After a brutal storm, Texans took refuge where always: the HEB supermarket

H-E-B branded foods at a distribution center set up by the San Antonio Food Bank in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. For many Texans, H-E-B reflects 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 grocery chain has made a conscious choice to stay rooted to the idea of being a good neighbor. (Christopher Lee/The New York Times)

The state government faces challenges feeding and protecting citizens, but a local chain of stores has come to the rescue.

AUSTIN, Texas – The past week had been a nightmare. A winter storm, one of the worst to hit Texas in a generation, left Lanita Generous without electricity, heat or water in her home. The food that had been stored in the refrigerator and freezer had gone bad. He only had five bottles of water left.

“I’ve never felt so powerless,” said Generous, a copywriter.

But on Sunday, when the sun was shining and the ice was thawing in Austin, Generous did what many Texans in dire need of food, water and a sense of normalcy did: he went to HEB.

“They have been very good,” he said, adding with a little hyperbole: “If it hadn’t been for the bread and peanut butter, I would have died in my apartment.”

HEB is a supermarket chain. But it is also more than that. People buy T-shirts that say “HEB for President,” and They post videos on TikTok in which they declare their love to the store, like the woman who takes a small bouquet of flowers that an employee gave her: “I wish I had a boyfriend like HEB. It is always there. He gives me flowers. He feeds me ”.

The storm and its devastation have tested a long-held notion of independence in Texas, the sense that Texans and their companies can fend for themselves, without the meddling of outsiders or the shackles of regulation.

The ideology is evident in Texas’ decision to have its own power grid, one that was pushed to the brink of collapse by the storm and it was a source of anger when millions were left without power during the worst of the freezing wave.

But for many Texans, HEB reflects the ways the state’s maverick spirit can flourish: dependable during routine visits, but especially in times of disaster, and the belief that a family chain – with the vast majority of its elders out of 340 locations within the state – has made a conscious decision to stick with the idea of ​​being a good neighbor.

“It’s like HEB is the moral center of Texas,” said Stephen Harrigan, a novelist and journalist who lives in Austin. “There seems to be a lack of real leadership in our state, a lack of real efficiency, at the political level. But at the business level, when it comes to a grocery store, all of those things are in place. “

As frustration mounted among residents trapped in their homes without electricity or water, some began to comment, half-jokingly, that HEB should take over. Chain has become known for its logistical prowess, responding to the coronavirus pandemic and hurricanes with water reserves and emergency supplies ready to distribute. “Many Texans view HEB almost as a de facto branch of government,” wrote Greg Jefferson, business editor for The San Antonio Express-News.

Supermarket workers in general have also found a new level of recognitionas their work has proven even more essential during the pandemic.

HEB issued a statement Sunday saying its focus was still on operations after the storm, noting that the weather had been “incredibly difficult” for its employees, as well as the rest of the state.

“We have witnessed the tremendous actions carried out by HEB partners to keep our operations running and thus be able to serve our customers, and the most vulnerable,” said the statement referring to its employees, adding that the company had worked with state and local officials.

“We are particularly grateful for the utility workers in Texas who worked courageously and diligently during the storm to return water and power to Texans.”

Brand loyalty is often about more than the product; it can be a means for consumers to express their positions on political or social issues. However, HEB reflects another form of principled identification, often exceeding race, class, religion, gender, or sexual orientation: it is a sign of Texas identity.

HEB belongs to a class of businesses that Texans instantly identify with their state in a way that transcends commerce, especially for out-of-state expats. There’s the fast food chain Whataburger, Blue Bell ice cream, and giant Buc-ee’s convenience stores. More than one Texan in New York has seen an orange-striped bag of Junior’s Cheesecake and got the (wrong) impression that someone has jumped on the E train with a Whataburger.

HEB – its name derives from the initials of the founder’s son, Howard E. Butt Sr. – has succeeded in ingratiating itself with customers by selling limited edition bags to celebrate Selena, the Texan singer who is still mourned 25 years after her death, and Texas-shaped tortilla chips that Texans abroad ask their family members.

But some argue – very effusively – that affection for HEB is more than that. It has grown out of ties that have grown stronger as stores have become an established part of their customers’ lives and communities, offering affordable prices, good jobs, and support for school programs and food banks.

“They know their customers and it pays off,” says Leigh McAlister, professor of marketing at the University of Texas, author of the book. Grocery Revolution and a regular customer of one of HEB’s gourmet stores, Central Market, in Austin. “I have the feeling that when I walk into a HEB store, they are trying to figure out how to make my life wonderful.”

“That’s what we’ve come to expect from HEB,” added Professor McAlister. “They do it from the heart and are good at logistics. If your Texans need water, they can give it to them, because they are their Texans who are thirsty ”.

Rather than spreading its footprint as it grew, HEB has put down deeper roots, staying almost entirely within state lines. (The chain has stores in Mexico). The company, which was founded in 1905 as a small grocery store in the Hill Country town of Kerrville, now has 100,000 employees. The chain has been able to tackle tough business and stay afloat while its competitors, such as Walmart and Kroger, have invaded its territory.

“It’s local, and I’m local,” said Juan Morales, 74, as he loaded bags into the back seat of his Chevy Impala in San Antonio. His wife, Josie, noted that the couple have been shopping at HEB since they got married – 50 years.

Gina Loera, 61, rode her bike to a store near downtown San Antonio with her dog, Sandy, who was in a basket and sported sunglasses. “It’s a Texas institution,” he said.

Her husband, she said, works in a HEB warehouse, loading trucks. “They do a lot for the people of Texas,” Loera said. “They’re good to their employees too: good raises, good health care. They also have their own doctors, their own clinics here in the city ”.

Brock Sol said he was drawn to the store because of the prices. “I don’t have a home, so it’s hard to find cheap things to eat,” said Sol, 43. “You have to buy things that are easy to open. I don’t like going to convenience stores because they are very expensive. “

Still, restocking after the storm has been difficult.

“You had to come early and come over and over again,” said Robert Diaz, 64, after leaving a store. “They kept restocking the store as soon as the trucks arrived. People took everything ”.

Many store shelves were low on inventory, if not totally empty, especially of water. In a store packed with customers in the Las Palmas neighborhood of San Antonio, the 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 they need,” read a sign.

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,” he said as he walked to the store from the parking lot.

A few minutes later, he came out with one. It was small and plain, with just white frosting. But it was exactly what he 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.

Rick Rojas is a national correspondent covering the southern United States. He has been a reporter for the Times since 2014. @RaR

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio is a fellow with national coverage. He previously reported from his hometown of Los Angeles, as well as from New York and Washington. @GiuliaMcDonnell

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.

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