery store.

     Family Mart (as well as Florida Choice) stores typically came with an attached liquor store, and this location was no exception. Located on the far left side of the building, here's a quick peek at the liquor store. While it looks closed up due to the shutters and lack of signage, there is an operational liquor store hiding in there. The liquor store (which is an independently owned one) hadn't opened for the day yet, although right after I took this picture, a man came out from the parking lot and began rolling up the shutters, getting ready to open for another day of business.

     Before we finish this post, here's a quick look at Crosstown Plaza's other anchor, Bealls Outlet, which has set up shop in the plaza's former (and very well preserved) Frank's Nursery & Crafts building. Frank's stores had that distinctive greenhouse panel on the front of the building, and a large grassy space off to one of the sides from the old nursery. So if you're ever in Florida and see a building like this, I can guarantee you it was a Frank's and not a Kroger - no matter what that greenhouse paneling may try to tell you! Kroger played a different game in Florida, and like most other attempts by supermarket chains to make it big here, it didn't work well. While Kroger continues to do whatever they can to make sense of the oddity that is Florida, Publix will continue to do their thing - which is dominate Florida - as it's no question that in the end, Florida's choice was Publix.

     On that note, that's all I have to share with you guys for now. Be sure to come back in two weeks to check out another former Albertsons store!

So until the next post,

The Albertsons Florida Blogger