Texans needed food and comfort after a brutal storm. As usual, they found it at H-E-B.
By David Montgomery, Rick Rojas and Giulia McDonell Nieto Del Río
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,” Generous, a copywriter, said.
But Sunday, as the sun shined and ice thawed in Austin, 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 the 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.
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,” 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.”
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 people could only take 2 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.