Sunday, January 23, 2022

When Neon and Chrome Was a Winn Win

Winn-Dixie #2229
184 Marion Oaks Boulevard, Ocala (Marion Oaks), FL - Marion Oaks Shopping Center

     We spent a lot of time last year looking at Winn-Dixie's future, checking out some of the company's new and remodeled stores. While that remodel wave is still going strong into 2022, I think the time has come to remember some of the those funky untouched older stores Winn-Dixie was famous for until recently. There was a time when it was pretty common to come across a Winn-Dixie that hadn't seen a remodel in over 25 years - today's feature store being a rather extreme example of that very scenario. However, Winn-Dixie has been spending the last few years correcting that major flaw, with these older stores remodeling at a rate faster than I've ever seen before. When 2021 came to a close, over 70% of the company's stores have since been remodeled to either the "Down Down" or "Winn Win" decor packages, with over 50 more remodels in the works for 2022. While it's sad seeing some of these relic-like holdouts remodel after so long, it's finally about time Winn-Dixie takes store remodels seriously. The reason I keep bringing up remodels is because everything we're about to see in today's post was wiped away in a remodel that took place in late 2021, when this store received its first-ever remodel after 30 years in operation. That's a long time to go without a remodel, so you know what was here prior to that had to be somewhat interesting!

     The Winn-Dixie we're touring today is located in a massive residential subdivision in Southern Marion County called Marion Oaks. Marion Oaks is one of the many large, sprawling Floridian residential developments constructed by the Deltona Corporation (formerly known as Mackle Brothers), the famous builder of many large suburban developments across Central and Southern Florida. Like most of Deltona Corporation's cities, Marion Oaks is a massive web of curving residential streets that has slowly built-out over time. Although the development has existed since the late 1970's, Marion Oaks had its first major wave of development in the mid-1980's and early 1990's due to a successful marketing campaign targeting residents in northern cities. During that first growth wave, the new burst in construction caught Winn-Dixie's attention, leading them to develop the community's first - and so far only - grocery store near the community's original core in 1992.

     Development in Marion Oaks began to taper off come the late 1990's, and the community began to stagnate until a second development boom began in the late 2010's. The second development boom was spurred by the decision to turn Marion Oaks into a hub for new warehouses and distribution centers, that decision made due to the massive amounts of land available around Marion Oaks for these types of buildings. The construction of these new warehouses has again brought more people to Marion Oaks for the newly created jobs, that on top of people discovering and preferring the more laid-back nature of Marion Oaks compared to the bustle of Ocala a few miles to the north. Even with all the fluctuations, Winn-Dixie has managed to persist here in Marion Oaks. A lot of that persistence probably came due to Winn-Dixie being the only grocery store around for a decent number of miles in each direction, but a win by default is still a win.

     When Winn-Dixie was strapped for cash, upkeep in many of these "captive audience" stores was tossed to the side, since there really wasn't a lot for Winn-Dixie to fear with shoppers running off to other options nearby, as there really weren't any. Come the 2020's, Winn-Dixie has a little more financial freedom, and commercial development is creeping closer into the bounds of Marion Oaks (including a new Publix being built on the development's northern fringe), so the time was right to finally give this store its first remodel.

     So after all that lovely history and background information, I'm sure you just want to see the inside of this place already. Alright, alright, we'll head inside and see what made this store so unique come the 2020's:

     Hmmm, neon signs, wood paneling, and orange floor tiles - just what year did I say it was again? While the color scheme and vibe of the decor looks like something you'd find in a 1970's living room, this was actually Winn-Dixie's decor package from the late 1980's into the early 1990's. The decor we see in here was actually launched with the first batch of Marketplace branded stores in the late 1980's, and was used in the Marketplace stores until its much more famous successor came along in the mid-1990's, the time when Winn-Dixie decided to go all-in with the Marketplace format.

     Until its late 2021 remodel, the Marion Oaks Winn-Dixie was one of two locations in the chain that still hung onto the original Neon Marketplace decor, and in turn, were the two stores that had gone the longest without a remodel (as Neon Marketplace was the oldest decor package I knew of in any Winn-Dixie store). The other Neon Markeplace store, the chain's last, is located in North Port, Sarasota County. As far as I'm aware, the North Port Winn-Dixie has yet to remodel, although I'm sure the clock is ticking on that one.

     While I'm glad I got to visit the Marion Oaks Winn-Dixie before it remodeled, I would like to state that neither of Winn-Dixie's Neon Marketplace holdouts into the 2020's (Marion Oaks and North Port) were the premier examples of this package, as the decor really slipped into disrepair at both stores over the years. Overall, I want to say that North Port is the better preserved location of the two, as most of Marion Oaks' neon signs were removed for one reason or another through the years. North Port still has a majority of the original neon signs - however, none of North Port's signs light up any more. At least Marion Oaks still had one sign that worked over in the pharmacy, even if that was one of the only signs left behind!

