By Sally Pearsall Ericson Mobilians eager to welcome Publix turned out in droves early Wednesday for the grand opening of the grocery store at Hillwood Shopping Center on the corner of Cottage Hill and Hillcrest roads. By 7:50 a.m., the parking lot was already packed, and shoppers had to resort to neighboring lots across the street before joining the long line outside the store. (But Publix kept up its storied reputation for customer service, with a complimentary coffee station outside.) Before the store opened, Mobile Mayor Sam Jones, members of the Mobile City Council and officials from Publix and White-Spunner & Associates held a welcoming ceremony. "It's a very, very popular store and a huge addition to the community," Jones said after the opening. "It will enhance west Mobile." Officials also made a special presentation to members of Gerri Cox's family. Cox, a cancer patient, was a longtime advocate for the grocery store and spent her last months eagerly checking on the progress of its construction. "She had a real spirit to see this community grow," Jones said. Cox died on April 8 at age 69, after enduring months of chemotherapy to treat an aggressive form of cancer in her lungs and liver. "For over a year, she had planned to be at this opening," said her daughter, Rhonda Daniels. "She just loved the family feeling you get when you visit Publix." White-Spunner and its contractors did their best to finish the store early on her behalf, finishing two months ahead of time, said Matt White, president of White-Spunner Realty. "Mrs. Cox was a big motivator," he said. "She called every day." Shoppers thronged the entrance, collecting reusable, insulated shopping bags, loaves of bread, pharmacy samples, coupons, fresh flowers and other treats. Mobile City Council members Bess Rich, John Williams and Fred Richardson joined the line of greeters inside the main doors. Throughout the store, employees handed out samples. One of the most popular spots was near the bakery, where chefs were setting out small plates of French toast with pecan glaze. "This is the most people I've ever seen at a grocery store opening, and we've been to a lot of them," said John White-Spunner, president and CEO of White-Spunner Construction. White-Spunner was proud of the speed of the project, and also its efficiency, he said. "We were able to reuse a majority of the existing construction on the site," he said, including utilities, drainage and parking. The space is big – 45,600 square feet – but the next Publix to open in Mobile will be even bigger, at 56,000 square feet. That store is under construction at the corner of Airport and University boulevards, and will likely open in mid-June. So what makes Publix so special? Customer service seems to be the key. The chain has a reputation for "making sure the customer is taken care of," said Sheila Murphy of Telecom. "It's awesome for Mobile to have another place to shop," she added. "It's a nice, clean store, really well organized," said shopper Paul Worthey. "They're interested in making it a good experience for you." "I think it's geared to being very user-friendly," Mayor Jones said. The new Publix is open seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Phone: 251-661-5361.