Publix Subs: God's Gift to Florida or Wildly Overrated?
Welcome to "Let's Settle This!," a new series in which Sarasota Magazine editors enter the rhetorical ring to determine the correct take on the issues that are tearing us apart—like whether Publix's widely beloved deli subs are the greatest thing to happen to Florida since sunshine or secretly terrible. In the ring to duke it out: associate editors Isaac "The Crank" Eger and Lauren "The Hunger" Jackson. Let's get ready to rumble!
Isaac Eger: Food is the soul of a place. More than language. More than architecture. More than mannerisms. People take more pride in their regional cuisine than anything else. So it’s especially disappointing that the food that Floridians take most pride in today are Publix subs.
New York has pizza. Louisiana has po’ boys. Florida has sandwiches that are just barely better than the slop they serve at Subway. The lettuce comes pre-cut in airtight bags, the deli meat is going to pickle your heart, and don’t get me started on the bread. The quality of the bread makes or breaks a sandwich. Publix sub bread is under-baked mush that turns into a soggy sleeve if you don’t eat it within five minutes of buying the thing.
Lauren Jackson: You had me there for a moment, when you were discussing pride in regional cuisine. And then you lost me.
First off, I’m not sure that Floridians take more pride in Publix subs than any other food. I think of Cuban sandwiches (which you can get at the Publix deli counter), grouper sandwiches, conch fritters, Key lime pie and more. But yes, we do love our Pub subs.
When I left our state for nearly a decade, I craved the comfort of a quick, affordable sandwich with high-quality deli meat. Did you know there are states that don’t carry Boar’s Head anywhere? That's criminal.
Sure, the lettuce is pre-cut, but you also don’t have to order it. I opt for spinach instead, because the great thing about Publix sandwiches is that you have options. While I’m about as apt to add baked beans to a sandwich as I am to add raisins to a potato salad, I could if I wanted to, and that's key.
Isaac Eger: Not to be pedantic, but conch fritters are Bahamian, and even if we do consider them Floridian, most people have no idea what the hell a conch is.
Lauren Jackson: Conch aside, beyond the quality of the meat and the variety of selections at Publix is the nostalgia factor. As kids, we're often given little control over the choices we can make. Bedtime? Nope. Shoes? Yeah, right. But your Publix sub? You can order it while your grown-up is shopping and have total control.
I remember encouraging the people crafting my sandwiches to pile on the black olives, leave off the green peppers and load up the sub sauce—you know, the stuff that makes your sandwich delightfully soggy. (Three cheers for soft bread that doesn’t shred the roof of your mouth.)
And if you don’t pick up a Pub sub while grabbing a pack of beer and a bag of chips before the beach, what do you eat when soaking in the sun Gulf-side?
Isaac Eger: There are tons of local options that are being suffocated by the growing monopoly Publix has on our state. The store is the eighth largest privately owned corporation in the United States—and growing. Freedom of choice is going to be nostalgic when there are no other options but Pub subs.
Nostalgia is fine, but it can also erase things that make Florida unique. Pub subs have no regional connection to our state. Even the name is Yankee nonsense. The “sub” moniker has its origins in Connecticut, where the shape of the sandwich reminded locals of the submarines that sat in their naval shipyard during World War II.
The popularity of the Pub sub is a symbol of Florida turning into a cultural desert. Every day, we develop and erase more of our heritage, and these massive sandwiches are part of that obliteration. You can’t order a gator sandwich. You can’t smear smoked mullet on the bread. Did you know that Floridians were the first cowboys? Publix could be a steward of Florida history and culture, but chooses not to be.
Lauren Jackson: But drawing from other cultures and adapting them to include ingredients that are available locally is the very essence of food. Spaghetti with tomatoes is not indigenous to New York—or even Italy, for that matter. Scrapple was brought to the Northeast coast via German immigrants, and while conch fritters may be an important staple of Bahamian cuisine, our close proximity to the islands has brought them into our food history, alongside items like tacos, Jewish deli food and strawberry anything.
I’m not sure we can call Florida a cultural wasteland just yet. Our state is rich with immigrants from around the world who have brought their food with them. If we choose a guava pastelito over smoked mullet on toast, we’re embracing our fellow residents and the cultures they have brought with them.
Pub subs may not be inherently “Floridian,” but they are delicious and have a foothold in our food history, which is always evolving.
Isaac Eger: Another reason I look down on Pub subs is that the tomato slices that line their sandwiches likely come from Immokalee, where migrants tend tomato fields in brutal conditions for little pay. Since 2009, Publix has refused to join the Fair Food Program, which works with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to improve working conditions on farms and protect people from harassment and worse. George Jenkins, the founder of Publix, liked to say, “Never let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing.” Seems like the company is ignoring its own roots.
Lauren Jackson: I think we’re here to argue about Pub subs, not to shame people about where they are buying their nourishment. I agree that it's important to understand your food system and buy local when possible, but doing so is a privilege and admonishing someone for their food choices can be detrimental to those who are food insecure. Consider a Publix vegetable sub: For $5.39, someone can pack in a salad’s worth of vegetables with brain-health-important carbs for less than the price of a Big Mac value meal. For some, this could mean the difference between eating vegetables or not. Accessibility is important.
Isaac Eger: I’m skeptical that processed bread stuffed with iceberg lettuce, mealy tomatoes and pickled banana peppers are going to help people meet their daily nutrient requirements. Yes, Pub subs can be a cheap option for people, but at what true cost? It's the same argument people make about fast food. How do these companies get their food to be so cheap? Corn subsidies? Government policies are hurting the ability of small businesses to compete, which is why it is so important to pick local sandwich joints and ditch the Pub sub.
When you eat at a locally owned business, the money is much more likely to stay and circulate in your community. Supporting small businesses helps the local economy and lifts the standard of living for all of us.
So get to know your neighborhood sandwich shop. The Main Bar Sandwich Shop is a time machine to old Sarasota. Il Panificio makes a killer meatball sub. Southside Deli gives you pickles on the side. Maximillian’s Café is a hidden gem. Faicco’s is new and great. Corkscrew Deli has $5 daily specials.
Lauren Jackson: While I'm all for supporting local businesses, there is a time and place for convenient and delicious Publix subs. I'll never stop ordering my veggie sub when I'm headed out to the beach, and save a chicken tender sub to enjoy at home later, when I'm not in a bathing suit in public.
When convenience and budget are no issue, I love the idea of supporting local. But that won't always work. For now, I say long live the Pub sub.