     Through the last few photos, we've slowly made our way past the front check lanes toward the produce department, which is located in the front right corner of the building. Like most of the departments in the store, the walls in the produce department are just blank white - a quick maneuver to hide the remains of the old neon signs that once graced the walls of this department and others throughout the store. Outside of the few departments that did retain their original neon in here, the rest of this place was actually pretty boring, as most of the store was just blank white.

     A small alcove of seasonal merchandise was located in the front of the store near produce and the check lanes. I believe these little alcoves used to house Winn-Dixie's photo counters back in the day, all of those having been removed from stores around the time of Winn-Dixie's 2005 bankruptcy. The seasonal alcove was turned into a new customer service desk following the 2021 remodel, giving this nook a little bit of purpose once again.

     At one time, Winn-Dixie would have had check stands running all the way to the end of the orange tile. The number of check stands was reduced through the years in most stores, leaving lots of little areas like this which now serve as a home for the weekly BOGO deals.

     The tile octagon in front of me would have been the original home of the floral department, which would have had its own counter and island on those tiles. Floral was shrunken down to a few coolers on the front wall through the years, visible in the background. 

     The produce department would have looked much more fun with its original neon and chrome detailing, looking something along the lines of this. Now the produce department was looking pretty blank and spaced out, although the 2021 remodel did a really good job of making this part of the store more presentable.

     The produce department trickled a bit into the first grocery aisle, which was also home to greeting cards, books and magazines and well as pallet drops of various weekly specials. Following the 2021 remodel, all this before me would be converted into the store's new beer and wine department (which relocated here from the other side of the store).

     While there's some interesting ceiling aesthetic in this aisle, the fun stuff lurks straight ahead at the end of the aisle:

     Nearing the back right corner of the building, we spot the second of the two surviving neon signs in this store - the seafood counter's "Fisherman's Wharf" sign. (The other department with neon was the pharmacy, which we saw a snippet of when we first walked in).

     Back in 1992, all this neon and chrome had to look really futuristic, because weren't we promised that the future was going to be all chrome back then?!

     Sadly, our all-chrome future hasn't happened yet, so this seafood department was just left to rot back here is all of its shiny chrome glory. Winn-Dixie scrapped the full-service seafood counter at this store entirely over the years, covering up the old prep area with a white curtain and some self-serve coolers.

     It appears the neon hadn't worked on the Fisherman's Wharf sign in years either, as none of the photos I'd seen of this store showed it turned on. The sign would have glowed blue at one time, matching the floor tile, looking something like this.

     Some major modifications were made to this corner of the store following the late 2021 remodel, as the seafood counter was remodeled and reopened. You can get a quick glimpse at the modifications made in the background of this photo, which also showcases the relocated beer and wine department.

     Leaving the seafood counter, here's a look back up aisle 1 toward the produce department.

     This part of the store had to look so much more interesting before it was all painted white. It would have been much sadder seeing this place remodel had more of the original decor been preserved than two little patches, but for glimpses at 30 year old supermarket decor, I guess we have to take what we can get! Interestingly, while both Marion Oaks' and North Port's original neon decor wasn't kept up well, there actually is a super-well preserved example of a Neon Marketplace store left out there - located in a Winn-Dixie-turned-Ingles in Boone, NC. Ingles actually added some of their own neon to that store after taking it from Winn-Dixie, but a lot of Winn-Dixie's old neon is accounted for in there, and in working order too! Ingles actually did a better job preserving Winn-Dixie's old decor than Winn-Dixie did in their last two stores with that decor!

     Leaving aisle 1, we'll turn the corner toward the check lanes and the rest of the grocery aisles:

     While this store was clearly old, Winn-Dixie did a decent job maintaining this place and keeping it presentable. I've been to some older Winn-Dixies that just felt dumpy on top of being old, and this was not one of them.

     The Fisherman's Wharf sign was just too interesting to not grab a few more photos of as I popped out of aisle 3.

     The meat coolers are the next thing we find along the back wall after the old Fisherman's Wharf counter, stretching most of the way into the back left corner.

     Popping out at the front end again, the neon 'prescriptions' sign pokes out above the check lanes.

     I'd have to guess the meat coolers in this store were original to its 1992 opening, as they certainly didn't look modern...

     It appears Winn-Dixie replaced the coolers throughout the store as part of the 2021 remodel, as the ones in produce, the deli, and beer and wine appear new in the photos Winn-Dixie posted to Facebook to show off the store's new look. After 30 years of use, I think Winn-Dixie got their money's worth out of these old coolers.

