A friend who recently left his longtime home of Austin for Santa Fe lamented the biggest downside of life in New Mexico: “I learned pretty quickly that other supermarkets aren’t like H-E-B.”
Add it to the list of the indignities of the retired life: spoiled by years of chowing down on Hill Country Fare Cut Green Beans and Pork Riblets with Bar-B-Q Seasoning, you head out of state and are reduced to browsing the aisles of Albertsons and Sprouts, wondering where it all went wrong. O, Piggly Wiggly, where is thy Stinging Nettle Leaf Blend Extract?
Texans often cleave to an irrational fondness for our homegrown institutions, some of which are difficult to defend. But few of us feel any qualms about our loyalty to H-E-B. After all, the house brands cater to a very regional sensibility (think Texas-shaped tortilla chips); the produce aisles teem with crisp leafy greens; many of the products are sourced from local suppliers; the company generally treats its employees well; prices
are kept low; and chairman Charles Butt has spent a great deal of money on good works, from providing disaster relief to supporting public education.
So it’s hardly surprising that over the past fifty years the San Antonio–based supermarket chain, which opened its first store in Kerrville in 1905, has experienced explosive growth. In 1973 there were approximately 125 H-E-B stores, concentrated in Central Texas, South Texas, and the Gulf Coast. Today there are about 430, including 79 locations in Mexico. A recent move into the Metroplex (where H-E-B’s high-end offshoot, Central Market, has been for years) constitutes a direct challenge to the dominance of national chains such as Kroger.
Unfortunately, even H-E-B’s growth imperative has its limits. At press time the company had not, alas, announced any plans to expand into New Mexico.
Correction: 1/19/2023: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Charles Butt as H-E-B’s CEO. Butt stepped down as the company’s CEO in 2021 and retains the title of chairman.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “No Store Has Grown More.” Subscribe today.