Behind the scenes at Publix, operations at a relentless pace

And you thought your grocery list was long?

There's a sprawling, 27-acre Publix warehouse in Lakeland where the grocery ‘lists' are orders from hundreds of individual Publix stores.

Publix opened the warehouse for a revealing peek behind the scenes.

The tour starts with some of its 800 headset-clad warehouse workers who receive their marching orders in an unusual computerized language. The voice that guides your groceries home sounds extra-terrestrial -- perhaps Martian.

"They're talking to an automated system that knows what's on their ‘grocery list' to ensure that they're picking up the exact item," said spokesman Brian West.

By ‘grocery list,' West is referring is to the supply orders that some 800 stores feed the massive warehouse each day.

Workers wearing earpieces race carts race up and down towering aisles at all hours, in some cases hand-selecting individual items, such as health and beauty aids.

“It runs, and runs, and runs,” West said.

Fast pace, quick turnaround

On one side of the gaping building, suppliers' big rigs pull in, often with a truck full of just one item.

We observed a semi stuffed with “Combos,” which (by the way) were buy-one-get-one free the following week.

Workers temporarily stage each item on racks until ‘pickers' pull the right quantity to meet individual stores' needs.

“One case at a time,” West said. “Twenty-four hours a day.”

But the items aren't there long. Some items will arrive from the manufacturer and ship to the store in the same workday.

Once a store's order is stacked atop a pallet, it is wrapped and loaded onto a truck.

Publix operates a massive fleet. Its 500 tractor-trailers log 1.2 million miles weekly, West said.

“It's an enormous effort,” he added.

A labyrinth of pipes and conveyors

As hulking as this 27-acre warehouse is, it's not big enough to handle the entire Publix footprint.

“We have nine distribution centers,” West said.

In some cases, Publix makes items itself. And that is its mission inside the grocer's nearby dairy plant.

Stainless steel tankers stream into the plant every day, delivering an astounding volume of fresh milk from Florida farms.

"We use about 300,000 gallons of raw milk per day," said plant manager Greg Rudolph.

The interior is a labyrinth of stainless steel pipes and conveyors. In one corridor, ice cream buckets cruised over our heads.

On this particular afternoon, the plant was cranking out thousands of cups of new indulgent yogurt. Today's flavor: Key Lime Pie.

Colossal choreography

The thundering operation is hard on the ears, yet easy on the eyes and nose.

In a two-story building that smelled of citrus zest, a glistening silver machine -- mesmerizing to watch -- automatically filled, sealed, and corralled the small plastic cups. The feverish pace stopped only briefly when the machine demanded more ingredients.

Rudolph proudly displayed the contraption and noted that less than a day passes from the moment the milk arrives to time the yogurt is ready for shipping.

“It's generally all within 24 hours,” he said. "It's very fast and very fresh."

The choreography is evident at every step, and so is the pride.

"I think the typical customer would be very impressed with what we do here," Rudolph said.