We're suckers for a good origin story. And the best supermarket in Texas has an interesting one: It starts with a strong-willed woman named Florence Butt, who moved her family, including three sons, to Texas in the early 1900s. She was in search of better medical treatments for her husband, who suffered from tuberculosis. After taking orders and delivering groceries door-to-door for A&P Tea Company, Florence borrowed $60 to open Mrs. C.C. Butt's Staple and Fancy Grocery on the ground floor of her home in Kerrville in 1905.
Her son, Howard E. Butt, took over operations 20 years later, added stores, and rebranded the company to H-E-B (using his initials). In the early '70s, Howard turned over the store to his son, Charles, who started as a bagger when he was just 8 years old. The company continues to expand and crossed the border in the late '90s with stores in Mexico.
Today the company includes more than 300 stores, boasts a devoted, loyal customer base, and is in a battle royale with Walmart for the hearts and grocery carts of the Lone Star State. But Texans love rooting for the local, little guy in any David-and-Goliath war.
Here are 10 reasons Texans love to shop at H-E-B.
1. There are tortillas!
When my fellow ex-Texans hear that I'm traveling home to the Lone Star State, they deliver one request: "Please bring me back some H-E-B tortillas." Hispanic culture informs the company's DNA. See, the company maintains its headquarters in San Antonio, home of the Alamo, an 18th-century Spanish mission that served as the site of the infamous 1836 battle for Texan independence from Mexico, and the only large Texas city where the Hispanic population is the majority. It also operates 51 stores in Mexico.
All of that helps explain why many stores feature an in-house tortilleria, which allows customers to watch employees shape tortillas by hand and see the discs enter and exit the oven on a conveyor belt. If you hit the store at the right moment, expect a warm, soft, fresh-out-of-the-oven free sample that will fill your soul with joy. On my last visit, I watched as customer after customer walked up to the stacks of wrapped packages of tortillas and placed a hand on the top of each package in attempts to find the freshest ones. But shoppers should know: They're all perfect.
2. It's one digital-savvy operation.
H-E-B delivers to 46 states and military bases worldwide. They also offer a curbside service at select stores for a mere $4.95 fee. Customers simply order eight hours in advance. Personal shoppers grab the groceries, and a simple text prompts employees to hustle the haul out to your parking spot. No standing in the hot, hot heat — just sit in the cab of your Ford F-150 in the cool AC, and listen to an Astros game while you wait.
3. The free samples might even trump Costco.
H-E-B wants customers to try before they buy, and employees devote time and space to filling stores with opportunities to test-drive new products. On a recent Saturday in a Houston store, I found a sample station around every corner — fresh salmon burgers sizzling on a grill, bites of sushi, forks of marinated and grilled chicken, cheeses, and several alcohol setups (shots of ready-to-drink margaritas made with 100 percent agave, watermelon wine spritzers, and a selection of summery whites).
4. The wine and beer offerings are legit.
H-E-B grocery stores didn't start offering alcohol until 1976, but they're making up for lost time. Customers rave about the expansive variety of wines, the reasonable prices, and the selection of traditional, craft, and Texas brews (a "mix your own" feature allows shoppers to pick six and create their own beer sampler).
5. H-E-B is super philanthropic.
Based on a long-standing policy, the company donates five percent of pretax earnings to charity and gives millions of pounds of groceries to local food banks each year. It also possesses a soft spot for teachers and education (perhaps as a nod to founding mother Florence Butt, who was the only female in her college class in Mississippi and taught school after graduating). She, her son, and the family have donated more professionally and personally than Walmart's Walton family, Amazon's Bezos, Starbucks' Schultz, and Facebook's Zuckerberg. The company has given $100 million to create a center for developing school-district leaders in Texas, pledged $50 million to train teachers in Texas public schools, and $800,000 annually in cash prizes to teachers. They also earn praise for their disaster-relief efforts, sending supplies to areas in anticipation of storms; working to get people employed and supported after disaster strikes and stores close; and delivering cleanup kits, water, and mobile kitchens to weather-destroyed areas.
6. The employees are oh-so-helpful.
My 81-year-old stepfather regularly praises the helpful and kind nature of the employees at his local H-E-B. If he looks puzzled in search of some ingredient for a new recipe my mom wants to try out, an employee will stop, ask if he needs help, and then bound off to retrieve the item for him. They also stop and help him load up his bags and assist him in placing all the goods in his car. That courtesy extends to young and old. And if a store is remodeling, they deploy additional employees who wear bright orange T-shirts with a large "How May I Help You" on the back to assist shoppers baffled by the new floor plan or the moved merchandise.
7. The company appreciates everyone who helps out.
In the stores and commercials, H-E-B highlights the regular people — the truck drivers who make more than 12,000 weekly deliveries, the produce buyer responsible for selecting the best blueberries for customers, and farming families such as the Constanzo family in Atascosa, Texas, who have been growing produce on their family's land for more than 100 years.
8. H-E-B has partnerships with beloved brands.
H-E-B knows its customers also love other iconic Texas brands — specifically the beloved flat-patty, squishy-bunned burgers sold under the orange, triangular-shaped burger joint known as Whataburger. Shoppers can buy a range of condiments from the famous burger emporium: Spicy Ketchup, Honey BBQ Sauce, and Peppercorn Ranch dressing. One shopper compared being able to buy Whataburger products at their favorite Texas grocery store to the Dallas Cowboys winning the Super Bowl and the University of Texas beating the University of Oklahoma on the same day (for football novices, the Texas vs. Oklahoma game is a long-standing rivalry and known as the Red River Showdown).
9. The produce section has everything.
The stores' produce sections feature anywhere from 900 to more than 1,000 items, and customers rave about the selection and the freshness. As signs in the store proudly announce, they sell more produce than any store in the Lone Star State, customers rate them number-one for produce, and the families who grew those collard and mustard greens have been doing so for more than four generations. In fact, H-E-B focuses on working with local suppliers, which cuts transportation costs, allows stores to lower produce prices and turn over inventory quickly, and keeps its fruits and vegetables fresh.
10. They create products you didn't know you needed.
The company doesn't just deploy its creativity for the purpose of clever product titles and initiatives (like the time they drew upon famous Texas movie titles for products such as True Grits). They also focus on time-saving, customer-pleasing innovations such as "bare bread," which comes with the crust removed for speedy sandwich-making for picky kids, and "pot-ready pasta," which features dried noodles that have been broken in half so they fit easily into a medium-sized pot, require less water, and don't result in a spray of pasta bits all over the counter.
Have you been to a H-E-B? What'd you think?