Davis Brothers Davis Brothers

They were Florida's First Family of Beef, four brothers who helped revolutionize the retail grocery trade by cashing in on a nation's appetite for one-stop, supermarket convenience.

The Davis brothers -- Artemus Darius, James Elsworth, Milton Austin and Tine Wayne -- stayed true to their father's conservative values and turned a single store in Miami into one of the nation's largest chains.

Today, Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie has 1,174 stores in 14 states and the Bahamas, with annual sales of $13.2 billion in 1996. It's the nation's ninth-largest supermarket chain.

Not content to simply mind the store, the Davises left their mark on Florida politics, throwing their financial muscle behind conservative causes. Their support in the 1950 U.S. Senate race helped George Smathers upset incumbent Claude Pepper.

The family's political clout also helped guide national economic policy. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Donald Regan once said of his financial guru, James E. Davis: "When J.E. calls, I listen."

The brothers learned the grocery trade from their father, William Milton Davis, whose first store in Burley, Idaho, fell victim to the new concept of cash-only purchases. At that time, in the early 1920s, small-town grocers like Davis sold goods on credit.

The new breed of cash-and-carry stores could purchase more stock and offer lower prices. The elder Davis moved to Miami and started over.

The Davises were quick to spot the supermarket trend -- bigger stores, more variety. After acquiring the 73-store Winn & Lovett Grocery Co. in 1939, they super-sized everything.

J.E. Davis promoted capitalism but never forgot the human element.

"Honesty and integrity are the basis for success," he once wrote. "And we must combine them with courtesy and concern for others."

The oldest of the Davis brothers, A. Darius, lived the longest. He died June 11, 1995, at age 89. But to the end, all four brothers remained true to their father's admonishment: "Stay liquid, sell for cash and don't buy real estate." To this day, the company leases all its stores.

-- Eric Pera
Recommended reading: "Don't Make A&P; Mad" by James E. Davis (self-published through Jacksonville University, 1990).

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