When someone says something like, “I know I’m stepping on the third rail here, but…” they’re admitting to touching a topic that one shouldn’t touch and expect to survive.
I’m from New York City, now living in the Texas Hill Country, and I’m going to risk a few hairs getting frazzled by my talking about HEB in Kerrville, which requires a lighter step than does crossing the tracks between the uptown #2 and downtown #3 trains at 72nd Street and Broadway.
The two HEB stores in Kerrville, Texas, are arguably bigger deals than other local attractions claimed online: The Cross at Kerrville (#1 spot according to Trip Advisor), while visually impressive, doesn’t get as many visitors even on Easter as does HEB before Thanksgiving; James Avery is not so central as HEB is; and at least this year, we’ll have to see if the Folk Music Festival, rescheduled for October, will get the same attention as Texas’s beloved grocery chain.
I know that these contrasts are not exactly apples-to-apples — HEB is a necessity in our daily lives, unlike the others — but all are part of the Kerrville or Hill Country DNA. I’m aware also that HEB should be typed as “H-E-B,” but frankly I’m too lazy to do that each time.
I’ll add this: because of his creation of this amazing company, the founder (“H___”) is one of the few H’s whose first name I’m proud to share.
My intention here is to express both my appreciation and suggested tweaks for this growing and much-loved company, a reputation that is wholly deserved.
HEB Kerrville and its biscuit aisle
Let me say at the outset that when I moved to my wife’s hometown of Kerrville, I started a blog whose title was inspired by HEB. It was borne of my first visit here, in 1996.
“Biscuit Aisle” was a tip of the hat to the copious display of not only that product but also many others (brisket, tortilla chips, cheese, cokes, salsa, etc.) that had shelves and frontage for days, all devoted to multiple brands and varying dosages.
Velveeta is sold like lumber.
Currently, the Main Street store’s biscuit aisle now has yogurts of all sorts, including 4% Fage, which you can’t get at the other HEB (a.k.a. the “Little HEB” and former home of Albertson’s).
Bottom line: I love HEB as much as the next guy.
HEB high points
YAKULT, for example
Along the biscuit aisle and to the right of Fage is a product called Yakult.
It’s a Japanese drinkable probiotic yogurt enjoyed elsewhere in Asia and in Australia, and now in the U.K. and U.S. (as of 1999). A Filipino friend of mine said she drank them all the time as a kid. You who are local to Kerrville probably know we have a strong Filipino community here and also a large Filipino community in San Antonio.
It’s not surprising that HEB would offer such a product, because by all accounts it is a customer-focused company.
Yakult is merely an example.
In my experience with the company, if you want a product to be offered, you can talk to the store manager, as I did once. She promised to talk to the head of grocery (it was a food item), who checked with the warehouse regarding supply chain, and a man called me within three or so days to ask more questions and hear my request.
For a company this size, I don’t think I could ask much more from HEB. Of course, that’s exactly what I’m going to do in this Opinion piece. Hopefully in love and respect.
Speaking for myself, I’m a big fan of the check-out experience.
Not only do I not have to wait long in line ever, but the cashiers are super quick, asking you how you’re doing each time, and the folks bagging the items are quick, efficient, and courteous. (Though I rue the day when one asks me if he can help me get my groceries to the car.) I realize these staff habits are probably the result of good training, but the effect on the customer comes across authentically.
And “attaboy!” to the training department.
I also like how HEB made a change in its card machine: apparently people were leaving their cards in the machines after check-out, so the process was changed so that we remove our cards before we approve the total.
FREE TASTINGS and LIVE COOKING KIOSK
Though COVID has changed a lot, hopefully temporarily, who doesn’t love the free food here and there?!
I’ve had new kinds of chili at the little HEB on Sidney Baker South and spicy California roll sushi at the big HEB on Main Street.
After tasting the outcome of a cooking demo at the big HEB that featured a jar of Cookwell & Company Two-Step Spicy Chili Mix — yes, I know using a sauce like this is kind of cheating — I bought a jar, made chili — and it was a big hit with the kids.