     The old meat service window was blocked with promotional signs, much like the old seafood counter was. At one time a sign like this would have graced the wall back here, with Winn-Dixie's famous "The Beef People" slogan lit up bright for all to see.

     Returning to the front of the store, here's a much clearer photo of the "Prescriptions" sign on the side of the pharmacy, still glowing bright after nearly 30 years. 

     Frozen foods, along with that department's accompanying original coolers and blue floor tile, occupy the center of the salesfloor. The ceiling raises up over the frozen foods aisles, another common trait of these late 1980's/early 1990's Marketplace stores.

     I've yet to find a photo, but I'd imagine all these coolers were replaced during the 2021 remodel as well. It's quite impressive how much more thorough Winn-Dixie has been in the most recent remodels, opting to replace the coolers, floors, and most other fixtures rather than reusing most/all those, like was typical in the Down Down-era remodels.

     Beyond frozen foods, the ceiling returns to its normal height and we enter aisle 8.

     The pharmacy can be seen in the distance at the end of aisle 10, although we'll get to some better photos of the pharmacy in a moment...

     Here's one final look at the store's back wall before we loop around into the last aisle:

     In the last aisle we find beer and wine, all of which would relocate to aisle 1 behind produce following the 2021 remodel. The coolers along the wall were home to mostly dairy products, making for a bit of a strange amalgamation of products in this aisle. (However, one plus to the old arrangement was that the champagne and orange juice were right across the aisle from each other - now those two items are located at separate ends of the store, and I'm sure the forgetful Sunday brunch folks won't be happy about that on a last minute mimosa run!)

     Here's a closer look at the dairy coolers, which were set into the wall under a lower ceiling.

     In the front left corner of the building is the combined deli and bakery department, which you can only identify from the displays of bread and chicken salad out front, as there aren't any signs to help you over here. Once upon a time this corner would have looked more like this and this, which is a little more identifiable than all this blank white before us.

     Thankfully, the 2021 remodel really cleaned up this corner, and the new design is so much nicer than all the blank white it replaced. The post-remodel look gives the deli and bakery their own identifiable spaces, even though the bakery in this store is still pretty small.

     Most of this store's bakery is located in the corner itself, previously featuring these very old-school wood-grain display cases. All the cases were modernized in the remodel, and these two departments look much less sad than they did prior.

     Behind that cooler is the deli counter, with the pharmacy off to the left of that.

     Leaving the bakery and deli counter behind us, we'll work our way toward the pharmacy as we enter the final stretch of our tour...

     The pharmacy counter is located in its traditional home between the deli and front end, its space designated by that patch of brown tile and another neon sign.

     Like the 'Prescriptions' one around the corner, the 'Pharmacy' neon sign also worked. If nothing else, it was nice this store kept the neon signs for one department in working order for all those years. The pharmacy was given a major overhaul during the remodel, with a new, larger waiting area installed where the old customer service counter was located. Here's the (now neon-less) result of the remodel, which actually turned out quite nice.

     As we make our way to the exit, here are a few parting shots of those last working neon signs:

     5 check lanes total in this store, although the remodel added new self-checkouts to bring up the total check lane count.

     The check stands themselves were original to the store too, the old wood-grain design paired with the orange floor tile. The check lane lights were updated to the common Purple/Maroon design in the early 2000's, the same time Winn-Dixie swapped out most of the aisle markers and lane lights from the Marketplace era. 

     So there you have it - the Marion Oaks (formerly) Neon Marketplace Winn-Dixie. As much as the old decor didn't fare well in the nearly 30 years it was here, it's pretty impressive it lasted as long as it did. As Winn-Dixie's remodel rampage continues on, the North Port Winn-Dixie still stands as our last Neon Marketplace holdout, but for how much longer, who knows. If you know of any funky older Winn-Dixies out there, be sure to visit them soon, as they might have a remodel coming their way any time now. I never thought I'd be saying that about Winn-Dixie, but here were are, seeing those stores that haven't been touched in 25+ years see their first remodels at long last. I have a decent compilation of some funky decor Winn-Dixies in my archives that I hope to post before long, thankful I got to those before they all remodeled (as many of them did). While it's sad seeing many of these supermarket relics get remodeled away, it's nice to see Winn-Dixie serious about their future, and wanting to upgrade all their stores for the first time.

     The Marion Oaks Winn-Dixie served as our little taste of the Neon Marketplace decor. We'll eventually make it down to North Port for a post about that neon decor store, but for next time, we'll have to settle for more Albertsons. And some Publix. And maybe some extra Publix for good measure. What am I talking about, you ask? Well, just come back in two weeks to find out!

So until the next post,

The Albertsons Florida Blogger