IN THE EARLY NINETIES, H-E-B chairman Charles Butt was looking to do something different, something beyond the reach of a traditional grocery store. Butt selected John Campbell, who ran the H-E-B bakery operation in San Antonio, to help him research the possibilities. Campbell visited stores and markets around the world, and brought back a wealth of fresh, interesting ideas. Soon, Central Market was born, and the concept has flourished ever since.
What makes these markets so unique and appealing?
Central Market procurement personnel travel the globe on product-finding missions, bringing fresh and distinctive products to Texas.
Connoisseurs can peruse more than 2,500 labels of wine, both domestic and imported.
For the beer buff, Central Market stocks more than 350 kinds of beer, including imports and hard-to-find American microbrews.
Some shoppers melt over the more than 600 varieties of cheese, arranged alphabetically by country and type.
Who knew? There are more than 80 varieties of mustard to be found on Central Market shelves.
The bakery pounds out around 80 types of breads and pastries, including some specialty artisan breads, all made fresh daily.
Central Market keeps more than 60 recipes for handmade sausage, of which about 20 are prepared each day.
There are also around 20 varieties of freshly squeezed juice, with a mélange of flavors selected from what is in season.
Some shoppers have grown to love the selection of 700 varieties of produce, including 150 organic choices.
With 600 food items to choose from, bulk consumers can obtain the exact quantity desired when browsing the bins.
The seafood market is swimming with more than 80 varieties of fish, both saltwater and freshwater. To make sure it sells only the highest quality seafood, Central Market is one of two retailers in the nation (the only one in Texas) certified by the federal government to participate in the HACCP (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points). Central Market volunteered for this program, which uses preventative techniques originally developed by the space program to ensure the safety of astronauts' food.
To top it off, the floral department blooms with more than 100 varieties of fresh flowers from around the world. Central Market even works with local growers to stock fresh, regional flowers in season, including bluebonnets.
Walking through the serpentine aisles, shoppers might notice a chill in the air. To ensure freshness, there are different temperature zones. The produce area and the market for meat and seafood are kept at 65 degrees. Behind the scenes, climate-controlled storage and production areas maintain different temperatures and humidity levels for various food products.
Central Market houses its own cooking schools in six locations, and in terms of number of students, Central Market cooking schools are the largest in the nation. With about 2,800 classes each year, the schools cater to more than 106,000 culinary adventurers.
Potential employees for Central Market go through a curious hiring process. Applicants who reach a certain stage are often asked to identify unusual food items, and they must write a short essay covering their most memorable food experience.
Today, Texas is home to seven Central Market stores. The store in San Antonio is the largest, with 90,000 square feet. The oldest and smallest location covers 64,000 square feet in Austin.
When Butt began his venture into fresh grocery territory, he wasn't sure how consumers in Texas would take to an atypical shopping environment. In January 1994 the first Central Market opened in Austin at North Lamar and Fortieth. This store was the test, and Central Market aced it. After an initial period of adjustment to the curious layout and unfamiliar products, grocery shoppers in Austin wholly embraced the innovative institution that gave them access to fresh, new tastes.
But it wasn't just Austinites shopping at Central Market. Until the new Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum bumped the store into third place, Central Market was the second most visited tourist sight in Austin, with the Capitol, of course, being number one. And subscribers to Foodie, Central Market's bi-weekly e-mail newsletter, include residents of almost all fifty states.