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H-E-B Forever

Why Texas’s favorite store is the cultiest cult grocer in America

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The story of H-E-B seems unoriginal, as far as cult grocers go: A family launches a store in a small town a long time ago (in this case, the Butt family, in Kerrville, Texas, in 1905). That store earns a loyal following and expands throughout the region (Texas). It becomes known among its fans for its wildly dedicated employees (many have worked there for 30-plus years), top-notch customer service (only at H-E-B will someone hand you a freshly baked tortilla to snack on while you shop), and unique food products (hatch chile cookies!). Adoring public odes are published about it across the Internet. Long lines form whenever a new location touches down.

This tale could be told of any beloved regional grocery store — your Publixes, your Wegmans, your Harris Teeters — except that San Antonio-based H-E-B exists in a single U.S. state (with 52 stores across the border in Mexico) and is the 12th-largest private company in the country, according to Forbes. What’s the difference between H-E-B and everyone else? Sure, it’s ranked among the top places to work and is pretty ahead-of-the-curve with its mobile checkout (maybe that’s why employees at Amazon suggested that the tech giant acquire H-E-B before it settled on that other Texas grocer).

But, really, H-E-B has just tapped into one of the most powerful cultural forces in existence: Texas pride. H-E-B’s corporate campus — where many of the buildings are made of Texas limestone, and the neoclassical design is quintessential Texas architecture — runs along the San Antonio River Walk, and is built on an old military compound called the San Antonio Arsenal. A Texas landmark, known for being a major supply depot during both world wars, it now supplies Texas to Texans, from Whataburger Fancy Ketchup to Takis rolled tortilla chips to Franklin Barbecue sauce.

The H-E-B website prominently declares that H-E-B has “proudly served Texans since 1905,” and that its stores are all about “outfitting Texas families with all they need for Texas lifestyles.” In 2016, Manny Fernandez succinctly described what that means in the New York Times: “You don’t just move to Texas. It moves into you ... We tattoo Texas on our arms, buy Texas-built trucks and climb fire escapes with Texas dirt in our pockets. Place, we are unsubtly suggesting, matters.” Being from most states is just part of your bio; being from Texas is a lifelong commitment.

I know this is true because I am from Texas. My parents moved the family to Dallas from New Hampshire when I was around a year old. My dad shades his face from the Texas sun with a cowboy hat on his daily walks, and has long identified as more Texan than Indian; as kids, my sister and I posed for photos off the highway amid the Texas bluebonnets every spring; I know all the lyrics to the de facto state song, “Deep in the Heart of Texas”; and though I live in Brooklyn now, I still wear shorts emblazoned with the Texas flag to the gym.

If you’re not from Texas, the state might seem like one giant stereotype of cowboys, conservatism, and brashness. But Texan identity is more complex than that: There’s rural Texas, Silicon Prairie Texas, honky-tonk Texas, hipster Texas, Latinx Texas, oil-soaked Texas, Vietnamese Texas, and yes, gun-slinging Texas — just to name a few. A grocery store can be a prism for identity, refracting and focusing it; Whole Foods famously does this for an entire group of people held together by little more than social class and a vague sense of taste. What’s unique about H-E-B fandom is that its customers are ultimately loyal to H-E-B in so far as they are loyal to Texas. This is perhaps one of the most distinguishing factors between H-E-B and the other cult grocers: People love Publix subs, crave Trader Joe’s snacks, and revere Wegmans’ customer service, but H-E-B is a way of life.

Have you ever wanted a cast-iron skillet in the shape of the Lone Star state? Party tray? Burger-shaper? Cutting board? Pecan cake? Cheese? You can find them all in the aisles of H-E-B. Texas’s unique outline, with its right angles and craggly edges, is probably one of the most recognizable in the country. There are hundreds — literally hundreds — of Texas-shaped items at H-E-B. An employee at a San Antonio location tried to convince me that the Texas-shaped tortilla chips are superior because the unique silhouette, with its handle and curved ridges, was practically made for scooping up salsa. A shopper from Schulenburg, who regularly drives 25 miles to visit her nearest H-E-B, told me that she fills her grandchildren’s Christmas stockings exclusively with Texas-shaped novelty items purchased at H-E-B stores.

It turns out that, after oil, Texas pride may be the state’s single most lucrative natural resource — in part because it can take so many different forms, each of which can be sold to a distinct audience. Against the backdrop of a broader conversation about the future of Texas and Texan identity, H-E-B is unabashedly embracing the longer, wider, more diverse view of what it means to be a proud Texan, and reaping the financial rewards of doing so; H-E-B’s more than 340 stores span several concepts, each of which appeals to a specific Lone Star State community or sensibility.

Most notably, in 2006, H-E-B launched Mi Tienda, a grocery chain that caters to the needs of the state’s vast Latinx population, with a masa factory and tortilla presses in each store, products like dulce de leche and Mexican wedding cookies, and a default Spanish-language website. Additionally, there’s Central Market, H-E-B’s specialty-foods store, which was launched in 1994 to appeal to a more globalized audience by offering a cross section of the cuisines that comprise an increasingly multicultural Texas, and now competes with Whole Foods; Joe V’s Smart Shop, a budget grocery brand; and Oaks Crossing, a family-friendly restaurant in one San Antonio store serving chicken-fried carne asada and brisket nachos.