As long as the chili is good, the diners don’t care what state appears on the chef’s birth certificate.
The sensitive response HEB showed during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, its nationally-newsworthy Ninja Supply Chain skills, and its rapid response to other disasters, make it a company worth praising. It also ranked as a top company to work for.
The list, as you all well know, could go on.
Here are some of the items on my “wish list” for HEB going forward.
My HEB wish list
There are certain products that are either temporarily unavailable, infrequently available, or they are items I hope will always be available.
- SafeCatch Tuna | I first got this canned tuna fish at the little HEB in the Fall of 2019 when I was trying to eat a lot of protein.
- It’s low in mercury if it has any at all, and its ocean-to-canning process seems humane. It costs a little more, yes. But health and taking one tiny step toward sustainability make it worth it.
- SafeCatch to my knowledge hasn’t been offered at the big HEB, and it’s made sporadic appearances at the little one. My wife brought it home last night, putting a big smile on my face.
- Bernards Gourmet Salsa | My favorite salsa. It is not offered at the small HEB, and it was regularly offered at the big HEB, until it wasn’t. Again, it’s a bit more expensive, but when the alternative salsas are made with water or tomato paste (which itself is part water), neither of which Bernards is, why not buy one carton less of Coke and spend money on amazing salsa instead? (That’s a call to action for my fellow shoppers.)
- I know as with any item anywhere — grocery store or otherwise — if a product doesn’t sell, the manager can’t take up shelf space for it.
- That said, I know that people would buy more if they only had the opportunity to try it. (This is addressed below.)
- Dave’s Killer Bread | Aside from being about the best store-bought bread anywhere, if you’ve not read the history behind Dave’s Killer Bread, you owe it to yourself to Google it. It’s a story of redemption, human triumph and entrepreneurship, and we customers would do well to buy it and keep it on the shelves.
So here are two suggestions to remedy the above situations. (I say “remedy,” realizing I might well be the only one disturbed.)
I’m a writer and wannabe photographer, not a retailer or merchandiser, so these suggestions could be worth less than the paper this article is printed on. But since I’m a devotee of HEB and also spend the exorbitant amount of $11.99 on this domain each year, giving me a very small platform to spout off on, and since I shop a ton at the store, I’ll give it a shot.
- An “R&D” area | Foods like SafeCatch currently sit alongside competitors like Chicken of the Sea. The latter retails at about 10 cans for a dollar, or something like that. Many of us view SafeCatch and similar higher-priced items as luxurious alongside their shelfmates. So we pass them by.
- SOLUTION: could HEB take a small area of the store toward the back corner, stock it with low-selling but high-profit products and brand the area like an “R&D Zone” for shoppers? A place for customers who consider themselves early-adopters to try something new that might be higher priced but which they’re willing to take a chance on. Maybe there’s even a coupon up front as they enter.
- “Gleaning” | HEB is said to operate on “Christian principles,” as its founder set in motion. Many of us value the store for that very reason.
- SOLUTION: Gleaning has been part of a local area’s social welfare for millenia and is woven into the Judeo-Christian fabric. Could HEB provide a portion of a side or back wall that could contain small amounts of products that people could sample or take with them. These would be items that HEB might not want to take up prime shelf space for, but perhaps there’d be an accompanying coupon that satisfied customers could return and register their “vote” to have the items restocked. They’d be prepared in safe conditions within the Deli department.
These could be and probably are poor solutions, both practically in terms of execution and realistically in terms of market behavior. I believe in the free market system. I also believe that “what we do well today, we can do even better tomorrow.”
Is all of the above my personal opinion expressing my personal whims and wishes?
But if HEB were more like the Massachusetts-based chain Stop & Shop, which a comedian I heard once parody as “Stop. Shop. Now get the hell out,” then I wouldn’t bother.
But since I love HEB, I bother.