HEB Groceries rule in South Texas

Created Sunday, 15 May 2011 15:07

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Pretty generally and for as long as I have been paying attention – and it first came up in the 6th grade when Mr. Terrenova was explaining about company stores, and went all the way through my military service overseas with the Commissary and BX – everyone generally agrees that a monopoly of any market is a bad thing when it comes to consumer goods. Essentially, you are stuck with whatever the establishment chooses to offer; if they choose not to offer it, or are unable to offer it, you have no place else to shop. While not absolutely true in the case of the Commissary/BX – as there always was the local economy and/or mail order – there is in Texas a special case of a benign and bountiful monopoly in the matter of grocery store chains.

That would be the HEB grocery stores, which as nearly as I can see is unequalled by any other store chain in this part of the world. I knew that even when I was jokingly referring to them as the Huge Enormous Big-ass Grocery. Over three hundred stores in Texas and northern Mexico, one of the largest privately held companies in the United States . . . and is headquartered here as well, so that counts for the mega-big footprint around the highways and byways of San Antonio. HEB is the initials of the original founder’s son, Howard Edward Butt, who would be treated horribly if he were an elementary school student today; presumably the early 20th century was kinder to kids with tease-worthy names. The founder, I might add, was one Florence Butt who in an attempt to provide a living for herself and her children, opened a simple storefront grocery store in Kerrville in 1905

The HEB has some local competition when it comes to specialty groceries – from Whole Foods on the high-end organic front, Sun Harvest Farms on the medium-range organic, Specs’ and World Market as far as exotic imports. At the budget oriented end there is always Super-Target and Wally-World – but that’s it. There is no other national chain in town; no Trader Joes, no Food Lion, no Smith’s. No Vons, no Krogers. And no Albertsons – although they had a go of it a couple of years ago; I liked going to the Albertsons at Nacogdoches and Judson on weekends because it was never as crowded as the nearest HEB. Alas, that should have been a clue to me right there about Albertson’s fate.

There are excellent reasons for HEB’s supremacy: excellent choice of goods, high quality in the house brands, and awesome customer service. We didn’t realize how very good that we had it, until I made one of my rare post-retirement out-of-state journeys to South Carolina in 1999 to see my daughter graduate from USMC basic training. She had been at Parris Island for nearly six months – and on her first night out, we decided that we wanted to celebrate by having something that she hadn’t had for all that time: some nice deli cheese and crackers, maybe some good bakery bread and a bottle of wine. I found a chain grocery store, in a nice upscale neighborhood on the outskirts of Savannah – a Food Lion, if memory serves – and we ventured in, quite sure that there would be a deli counter, maybe even an in-store bakery. There wasn’t. We made do with a box of Triskets and a tiny slab of Kraft, of course, but it wasn’t anything like we had been anticipating. We felt sorry for the Savannahites who didn’t know what they were missing, and have appreciated the heck out of HEB ever since.

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