TAMPA - There are people you interact with every day. There’s your garbage collector, your postal worker, your neighbor and your neighborhood Publix associates. And whether you realize it they impact your life.
That could not be truer in the case of Penny Burland, or “Publix Penny,” as I call her.
I met Penny the first day I worked up the nerve to venture out with my newborn daughter. I remember thinking that a quick trip to the local Publix would be easy enough. Harper was in her baby carrier which, of course, I covered. I couldn’t let anyone touch or see her! She might get sick, right?
That didn't stop Penny. In the way only she can, Penny asked for a peek at Harper. She made some funny faces and noises and the two fell in love. Over the past 15 months, Penny and Harper have bonded. It's beautiful.
In her duty of handing out samples to customers, Penny gave Harper her first taste of orange. Then came her first taste of strawberry, her first cookie.
Whenever Penny offered up a new food, I felt safe letting Harper take a try.
The relationship between 80-year-old Penny and Harper has evolved. Harper looks for Penny every time we go grocery shopping. She bounces in the seat of the cart when she sees her. She laughs at Penny. Penny is the easiest way to get her to stop a mid-Publix-meltdown from Harper. FIND PENNY’S CHECKOUT LINE STAT!
I know that the relationship Harper, my husband and I have with Penny isn’t exclusive. Penny has this same bond with dozens of families, probably more like hundreds of families.
She's worked at Publix for 22 years and is retiring on Friday. She needs to be with family and she says her body is tired.
Though I understand, I’m crushed. Eventually Harper will be, too. Other shoppers will also miss that friendly face and contagious smile.
So we thought, what better way to celebrate all she’s done than to bring in a television crew and surprise Penny?
“You ready to go see Penny?,” I asked Harper as the camera followed.
My husband tapped Penny on the shoulder. As always, she gave a big hug and kiss to Harper, then turned around and saw the camera.
“Oh, hi! How you doing?,” Penny smiled and asked our videographer Wayne Waichunas.
“22 years honey! Thank you, sweetie,” she said as she explained her Publix tenure to him.
In that time, she told me, that she’s made friends with almost every customer. She’s watched babies grow up, go off to college and come home. Now it’s her time to take time.
A curious shopper was shocked and I could tell she was feeling what I feel. Sad.
“We love Penny!” she exclaimed.
Penny turned to her and said, “I know. Tomorrow. Last day.”
That shopper was at a loss.
“Tomorrow? Oh, Penny! We’re gonna miss you so much,” she said.
That customer said what those who know Penny will tell you.
“She’s always so sweet and so nice to all the kids.”
It’s true and it’s easy to see why the kids love her.
“Let’s get some cookies,” Penny said to Harper as she led us toward the bakery. She then picked out two.
“One sprinkle and one sugar.”
It was apropos that she offered up the sugar cookie. Penny is the sugar. She makes this store feel like home.
“How do you make the customer feel so comfortable? How do you do it?” I asked.
“The thing about it, when I see them I see my family," Penny said. "I love them so much. Everybody smiles, makes me happy. I forget about everything.
"Like I said, the whole city is like my family,” she summed it up.
The customers she bags groceries for, slices deli meat for and offers up samples to are not simply shoppers. To her they are friends, and those friends will miss Penny.
Store management told Penny she didn't have to come to work on her last day. She says she’ll be there anyway. Publix and the people of the community are what she loves.