As state government flounders, has a beloved grocery store chain become “the moral center of Texas”?
AUSTIN, Texas — The past week had been a nightmare. A winter storm, one of the worst to hit Texas in a generation, robbed Lanita Generous of power, heat and water in her home. The food she had stored in her refrigerator and freezer had spoiled. She was down to her final five bottles of water.
“I have never felt so powerless,” Ms. Generous, a copywriter, said.
But on Sunday, as the sun shined and ice thawed in Austin, Ms. Generous did the same thing as many Texans in urgent need of food, water and a sense of normalcy: She went to H-E-B.
“They’ve been great,” she said, adding with just a touch of hyperbole: “If it hadn’t been for the bread and peanut butter, I would have died in my apartment.”
H-E-B is a grocery store chain. But it is also more than that. People buy T-shirts that say “H-E-B for President,” and they post videos to TikTok declaring their love, like the woman clutching a small bouquet of flowers handed to her by an employee: “I wish I had a boyfriend like H-E-B. Always there. Gives me flowers. Feeds me.”
The storm and its devastation have tested a notion of independence that is deeply ingrained in Texas, a sense that Texans and their businesses can handle things on their own without the intrusion of outsiders or the shackles of regulation.
It is an ideology evident in Texas’ decision to have a power grid of its own, one that was pushed by the storm to the edge of collapse and was a source of fury as millions were left without electricity during the worst of the frigid conditions.
But for many Texans, H-E-B reflected the ways the state’s maverick spirit can flourish: reliable for routine visits but particularly in a time of disaster, and a belief that the family-owned chain — with a vast majority of its more than 340 locations inside state lines — has made a conscious choice to stay rooted to the idea of being a good neighbor.
“It’s like H-E-B is the moral center of Texas,” said Stephen Harrigan, a novelist and journalist who lives in Austin. “There seems to be in our state a lack of real leadership, a lack of real efficiency, on the political level. But on the business level, when it comes to a grocery store, all of those things are in place.”
As frustration swelled among residents trapped in their homes without power or water, some started to remark, half-jokingly, that H-E-B should just take over. The chain has become known for its logistical prowess — in responding to the coronavirus pandemic and to hurricanes, with stockpiles of water and emergency supplies ready to be deployed. “So many Texans look to H-E-B almost as a de facto arm of government,” Greg Jefferson, the business editor of The San Antonio Express-News, wrote in his column.
Grocery workers in general have also found a new level of recognition as their job has shown itself to be all the more essential during the pandemic.
H-E-B issued a statement on Sunday saying that its focus was still on operations after the storm, noting that the weather had been “incredibly difficult” on its employees as well as the rest of the state.
“We have witnessed tremendous actions taken by H-E-B partners to keep our operations running so that we may provide for our customers, and those most vulnerable,” the statement said, adding that the company had worked with state and local officials. “We are particularly grateful for the utility workers in Texas who worked bravely and diligently through the storm to restore water and power to Texans.”
Allegiances to brands are often about more than just the product; they can be a proxy for consumers to telegraph their stances on political or social issues. Yet H-E-B reflects another kind of virtue signaling, one that often supersedes race, class, religion, gender or sexual orientation: a display of Texan identity.
H-E-B falls into a class of companies that Texans instantly identify with their state in a way that transcends commerce, particularly for expatriates outside state lines. There is Whataburger, the fast food chain; Blue Bell ice cream; and Buc-ee’s supersized convenience stores. Many a Texan in New York City has spotted an orange-striped bag from Junior’s Cheesecake and thought someone stepped on the E train with a Whataburger.
H-E-B — its name derived from the initials of the founder’s son, Howard E. Butt Sr. — has been able to ingratiate itself with customers by selling limited-edition tote bags celebrating Selena, the Tejano singer still mourned 25 years after her death, and Texas-shaped tortilla chips that Texans abroad ask relatives back home to send them.
But some contend — gush, really — that the affection for H-E-B is about more than that. It sprouted from bonds that have been nurtured as the stores have become established fixtures of their customers’ lives and communities, offering affordable prices, good jobs and support for school programs and food banks.
“They know their customers and that gets rewarded,” said Leigh McAlister, a marketing professor at the University of Texas, an author of the book “Grocery Revolution” — and a regular customer at one of H-E-B’s upscale Central Market stores in Austin. “It just feels like when I go into an H-E-B store, they’re trying to figure out how to make my life wonderful.”
“That’s what we’ve come to expect of H-E-B,” Professor McAlister added. “It’s from the heart and they’re good at logistics. If their Texans need water, they can get it to them, because it’s their Texans who are thirsty.”
Instead of spreading its footprint as it grew, H-E-B has laid down deeper roots, staying almost entirely inside state lines. (The chain has some stores in Mexico.) The company, which was founded in 1905 as a small grocer in the Hill Country town of Kerrville, now has 100,000 employees. The chain has been able to weather a tough business and hold its own as competitors, like Walmart and Kroger, have encroached on its turf.
“It’s local, and I’m local,” Juan Morales, 74, said as he loaded bags into the back seat of his Chevy Impala in San Antonio. His wife, Josie, noted that the couple has been shopping at H-E-B for as long as they have been married: 50 years.
Gina Loera, 61, rode her bike to a store near downtown in San Antonio with her dog, Sandy, riding along in a basket wearing sunglasses. “It’s a Texas institution,” she said.
Her husband, she said, works in an H-E-B warehouse, loading trucks. “They do a lot for people here in Texas,” Ms. Loera said. “They are good to their employees, too — good raises, good health care. They have their own doctors, too. Their own clinics here in town.”
Brock Sol said he was drawn to the store by the prices. “I’m homeless so it’s tough to find things cheap to eat,” Mr. Sol, 43, said. “We’ve got to buy things easy to open, a lot of pop tops. I don’t like going to convenience stores because they are so expensive.”
Still, restocking after the storm has been tough.
“You had to come early and come again and again,” Robert Diaz, 64, said after leaving a store. “They keep stocking the store as soon as the trucks came in. People took everything.”
The shelves in many stores were light on inventory, if not entirely bare, especially for water. In a store packed with customers in the Las Palmas neighborhood of San Antonio, notices warned that people could only take two gallons of water. “Limits are temporary and necessary for you and your neighbors to find the products you need,” a sign said.
Lala Bayramov showed up at the store in a desperate search for a cake for her son's first birthday. “Right now, I’m just looking for any cake,” she said as she walked in from the parking lot.
A few minutes later, she walked out with one. It was small and plain, with just white frosting. But it was exactly what she needed.
David Montgomery reported from Austin, Rick Rojas from Nashville, and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio from San Antonio. James Dobbins contributed reporting from San Antonio.