The Old Movie Theater Chain That Inspired The Name For Publix

Every store has an origin story. Not every narrative involves taking the name of a movie theater chain and using it for your grocery chain, but that's precisely what happened at Publix's inception. In 1930, a man named George Jenkins opened the first Publix grocery store in Winter Haven, Florida, the Publix website explains. He added a second location five years later, and by 1945, he had acquired at least 20 stores throughout the state.

Today, you'll find more than 1,300 Publix grocery stores throughout the United States, but before Jenkins' shops started multiplying, the Publix name belonged to a struggling movie theater. A decades-old detail that's only briefly mentioned in a Publix blog about the founder, it's quite possible that many loyal fans of the grocery chain aren't familiar with the full story.

So what was it about this unfortunate movie house that inspired Jenkins to name his grocery store after it, and why was the theater failing in the first place?

While Publix theaters were closing, Publix grocery stores were opening

If you recall from middle school history class, the 1930s wasn't a good decade for the United States, thanks to the Great Depression. The Depression ended in 1941 for the nation, but not before many factories, mills, mines, and businesses closed, according to the FDR Library.

One of the businesses affected by the economic downturn was a luxurious movie theater chain called Publix Theatres Corporation, an affiliate of Paramount Studios, relates Florida Memory. At least 19 Publix theaters once stood in Florida in the 1920s — the same as the number of grocery stores acquired in Jenkins' first big expansion — but The Palm Beach Post reported that most of them closed during the Depression.

When Jenkins visited a Publix theater for the first time, he fell in love with the name, so when he planned to open his Winter Haven supermarket in 1930, he already knew what to call it. "Most of (the theaters) were closing up, and I liked the sound of the name, so I just took it for my store," he said, according to The Palm Beach Post.

Jenkins was inspired by more than just the Publix name

Florida Memory describes the Publix theaters of the 1920s and '30s as "opulently decorated" and recalls that they were even air-conditioned, which was a pretty big deal back then. Americans were exposed to air conditioning for the first time in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair, but the U.S. Department of Energy reveals that comfort cooling didn't become popular in the country until it was added to movie theaters, forcing innovation that allowed for the efficient temperature control of a large, multi-level, densely populated space.

The Publix store website claims Jenkins opened his first two Publix locations in 1930 and 1935 under the name Publix Food Store, but he closed them a few years later. In their place, he opened the first Publix Super Market, "his dream store," in November of 1940.

Just as the Publix movie theaters featured palace-like amenities, Jenkins' terrazzo-tiled supermarket was built with its own Art Moderne frills. These included marble, glass, and stucco features along with luxuriously wide aisles, says The Shelby Report, not to mention innovations like fluorescent lighting, air conditioning, and electric eye doors, according to The Palm Beach Post.

Although Publix Theatre Corporation's success was short-lived, its name and opulence live on through the hundreds of Publix Super Markets throughout the United States. Today, Publix prides itself on treating every grocery shopper like royalty in all of its "food palace" locations.