The Making of H-E-B, The Greatest Grocery Store
How the San Antonio supermarket chain found success and a loyal fan base during its 115-year history—and where it goes from here
By Kathleen Petty, San Antonio Magazine (TX)
Tantrums from 2-year-olds are about as common as 90-degree days in August, but the reason for Aria Plata’s fit this summer was more than a little unique: She missed visiting her neighborhood H-E-B.
Since Mid-March, the San Antonio toddler’s parents, Lori and Eric Plata, had been leaving her at home whenever one of them visited the grocery store due to concerns over COVID-19. When Lori returned home in June with a handful of plastic bags stamped with that red H-E-B emblem, Aria started wailing, saying between her sobs that she wanted to go to the store, too.
Her reaction may involve a few more tears than adult H-E-B superfans who’ve been separated from their favorite retailer, but the underlying sentiments are the same. H-E-B staff say they regularly receive requests from former Texans to bring H-E-Bs to their new hometowns and there are entire Reddit threads dedicated to former H-E-B shoppers looking for similar products in their new cities. “Nothing compares,” wrote one Reddit user in reply to another’s query about finding tortillas like the ones H-E-B makes in-store. “As someone who has been in Denver for a decade, I still miss H-E-B every single time I go to buy groceries.”
The San Antonio–based grocer that now has over 400 locations in Texas and Mexico started 115 years ago as a small store in Kerrville known as C.C. Butt Grocer. Founder Florence Butt (who named the store after her husband, Clarence Charles Butt, a pharmacist whose tuberculosis diagnosis originally brought the family to Texas in search of a temperate climate) turned the business over to her youngest son, Howard E. Butt, in the 1920s, and he led the store’s initial expansion, first with locations in Del Rio and Laredo and by 1940 with three stores in San Antonio. “We often joke about it because H-E-B opened in 1905 as a cash-and-carry store so we were delivering groceries long before delivering groceries was cool,” says Dya Campos, director of governmental and public affairs, who’s been with the company 14 years, a tenure she describes as relatively short compared to many of her peers. Greg Souquette, the senior vice president of the San Antonio region who started by working in the deli in Uvalde, just celebrated 50 years with H-E-B and Idell Bean recently retired after 52 years serving in the store on W.W. White Road. Grocery stores have always been a staple in people’s lives but that’s perhaps never been more prevalent than over the last several months as individuals hunkered down to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and began cooking more at home. “The grocery industry is now in the forefront of people’s needs,” says Lewis Shaye, president of the market and restaurant consulting firm Grocerant Design Group and the former chief concept officer at Taco Cabana (and a regular at H-E-B). “Before, people were taking it for granted. Now, it’s vital and it’s necessary for life even more than it was before.”
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