I WAS LOITERING around the newest Central Market in Austin on a Sunday afternoon not long ago, killing time while the in-house cafe prepared my roasted-vegetable Slacker Sandwich, when I noticed them: The People Without Shopping Carts. They were a group of four, a young couple in their twenties and a set of middle-aged parents. First they inspected the awesome affinage, a climate-controlled vault where you can buy and age your own, personal piece of Spenwood sheep’s-milk cheese or Montgomery’s cheddar. Next they wandered over to the open bakery, where a fresh, hot loaf of pistachio-fig bread had been cut up for sampling. Then they headed to the produce department to ooh and aah over the twenty varieties of apples and the trendy Dolce Mediterraneo peppers. When I stopped tailing them, the foursome was in the toiletries section, sniffing the $6.79 bars of French-milled soap. They never bought a thing and never intended to. They were sightseers on the Austin tourist trail, which in the past five years has come to include—along with the state capitol, Barton Springs, and the LBJ Library—Central Market.
In January 1994 this division of San Antonio— based H-E-B broke new ground in grocery retailing. It threw out the one-stop-shopping model—getting rid of all the boring, oppressive shelves of dog food, toilet paper, and breakfast cereal—and launched a breezy, accessible, subtly upscale store that focused exclusively on food, food, food. In the five years and nine months since then, Central Market has become famous in the supermarket industry as well as among people who live to eat. Stories have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Self, and Better Homes and Gardens, among other publications. Kate Krader, a Food & Wine magazine senior editor, calls the market “phenomenal.” Ron Lieber, who wrote about it for the slick business magazine Fast Company, says, “It’s the coolest grocery store I’ve ever seen.”
Since the initial store opened, two more Central Markets have followed—one in San Antonio in 1998 and the second Austin store in April of this year. The concept has such cachet that H-E-B is looking to expand it (a site is being sought in Houston; Dallas will probably come next). But if you asked the hordes of shoppers pawing through the portobellos and porcinis to name the individual who turned the idea into reality, not one in a hundred would be able to tell you that the credit belongs to a modest, affable 48-year-old corporate vice president named John Campbell.
Campbell is an unlikely person to have made grocery shopping sexy. Indeed, in his conservative polo shirt and khaki pants, he looks every inch the company man and accountant that he is. He started out as a sacker at a Corpus Christi H-E-B when he was a kid and climbed the corporate ladder into upper-level administration. In thirty years, incredibly, he never left the fold. But if Campbell doesn’t fit the model of the freewheeling entrepreneur, he has attributes that are even more valuable for trail-bossing a new operation: deep experience and natural leadership. In late 1992—a year after the Central Market idea began to percolate in the minds of H-E-B chairman and CEO Charles Butt, president Fully Clingman, and a core group of other executives—Campbell was tapped to head the development team. “They thought I was crazy enough to take it on,” he says. Butt saw other qualities: “John has a roster of food friendships all over the country, and he is out there on the cutting edge about products. He also attracted a group of truly talented people to work for him. Of all the reasons for his success, I’d say that is number one, two, and three.”
Campbell made Central Market his baby. To check out the best ideas in food retailing, a task force of senior managers began making extensive visits to stores all over North America and Europe. Harry’s Farmers Market in Atlanta showed them how to capture the nostalgic appeal of an old-time fruit-and-vegetable stand in a modern produce emporium. Mexico City’s flower and food markets dazzled them with their bounty and beauty. In an open-air market in Belgium, Campbell remembers, “We saw a hundred different kinds of dressed olives—I mean, it was breathtaking.” On one 2-week trip to Europe, the group visited 74 stores in thirteen cities in seven countries. Closer to home, they looked at Austin-based Whole Foods Market’s way with bins of grains and spices. “Not knowing what would work and what would flop—that was scary,” he says. But in the end, it all came together. The Austin Central Market had revenues of between $40 million and $50 million in 1998, with a profit margin of around 1 percent—quite respectable in the grocery business. Campbell, who had only intended to open a new store, had created a new model for grocery retailing.
While one might naturally expect the Central Market concept to be rapidly cloned across H-E-B’s U.S. territory of Texas and Louisiana, Campbell says, “These stores are so talent-intensive that you can’t do one on demand. It has to be customized for each location, and it takes a powerful team to make one work.” He recently hired two graduates of Cornell University’s business management school and is getting them ready to come online. But even though it won’t be easy to open the new stores, the experience won’t be nearly as stomach churning as that first dive off the high board five years ago. As Campbell says, “Nobody ever asked for a Central Market.” He took something that we didn’t know we needed and he made it indispensable.