Four years ago, H-E-B ventured into the barbecue business — the category of food that Texans are the most particular about (even if Tex-Mex is what more Texans actually eat). “What is the most Texan food we can put out there?” Kristin Irvin, who is in charge of development for H-E-B’s True Texas Barbecue, asked me. “It’s barbecue.” She added that her team tasted barbecue from more than 25 different iconic Texas spots — Black’s, Franklin, and the like — to make sure that their version would pass muster. To Irvin and her team’s credit, the food I tried at a True Texas Barbecue inside a San Antonio H-E-B was pretty good — the sausage was appropriately snappy and well-spiced, the char on the brisket was just right, and even the turkey tasted impressively juicy. There are now 10 True Texas Barbecue locations spread across the state.

True Texas Barbecue was followed by another True Texas business, True Texas Tacos, which opened earlier this year in San Antonio. The restaurant, which focuses on breakfast tacos, is housed in another spin-off concept, the H-E-B Convenience Store, because eating gas station breakfast tacos is, to some, a Texas rite of passage. At True Texas Tacos, the tortillas are flour (anything else would be blasphemous) and freshly made on site. The fillings come in barbacoa (stewed cow’s head), picadillo (ground beef), and my personal favorite, a crisp slab of bacon with refried beans and cheese.

You can also grab a Big Red, the bubble gum-flavored soda that was invented in Waco and is taken as a matter of fact to be the ideal counterpart to a smoky barbacoa taco. When an H-E-B employee found out that I had never even heard of Big Red, despite growing up less than 100 miles away from its birthplace, they immediately filled a large cup with the frighteningly red soda, and made me try it with the barbacoa taco — the combo was at first cloying, then pleasantly salty. (I probably could have done without the Big Red.) Still, I couldn’t believe that I had missed out on this allegedly quintessential Texas experience. It made me wonder: If H-E-B doesn’t do it, is it really Texan?

In Dallas, where I’m from, there’s no vanilla H-E-B location, a source of extreme annoyance among locals. But my family has long been devoted to Central Market, where we could buy whole spices, ghee, masoor dal (red lentils), and whole-wheat tortillas, which are (still) the closest approximation my mom has found to roti in any mainstream grocery store. Central Market also introduced my family to English double cream, arborio rice, and miso, broadening our palates with tastes from other cuisines. There are still sizable communities that H-E-B could do a better job of showcasing — the state’s robust immigrant populations from China and Vietnam come to mind — but it’s hard to think of another brand that’s as expansive in its vision of who and what gets to be Texan, or that comes as close to its aspirations to represent all of Texas. Whatever the future of Texas looks like, there’s a good chance it’ll show up in H-E-B.

We may live in the United States of California and Texas, but H-E-B has no plans to expand beyond Texas, at least in the U.S. Julie Bedingfield, an H-E-B public affairs manager, says that the company gets requests to open stores outside of Texas, mainly from Texas natives living elsewhere, “every single day.” You’d think that, in the same way that Popeyes has exported its Louisiana fried chicken across the country, H-E-B would want to sell its brand of Texas to people outside of the state. But H-E-B just wants to dig into its native soil even harder: Shortly after Amazon acquired Austin-based Whole Foods, H-E-B announced the creation of a tech and innovation lab in Austin, which will house its latest acquisition, a Texas-based delivery app called Favor.

The strategy seems to be working. “I don’t really like Whole Foods after they got bought by Amazon,” an H-E-B customer in San Antonio told me. “I don’t like seeing the Amazon stuff everywhere.” With H-E-B, on the other hand, “I feel like they do things to support the community,” she added. “Many people I know, their kids work there ... I think H-E-B has earned the monopoly.”

The dedicated barbecue sauce aisles and the chicken-fried steak may sometimes seem a bit like Texas caricature — but whether or not every H-E-B customer connects with every Texas-adjacent item isn’t the point. It’s all just a way for H-E-B to communicate its message, loud and clear: We get it. You love Texas, and so do we.

I’ve noticed, living in New York, that people tend to write off Texas as a Wild West of conservatism and unruliness. Similarly, when my parents moved to Dallas from Nashua, New Hampshire in the ’90s, everyone told them they would face intense racism. Instead, we’ve all found the opposite to be true, at least where we’ve lived — Texans, on the whole, are open, honest, dedicated, and friendly. Maybe that’s why H-E-B resonates so strongly in Texas. The stores represent Texans as they see themselves. There is no attempt to construct a monolithic image of Texas — or even to help people outside of Texas understand Texas. H-E-B is the secret that only Texans are in on. It’s a retailer whose ethos is very clear: This is Texas — where the food is better, the people are more loyal, and the shape of our state is actually quite remarkable. Y’all got any questions?

Priya Krishna is a food writer who contributes regularly to the New York Times, Bon Appétit, and other publications. Her cookbook, Indian-ish, is out April 2019.
Laura Kraay is a freelance illustrator living in Austin, Texas.
Fact checked by Emma Grillo
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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